Below are our posts compiling readers’ thoughts regarding the practice of women (or couples) changing their names when they get married.
Your name is your identity. The term for you is what situates you in the world. The cultural assumption that women will change their names upon marriage – the assumption that we’ll even think about it, and be in a position where we make a “choice” of whether to keep our names or take our husbands’ – cannot be without consequence. Part of how our brains function and make sense of a vast and confusing universe is by naming and categorizing. When women see our names as temporary or not really ours, and when we understand that part of being a woman is subsuming your own identity into our husband’s, that impacts our perception of ourselves and our role in the world. It lessens the belief that our existence is valuable unto itself, and that as individuals we are already whole. It disassociates us from ourselves, and feeds into a female understanding of self as relational – we are not simply who we are, we are defined by our role as someone’s wife or mother or daughter or sister.
A reader rebuts Filipovic:
How is my father’s surname more my identity than my husband’s surname? Both, if you want to get all feminist about it, highlight the fact that females are “owned” by the males to whom they are born or wed, right? I am more than a name and I’ve had a lot of them. My birth parents saddled me with an atrocious moniker that only teenagers could have come up with and a surname that is now deemed a state secret. My parents stuck me with a vanilla Catholic saint name. My late husband offered me a new surname and my second husband gave me another. Don’t even get me started on nicknames.
And still, none of these arbitrary arrangements of letters are me. If I tried, and I have now and again, I don’t think I could put a name to me that sums me up. My names are like a history – snapshots of me at different points of my development and always a step behind as I evolve.
Jill Filipovic’s case for women keeping their surname strikes me a bit romantic. Yes, our name is our identity, but what if you do not want to be associated with the identity? I had three fathers growing up (a non-exsistent birth father and two abusive step-fathers) and so changing my surname to my husband’s was my first choice at creating my own identity separate from the childhood I wanted so desperately to leave behind. I loved shedding the identity of my youth (abused) for my new identity (happy adult, wife and mother).
Many more readers are sounding off on our Facebook page.
One of the most common complaints I hear from women who don’t want to change their name is the fear that their family name will “die out,” and I’ve heard the reverse from men as well. So I think the default last name of a newly married couple should be whichever one of their names is shared by the fewest guests at their wedding … and negotiations can go from there.
The truth is, it’s easier when you share a last name, and it’s a wonderful symbol of your shared life. That said, it doesn’t have to be *his* name; I have friends where the husband took her last name, where they both hyphenated. My husband and I chose a new last name – a shared family name.
When my wife and I first got together and were talking about marriage, without even prompting her, I said simply “Hey, what would you think about me taking your last name?” Why did I offer? Because I come from a family of all boys. If my father has any concerns about “his name passing on”, he has three sons to do it for him. I know both of my younger brothers are far too close-minded to ever consider it themselves, so why not be the first one to go a different route?
She was surprised I offered, but as we talked about it, we at least got to a point where it wasn’t an assumption but a conscious choice of which direction we were going to go. We did ultimately decide to retain my name and she dropped her “maiden” name. (Notice we still call it a “maiden” name, a term that hasn’t been relevant for at least 500 years …)
This June I will have been married for 20 years. When my wife and I got married, she chose to continue to go by her maiden name. I wasn’t thrilled, probably because it threatened my manhood. Over the last 20 years my views on so many things have changed but not on this issue. The problem for me is that it feels like hedging your bets in case things go wrong or possibly infers, whether true or not, a lack of commitment, like we are not really a family but rather a group of individuals working together, at least for now. So the real issue for me (at this point in life) is not the woman taking the man’s name, but rather the family unit having separate names.
We will most likely be in the position in the near future of adopting a foster child and I wonder how she would feel if we told her she won’t be getting my last name or my wife’s. I can only think she would feel that maybe it’s because we might want to give her back some day. And if we don’t do that, whose name does she get and what does that mean to her? There is something about a unit of people calling themselves by the same name, family or group or otherwise, that seems to naturally pull us together.
