When it comes to the many decisions a woman makes in life, few are more fraught with the simultaneous pressures to “carry tradition” and “make proper feminist choices” than changing her last name upon marriage. Regardless of what a woman chooses, or the reasons for which she chooses it, it’s almost inevitable that she’ll be disappointing someone, if not multiple people at the same time, for entirely different reasons. She’ll likely have friends who hold huge judgement for the decision to change it, and family members who will feel incredibly hurt if she decides not to — or perhaps the reverse, or a combination of the two.
As someone who already changed her last name for professional reasons (Fagan is my middle name, and I took it on as my pen name to separate my work from my family and personal life), I know that changing a name can feel to many people, including oneself, like creating an entirely new person. While I am very happy to have a separate “professional” and “personal” self, it also required a good deal of explaining to several loved ones who thought I was somehow ashamed of my background. Changing names is tricky stuff, and when a woman makes that change as part of a (whether we like it or not) relatively patriarchal tradition, all hell can break loose in the peanut gallery.
It’s just one of those situations in which she can never win, and in which no choice is “pure” enough, because we still often feel as though it’s a woman’s job to live her entire life as some kind of political statement.
Of course, this is ridiculous, and we know, when we strip away the pressures and judgments of people who are not part of the couple in question, only the couple’s feelings actually matter. A woman has the right to make whatever personal choices she likes, and moreover, doesn’t need to equip herself with the “right” reasons for making them. “Liking someone else’s name better” is just as valid as “wanting to carry on a dying name for a remote culture,” just like “not feeling like doing the paperwork” is just as valid as “wanting to carry on my own name as a symbol of independence and empowerment.”
Nearly every woman’s reason for choosing her married name is unique, and falls somewhere on a spectrum full of grey areas. For example, our own Lauren is changing her name legally but keeping her professional/public name Ver Hage because, as she says, “I liked that I established myself professionally with my maiden name — it’s obviously still so meaningful and special to me, and I’m thrilled it still gets to live on through my work. I actually really enjoy the fact that, as I move forward, I can preserve a separation between my professional and private lives. The more I think about it, the less I would feel comfortable writing/working in a very public way using my husband’s last name. Since I started working as a designer in a more public way (and for continuity’s sake), it’s honestly easier for people to identify my work with my maiden name, and not disrupt the platform I’ve already built for myself.”
So in the interest of hearing more stories, and learning more about the decidedly un-black-and-white reasons women make the choices they do, I spoke to 13 married women about their choice, and the reasons behind it.
“I haven’t officially changed it yet, all my documents still have my maiden name [after being married about six months]. But I plan on adding his name at the end, and keeping my own. And for my professional name, as long as I’m at my current job I will keep my maiden name, but if/when I switch, I’ll add his, only because it’s a pain to have email/contact info switched. And my reason for keeping my last name, I don’t ever want to lose that. I’m very close to my family, they’re deeply rooted in my identity. I couldn’t just throw that aside. I’m adding his name for the same reason — to add a new part of my identity. I’m also super close to his family, and they’ve been nothing but amazing at making me feel included. Our children will have both.” – Cristina
“I’m from Jakarta, Indonesia. Having a last name is very uncommon in Indonesia culture. I never put my dad’s last name. But then I got married to my husband, and I put his last name into my last name. Why? Cause i like the sound of it. And I love being his Mrs. :)” – Ita
“I decided to go with a double-barrelled name when I got married almost two years ago. I went back and forth so much about the name change when we were engaged — it really stressed me out. I didn’t like that society just assumed that I would take my husband’s name, like it was a given. I wanted to do something that would show that we would be our own family unit, but at the same time, it felt like closing the book on the person I’d always been. One of the things that crossed my mind was that I only have sisters, and so if we all changed our names, our surname would disappear altogether. My name is a huge part of my identity, and the prospect of “losing” that part of myself made me anxious. Finally, I decided that if I was putting that much thought into the issue, it meant that I didn’t really want to leave my maiden name behind. When I mentioned it to my now-husband, he said that it was entirely my choice – after all, it’s my name and I’m the one who has to live with it! In the end, I view the name change in the same way as marriage itself — adding to my life, not taking anything away or replacing the person I had always been. There is no need to give up your name, your family, your interests, or what makes you, well, you, when you get married. My husband and I are equals, we are partners — and I’m the one who gets to decide what that means for me.” – Johani
