What’s in a Name?
Juliet, who wanted to marry Romeo, but was prohibited from doing so due to a long-standing family feud between her family, the Capulets, and his family, the Montagues argues that, but for his name, he would be acceptable to marry. She laments that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.
Although Juliet nay have opined otherwise, most modern brides from the 80’s to the present put thought into the decision as to whether or not to take their husband’s birth name or retain their own.
What to Name my Married Self?
It was 1984 and I was tempted to change my last name to my husband’s – primarily because it is a common name that is easy to pronounce and spell. I toyed with my options – use his name, keep my birth name or do a hyphenated combo – a new naming option that was becoming popular among baby boomer feminists seeking to make a statement about their independent value as wives.
It didn’t take long for me to decide to stay with my name because that was who I was and that was the statement I chose to make.
I’m glad I did not decide on the hyphenated option – based on the horror stories of friends who did – such as difficulty with governmental forms and pharmaceutical prescriptions – to name just a few.
Two of my nieces, who married within the last 10 years, decided to change to their husband’s name. One is an attorney and the other is a physician. Their reason for changing was because each of their husband’s names is easy to spell and pronounce. The issue of having the same last name as her child for school and medical communication was also important. They feel that in this day and age, name change is no longer the feminist “statement” that it was in my day. They are both feminists in their own right and make no apologies for changing their last names. It is noteworthy that their mother also changed her name – so tradition may have had something to do with it too.
One Couple’s Thought Process
My husband and I both wanted to have the same name as each other. For us, it was a way of expressing our . . . unity / solidarity – an emblem of our family-ness that we wanted to present to the world – also it is easier if you are going to have kids – avoids awkwardness and confusion with teachers, etc. That said, we did not automatically use my husband’s name – we considered combining our names to come up with a new name but that would make it hard for descendants who might want to do some family genealogy and no combination of our names sounded good – one combo was the name of a famous drag queen! We then discussed using my name but ultimately our decision to use my husband’s name came down to consideration of our fathers. My husband’s father is sentimental and wanted to see his name survive – my father wasn’t particularly concerned about his name dying out in America.
A Change of Heart
A professional colleague of mine recently celebrated her 20th wedding anniversary. She did not change her name when she married even though her husband wanted her to do so at the time. She is a feminist and wanted to maintain her identity. However, after 20 years, she decided to change her last name as a “gift” to him and in acknowledgement of their love and successful marriage. Surprise . . . surprise . . . although he was deeply touched by her sentiment, he told her that he had gotten used to her name and valued the independence it stood for and wanted it to be an example for their own daughter (can see why this marriage is successful).
Same Sex Marriage
A 40-something lesbian couple, who are friends of mine, decided to have one name and to use the name of the wife whose professional career is more well-established – even though her name is more difficult to pronounce and spell. This couple, married after the Supreme Court’s recent decision approving same-sex marriage, wanted to make their own statement – not about feminism but about same-sex civil rights.
Another lesbian couple I know decided that each would change her last name to the birth surname of one of their mothers. This mother raised her daughter by herself after her husband left home. As tradition had it at the time, the daughter was given the father’s surname. Now this daughter wants to honor her mother by making her mother’s birth name the family name for her new family – two moms and two children – each mom giving birth to one child and both children having the same sperm donor.
I don’t know any gay men married couples where one of the partners changed his name. Apparently it is uncommon for gay men to change their names when they married. It is likely that this is the case because boys, unlike girls, grow up never expecting to change their name.
Interestingly one of my gay friends told me that some gay couples who have a child chose to give the child the father’s name that is most “WASPish” in a belief that such a name will give their child a “leg up” in getting along in a world where bias still exist.
History Lesson from Jolly Old England
The heterosexual tradition of the wife taking the husband’s name is based on English common law that held a husband and wife are one “person” under the law – resulting in the end of the wife’s separate legal existence – along with all her single person rights. Wives were considered “chattel” and were “owned” by their husbands. This name change heritage is the reason many feminists during the 70’s and 80’s retained their birth names.
Italy – by law spouses keep their birth names
Greece – by law women are required to keep their birth names
Germany – the couple must choose either name as a “family” name
Spanish-speaking countries – children receive both parents’ names
Japan – the law doesn’t recognize different surnames for married couples
China – wife keeps her birth name but children take husband’s surname
What is Happening Now and What Does it Mean?
According to a 35 year study published in 2009 in the journal, Social
Behavior and Personality, a woman’s decision to retain her birth name reached its highest point of about 23% in the mid-90’s and the percentage has been declining ever since – down to about 18% at the time of the study.
I’m not sure what this means – it could mean that most women today are comfortable with spousal equality in marriage and no longer feel compelled to make a statement – it could mean that they agree with Juliet that no matter their name, they will “smell as sweet” – or, it could be a manifestation of an anti-feminism pendulum swing.