Since I was a teenager I’ve adopted the quip: If I get married, the only way I’ll change my last name (my first name being Dorian) is if I marry someone with the last name ‘Gray.’ When I cavalierly explained this to my future husband, I got a stunned silence. I felt bad that it didn’t even occur to me that he would just assume that I’d take his name when we got married and thus be shocked that I announced that I wouldn’t be. “Are you ok with that?” I asked. “Uh, yeah I guess – it just never occured to me that you wouldn’t change your name,” he said.
I tried to explain that it’s very much a part of my identity, of who I was, that it’s the name of my business and had been for years so it wasn’t practical to change it, and not least of all, the whole connotation of ‘ownership.’ And then to make a point, I asked him if he’d be willing to change his last name to mine and he looked horrorstruck: “No!” “Well,” I said, “that is how I feel about not wanting to change mine.”
A lightbulb went off and I think he really saw what it meant for a person to give up their name.
More reader discussion at our Facebook page.
The thread continues:
I’ve recently been considering this because my friends have been getting married lately. Taking the husband’s last name seems antiquated, keeping your original last names seems standoff-ish (much less what last names do your children get?), and hyphenated names seem like a future disaster where hyphenated people marry other hyphenated people (e.g. The Tikki Tikki Tembo Kerfluffle). Imagine three generations down the line of only people with hyphenated last names getting married. Bubbling-in last names for the SATs would be a mess.
Solution? Blended last names. Take the best of each last name and combine it to form a new family name. Yes, your family name wouldn’t last (tribalism is lame anyway), but imagine the fun! Say a Jones marries a Bloomberg. You could go Joomberg, Blones, Bloomes. The possibilities are endless. Couples could have fun picking their new last names, signifying their independence and new beginning, and you could go any number of different directions – ironic names that you regret later, serious names, names which hold a special significance, etc.
Bonus: Future genealogists would hate it. The improved record keeping of the 20th and 21st century would be complicated by fun, new puzzles for future historians.
My wife and I came up with a novel solution to the problem – we came up with a new name. And no, I do not mean a hyphenated name. Our new last name is a combination of the two names that uses one instance of each letter to make a new last name while at the same time retaining the sounds of both. Thus Lohr and Miller became Mihloer. Our two children were the first to have the new name since it turns out to be a bit complex to change your own last name to something that isn’t your spouses. Children, on the other hand, can literally be given any name (see Louis CK for more on this [above]).
Despite the difficulties, we love it. We came at it from the perspective that all last names are invented (often arbitrarily based on trade or location) and are relatively young in the scheme of things. In some cultures, last names are transient. In Iceland, for instance, a man named Erik Gustavson could have a son named Gustav Erikson and daughter named Ingrid Erikdottir. So we decided to create something new – as in, our new family starts “now”. Whether our children keep their name (we have both a son and a daughter) because it’s special or go along with mainstream tradition is yet to be seen, but it is all very fun, sorta like a surname adventure!
Another wasn’t quite as creative:
I never planned to change my name directly to a husband’s and I married a man who would have been uncomfortable with a woman who would do it without thinking. In fact, as one of three sons himself, none of the three wives/daughters-in-law changed their names!
We did attempt to find a good combination of our two names, but none of the combos worked at all. We ended up trading last names for middle names, so I’m Myfirstname Hislastname Mylastname, and he’s Hisfirstname, Mylastname, Hislastname. In the end, he was the one who ended up giving up a name – his middle name. My mother had tired out by her fourth child and gave me no middle name, figuring I’d just lose it when I got married anyway.
For our children we decided that boys would have his last name and girls mine – the other as the middle name. Then we went on to have all boys, so no one knows about that plan unless we explain it. However, we met another family at school who has a daughter with the mom’s last name and a son with the dad’s last name. We also ran into an older woman in the neighborhood who had done the same.
In many ways, it’s easier. Before caller ID, I knew that calls for Mr. Mylastname or Mrs. Hislastname were solicitations and those imaginary people were never here. I don’t care at all if I’m called Mrs. Hislastname by kids at their schools or the like, nor does my husband mind the other. Our oldest son (early 20s) is pretty adamant that he wouldn’t want to marry someone who would want to change their name. I point out that it’s a choice, albeit one that should be made with thought.