“We are actually taking a new last name together, which was my fiancé’s idea. Neither of us liked the idea of me taking his last name. I realize some people do like it, but I can’t separate it from what it historically has meant. It seems an odd tradition to try to reclaim, and I can’t imagine marrying someone who would want me to. That said, we like the idea of sharing a last name as a family, and landed on creating a new one together, like we are creating a new family together. Reactions have been interesting. People tell him what a hassle changing a name will be, and no has said that to me! Just a hassle women are expected to deal with.” – Jenn
“When I married my husband I took his last name. I’m not terribly close with my family and so I was not particularly attached to my maiden name. It was also very important for my husband that I take his name. It was something that he really, really wanted and I was glad to get that to him.” – Nena
“I got married nearly a year ago. I did not change my name, nor did it ever occur to me to do so. I have lived with my name all my life, and I just don’t see why, in an equal and loving partnership, a woman should be expected to take on someone else’s surname. I mean, the paperwork alone…
That said, I’m not against changing names as a symbol of married love per se — my discomfort is limited to hetero couples where the woman changes her surname to her husband’s. And if we lived in a society where men took on their wives’ surnames as often as women took their husbands’, I would have zero issue with it whatsoever. The thing that bothers me specifically about women changing their names is that it’s a vestige of a long, long history of marriage being used as a means of transacting women — one in which the woman’s identity was always considered subordinate to her husband’s. It’s the same culture as that of the bride being ‘given away’ by her father, another tradition I vehemently eschewed! I am not, after all, a suitcase.
I have relatives and in-laws (most, but not all, of whom are elderly) who have never even asked me about my surname — they just assume I’ve taken my husband’s, and address their mail accordingly. It upsets me more than I thought it would, not because I have any issue being associated with my husband (I mean, I married him), but because I’m being co-opted into a tradition I completely reject.
On a related note, the Miss/Mrs binary also really bothers me. Men don’t have to broadcast their marital status in their names; why should women?” – Marion
“I got married in 2014, and instead of changing my name, I hyphenated it. Of course, my maiden name is Ramp, so hyphenating was a lot easier for me than for most.
My husband was strongly against me hyphenating at first. He took it as an insult, that I was saying that his last name wasn’t good enough. We had several fights about it until I finally got through to him. I am hyphenating, but our children will only have his last name. I don’t want to continue the name, but I don’t want to lose it either.
I love my maiden name. In high school, my teachers called me Ramp because they didn’t want to (or couldn’t) differentiate me from my two older sisters. In college, I was called Ramp by everyone because there were two of us in my program named Heidi. I am proud of my family heritage, and I wanted to keep that part of my identity. I also adore my husband’s family, so I wanted to be a part of them as well. To decide which way I liked it, I repeatedly wrote my name with both versions. Ramp-Rogers just flowed a lot better than Rogers-Ramp.” – Heidi
“I got married eight years ago and never changed my last name.
I made that decision for several reasons. One, I think the tradition that woman must take her husband’s name, rather than the other way around or everyone keeping their original name, is quite antiquated. Two, I was in graduate school when we got married and was starting to publish my research, so it was important to me have consistency in my professional life. Three, I’m also an only child, so since I’m the last of my immediate family, I wanted to keep my name. Last, Morgen Orr sounded too cute to me.
My family was thrilled about my decision regarding my last name. His was not.” – Morgen
“I changed my name when I got married because I love my husband more than my alcoholic father. There were other reasons, too, but I’m always shocked that women who change their names are expected to provide “good reasons,” and I usually keep the more serious, downbeat one to myself. That this has been a source of discontent for other women in my life continually baffles me.