Many more readers sound off:
I’m to be married a month from now, and this has been a hot topic among friends. My fiancé will be taking my last name. But I’m a firm believer that we humans should take advantage of the one time that we have a little choice in what we are called. I say the new rules should go like this: best last name wins. I don’t want to name names, but our contest wasn’t even close. Her last name is British slang for penis, whereas mine is synonymous with brute Swedish strength. As the rest of my circle falls into marriage, I will be a big advocate for this new approach. Family legacy be damned.
When I started dating my wife, I let it be known that I would have no problem if she hyphenated or kept her own name. But since her maiden name was Virgin (yes, not Virginia, not Burgenie, Virgin) she was ready to ditch it as fast as she could. Virgin-Wright (or even Wright-Virgin) just wasn’t happening. So she remained a Virgin until marriage and not a moment more.
My mother’s advice: if the married name is easier to spell, go with it. It was, so I did! I’ve saved probably six and a half days of spelling my name out for people.
My daughter’s father and I are not married. At the time when I was pregnant and after I gave birth, her father and I were planning on getting married. That didn’t happen, and it is also probably the best thing for my daughter and me that it did not happen. My daughter is now 20 years old. I raised her on my own with the help of my supportive family.
My daughter also still has her father’s last name, and she’s the only one in our family that has that last name. Why didn’t I change it when she was young and it was apparent that her father was not going to be a part of her life? I didn’t change for a couple reasons. The first reason is superficial – it’s a pretty last name, and it sounds beautiful with her first name. The other reason is maybe more important – it’s the only thing her father gave her, and I want her to keep it and have something beautiful from her father.
Though I should also add that my daughter’s middle name is my last name. Even though I do love her father’s last name, I still wanted my name in there somewhere.
Within mine and my husband’s families I think we have almost every variation on this theme. I kept mine. Why? My then fiancee said, “I fell in love with Susan Green, I want to be married to Susan Green.” Twenty-odd years later he still is married to Susan Green.
Readers relay a few customs from other countries:
Just wanted to add my two cents to this thread. In a lot of Hispanic cultures like Cuba (where I’m from), you take both your mother’s maiden name and your dad’s name. It’s not hyphenated – you just kind of have two last names. The assumption though is that when your son gets married, his wife will take only the father’s name. However, even if your kids ultimately don’t take this approach, I like the idea of the double last name. If your concern about taking your spouse’s last name has to do with whether your name will live on, you can give your kids both names and then both parents have, on average, more than 20 years to convince the kid to pass on one or the other’s last name.
Iranian women, on the whole, do not change their surnames after marriage. By the way, Happy Persian New Year (Norooz Mobarak!)
Québec long ago came up with the answer. By law, no names change in marriage. All women keep their own name. If you want to change your name, that is a different legal function – a legal name change, like anyone else who wants to change their identity. When I first moved here, I did not know this, and hearing all the politicians and their wives introduced I thought “Is everyone shacking up?” But Québec – which for 40 years has had some of the most progressive civil law in North America – was an early bulwark of feminism, and for pure equality and consistency’s sake this makes logical sense.
Update from a reader:
I’m not sure your reader from Quebec is highlighting anything different than in the US. A name change is not some integrated part of a marriage in any State that I’m aware of. I happened to get my marriage license in North Carolina (hardly a bastion of progressive civil rights) and there was nothing about a name change included. We just filled out the paperwork and mailed it in. There was no assumption (other than culturally) that her name would change and we didn’t have to opt-out of anything to prevent it from happening. In fact, from what my friends have told me it’s quite arduous to get your name legally changed.
A name change is a formal legal function independent of marriage here just as in Quebec and I’m sure it’s been that way for plenty of decades. Sorry to rain on his holier-than-thou parade.
But another clarifies:
Here in Quebec, women are not allowed to take their husbands last name. My wife and I married last summer and though I had no expectation that she should take my name, she would have liked to on account of her own conflicted feelings about her family name. Since 1981, however, Quebec law has specifically prohibited it, although one can apply to change it after a few years if one can provide evidence that one is commonly known by another name.
Not surprisingly, I see a higher percentage of hyphenated names here than elsewhere. Although there are many great things about living in Quebec, this refusal to accept people’s choice of whether to change their names or not reflects the heritage of the French nanny state that I could certainly do without.
A reader writes:
A friend of mine did something I haven’t seen mentioned yet in this interesting thread. He is a second-generation Greek-American, and his grandfather Americanized the family name to something quite bland and WASPy. When they got married, he and his wife took that original Greek name as their new married last name. So he had a new last name too, and their kids will have the last name of their immigrant forebears. Very creative and a great way to connect to the past while also creating a new future: the American way!
Another factor is race. I’m in an interracial marriage, and my Chinese-American wife said she would have felt very weird having a European last name – that it would have felt like a kind of ethnic betrayal. (I don’t really believe in changing one’s name regardless, so I was surprised she’d even considered it.) I haven’t seen numbers on this, but I bet women in Asian/non-Asian couples take the last names of their husbands far less often than do women who marry inside their race. And I bet that’s about equally true for both white and Asian women.
Several more readers add to the post on foreign customs:
I work with schools and teachers in Honduras’ mountains, mostly below poverty level areas. I love it. But my comment comes from a conversation one evening with friends there. The women could not understand why any female would want to take the name of their husband. Everyone’s last name comes from the father, and when the woman marries, she keeps that last name. She doesn’t change it and they all think it’s crazy to do that. Children they have then get the name of the father. This seem fairly logical to me. They explained it as the way of keeping the family line going.
I’ve often thought that the change to the husband’s name is a left-over from women as property. ‘You are mine!” is just another way of the ‘patriarchal’ society that keeps women under wraps.
Not that we’ll ever do this, and not that it isn’t patriarchal in its own way, but I’ve always thought the Icelandic naming custom was kind of cool. In Iceland if you’re a son and your father’s name is Sven then your last name – for all of your life – will be “Svensson”. However if you’re a daughter and your father’s name is Sven then your last name – for all of your life (even if you marry) – will be “Svensdottir”.
In Kentucky, when I was married about 15 years ago, the clerks insisted that my name would change with marriage and that if I wanted to keep my name I had to have it legally changed back. That’s right, I had to pay court costs to keep my name, but do nothing to change it.
I am surprised that this thread has been running so long and you haven’t yet mentioned the Spanish practice of how last names are passed down. It’s complicated for Americans but makes perfect sense. A friend of mine who lives in Spain told me that most women don’t change their last names anymore and it does not cause confusion since one of her surnames is still passed down to the child. In fact, it makes it quite easy to trace genealogy.
The Norweigian surname practice was far more confusing. There was a geographical custom of taking the surname of the farm upon which one lived. So, if one purchased a farm, one’s surname changed as well. Many Norweigians who immigrated into the US before 1923 practiced this custom and took the farm name of the most recent farm upon which they lived in Norway. This is exactly what happened to one branch of my husband’s family. I was surprised to see that 70% of Norweigian immigrants acquired their surnames in this way.
by Chris Bodenner
The above screenshot (click to enlarge) from our Urtak survey shows how 58% of female readers are planning to keep their name after marriage compared to 83% of male readers. Also, 6% of married readers hyphenated their last name in marriage and 7% of unmarried readers are planning to do the same. Explore all of the results here. Below is another big follow-up to one of our most popular threads this year:
I don’t think that anyone has mentioned yet the professional concerns around changing your last name to your spouse’s upon marriage, in an age where your “brand” is very much linked to your online identity and it’s a given that potential employers are going to be googling job applicants. While you can always change your last name easily on social media sites like Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, etc., it’s basically impossible to go back and change it on the masthead of your law journal, the articles you wrote for your college paper, the announcement for the scholarship you won, or the acknowledgements page of your professor’s book that you helped research. Put simply, an increasing number of women today will have racked up a list of accomplishments under their birth names prior to marriage, so I’d rather be searched as “Jane [Maiden Name]” than “Jane X” upon marrying Mr. X. I’d think that a good number of us are reluctant to give up the online “brand”/professional identity that we’ve been building for years.
Of course, the fact that you can find absurd amounts of information about virtually everyone through a quick online browse works in the other direction as well. Hence, a name change might be beneficial for those who have past indiscretions tied to their maiden names and would like to “start over.”