I feel like it doesn’t matter all that much, or at least, that I, in a different life, could easily have gone either way. I’m glad I changed my name, in large part because it put needed distance between me and my father…and my surname was his, not mine. (I certainly didn’t have my mother’s surname, which was her father’s, anyway – it’s sort of male names all the way down, any way you slice it.) After I changed my name it felt much easier (even on some weird symbolic level) to say “I don’t take orders from you anymore, I’m a different person now.” Names have a weird kind of magic around them in that way – I guess it’s why you always see names featuring so prominently into fairy tales…” – Liz
“I am very newly married (two weeks this Saturday and going strong!), but I am planning to change my name. My middle name is a family name and it felt oddly wrong to drop my last name, so I am planning to keep both as my middle name and then take my husband’s name as my last name. I’m changing my name because I’ve chosen to spend my life with him, chosen to make him my family, and so I want to share a name with him.” – Katie
“I always felt like keeping my maiden name was just going to be what I did; my mother kept her maiden name after marrying my father, so the concept wasn’t unfamiliar. Mom kept her name for mainly two reasons: she wanted to use her last name professionally (she had already been published in journals) and she was the first born of two girls. Keeping her maiden name meant a lot to my mother and her father, whom she was very close to.
…Fast forward to myself. Although the idea of a married woman using her maiden name is nothing new to me, in Arkansas, it’s about as unusual as unsweet tea. My now-husband and I talked about me keeping my name during the engagement. Admittedly, he wasn’t keen on it at first. I explained that keeping my last name was not an act of defiance, but of maintaining a part of my identity. We’ve rubbed off on each other in the five years we dated, but I was absolutely in love with my last name. He suggested I possibly change my middle name, but I carry a family tradition with my two middle names. Eventually, he warmed up to the idea. I’m fine with my future children taking his name. I won’t flip out if someone sends a Christmas card to “The Richardsons” instead of “The Richardsons + Ms. Jordan Butler”. Will changing my name cause fractured unity? Looking to my parents’ 25 years together, I don’t think so.
I love my last name for a number of reasons. I love how “Jordan” and “Butler” both have six letters and I love stringing them all together in my signature. I love how the “B” propels me to the top of alphabetically organized lists. I have articles published with my name, and as embarrassing as it is to admit, it’s a pain in the ass to change it everywhere on-and-offline. I spent 21 years being Jordan Butler, and I liked it a lot. Why stop now?” – Jordan
“My husband and I eloped on New Year’s Eve. I’ve informally changed my name — I’ve gotten a new email address at work, and changed it for my online presence for the most part. I have plans to switch everything eventually, but my husband is from England, so we’ve had Green Card paperwork that has been trumping the less-urgent tasks, like getting a new driver’s license and credit cards.
My maiden name was very unique, and I never used to have trouble getting an email, web address, or social media profile that was exactly my first and last name. I think I will miss that at times. For the most part, I’m excited to take my husband’s name. On the name change issue, I used to waiver between “F*** the patriarchy” and “meh,” but I’ve generally changed my tune on that one. I like the idea of being a unit and having that overarching category to fall into. It’s not ‘Mark and Mary,’ it’s ‘The Harmans.’ I feel similarly to the notion of your partner ‘being your other half.’ It used to infuriate me, and I joined in the rally cry of “I’m not a half — I’m whole already!” But it’s not that I am half and he is half. We are both whole, but mixed together now. Like two glasses of an Arnold Palmer. We are both full glasses of a half lemonade, half iced tea mixture. All that to say, I understand the pros of keeping your name, but on a symbolic and spiritual level, I prefer being unified by the same last name.” – Mary
“I thought that after my wedding ceremony, a wave of assurance would wash over me to let me know that changing my last name to his was the right decision. That didn’t happen right away – it took almost three years for me to overcome my fears that changing my last name would represent a betrayal to my family’s Vietnamese heritage. As each month progressed my loyalty, love, and admiration for my husband deepened and I came around to the idea that having the same name represented that we were truly teammates in life. I needed my name to reflect that. In the end, I didn’t lose my last name (I made it my middle name) and feel like I still honor my family’s past by keeping their name as a part of my identity.” – Uyen
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