Another factor that hasn’t been raised thus far is divorce. Many divorced Americans who had taken their spouse’s name revert to their original name, even before they consider another marriage and yet another name change. Perhaps millennials are more likely to keep their name in marriage due to all the name-changing they saw from their remarried and re-remarried boomer parents, the most divorce-prone generation. Another reader:
For my first 23 years, I had no middle name. My mother tried to spare us the dilemma of having to choose whether to use our middle name or our maiden name when we did get married (she chose the latter). So for the government, my middle initial was ‘N’ for none. If I had to have a middle name (again, for government documents) it was ‘NMN’ for no middlename. So I was very glad to finally get a middle name when I married.
Another has advice for parents:
Here is a solution that my grandparents came up with. You hyphenate last names when you get married. When your children grow up and get married, they keep half the hyphenated name from the parent of the same gender as them (or they can just pick one in the case of same-sex couples) and take half of their spouse’s last name. This allows for the continuation of lineage through surnames, while still eliminating the gender imbalance in the process.
I swear this is not apocryphal; I know these people; they were at my wedding. His name is Bent. Her maiden name is Dover. They decided NOT to hyphenate.
My wife and I are late-20s Philadelphians who both felt attached to the family history behind our last names. We decided over a beer one night to flip a coin and avoid the hyphenated circus. We flipped a coin outside the bar and she won so, I took her last name. You should have seen the social security office when I went in. The woman behind the desk didn’t know how to enter a man making a marriage-based name change, and whispered the scenario to her coworker like I was doing something I should be embarrassed about. I’ve gotten similar vibes from her small town extended family as well. Meh. I only know one other person in all my urban Northeast network where the man took a woman’s name and it’s my cousin in Brooklyn (who also doesn’t know anyone). I recommend the coin toss.
The best ever solution to the last name question was a rock-paper-scissors match between the best man and the man of honor (the bride’s best friend was a guy), played during the wedding ceremony. A win by the best man meant the couple would take the groom’s name, ditto for the bride’s name if her attendant won. What to do in the event of multiple ties had not been considered. This became more important when both attendants threw a tie six times in a row. While hybridnames were considered, the couple elected to soldier on until the tie was broken by the best man, and the couple have happily shared the groom’s name ever since.
I didn’t take my husband’s name, and probably for the worst of all possible reasons: spite. Back when we were still dating in college, we went out one night with another couple. The other guy mentioned to my now-husband that his girlfriend had told him she planned to keep her name if they married. My husband (who possibly wasn’t aware I was within earshot), laughed at him and said, “No wife of mine is gonna keep her last name!” To which I immediately replied, “Oh, really?”
Prior to that, I would’ve taken his name without a second thought. But I’m contrary by nature, and the moment he implied I had to take his name was the moment I knew I wouldn’t. I hate it when someone tells me I have to do something.
For the record, we celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary last month. And I generously allowed our son to have his dad’s last name.
by Chris Bodenner
A reader writes:
As a woman in a long-term relationship with another woman in a state where gay marriage is constitutionally banned, and having just had a child, I am reading the thread about women changing their names with great interest. It’s not that the topic is new to me; I’ve had the discussion with many of my straight female friends. But I haven’t seen the experience of same-sex couples reflected your reader’s comments.
For two women (or men, I imagine) who would like to get married and/or start a family, this discussion takes place on a different plane. My partner and I can’t get married, but one of us could change her name. In many states, doing so would require going to court, and in some of those states, a judge can refuse the name change just because he doesn’t agree with the same-sex relationship. For many same-sex couples, going through the stress, financial costs, and potential heartache of getting a name change is an important aspect in declaring their relationship to the public so that they seem “legit.” So this is yet another arena where DOMA and other laws regulating same-sex marriage affect those couples in a way that most straight couples don’t even think about.
My partner and I have retained our respective “maiden” names, but when my son was born three months ago we gave him a hyphenated last name. Admittedly, it isn’t a very elegant name and it is a mouthful, but it was important to us that he be official “ours,” even though right now my partner has no legal ties to him, since I am the birth mother. I’ve read (though not confirmed myself) that in many states, law dictates the last name that is put on the birth certificate, and same-sex parents would not have that option.
(Thread thumbnail image by Adam Fuller)