the name game 1

“If I marry, should I change my last name?”

It’s a question that has become a part of women’s* culture in the English-speaking world, and one that some would say has no right answer but only wrong ones. (Because I’m talking about established traditions, I’m talking only about cis-het marriages.) (* Men can opt in but usually don’t.)

In this culture, the most common choices are: she keeps her last name; she changes her last name to his; she hyphenates the names. Other options include: he changes his last name to hers; he hyphenates the names (probably only if she does too); together they pick a new name that they’ll share.

I kept my name. When I was a child, I never expected to get married. My names — first, middle last — range from very unusual to unique, and I’ve always felt very attached to all of them (except when I was little and found my first name to be burdensomely weird, but I’ve grown into it). I’m an atheist and a feminist. Wolf and I were together for years in a common law relationship before we got married.

My mom changed her name at first. At the time, the law required women to change their names, and it was a legal hassle to keep your own name. She went back to her maiden name while she and my dad were still together, though they subsequently divorced. (Pretty sure the name thing wasn’t a factor!) She always felt that her own last name was part of her identity and resented being forced to change. (Also, her first name + my dad’s last name had an awkward rhythm.) She’s an atheist and a feminist. She’s married again now and kept her own name.

An acquaintance changed her name. She had been teased about it as a child and positively jumped at the opportunity to be rid of it. She married again, changed her name again. She’s now single but still keeps that second married name. As I understand it, the decision was primarily aesthetic.

My (half-)sister changed her name. I was very surprised, frankly, given our non-traditional, extended, blended family. I asked her why but her answer didn’t make a lot of sense. Her maiden name was her father’s (he and my mom never married, and it was mom’s idea to give her his name), so she argued that it was one man’s name or another’s. Perhaps, but only one of those names had been hers since birth, and our mother’s last name had belonged to our grandfather. Her answer struck me as justification rather than the real reason, which I suspect was that she simply wanted to change it but hadn’t really figured out why. She then got divorced and bemoaned the hassle of changing all of her ID and everything back to her maiden name. Even though an “I told you so” was hovering about, I wisely said nothing. She has just gotten remarried and this time kept her name, which I think suits her personality and worldview better. She’s also an atheist and a feminist.

Among my extended family (including relationships in which the woman is related by marriage), there are four women who kept their names and two who changed. There are no hyphenated names among the women but some among their kids.

I grew up with the idea that a woman deciding to keep her name was the new default. No one questioned my choice not to change my name, which I attribute to the fact that people either didn’t feel challenged by it or knew better than to say anything.

I have more thoughts on this topic, but they will have to wait.

10 thoughts on “the name game 1

  1. I know several atheist feminists who have respectively kept and changed their “maiden” names. (A possibly out dated term in itself.) More still that just haven’t got married, some due to historical connotations of patriarchy.
    My Wife, also an atheist feminist, kept Her name (though She changed Her stance on ownership and marriage as She started wondering if I was never goung to propose) and on occasions it has been a royal PITA not to have the same name, most often when required to prove identities, not least in relation to parenting.
    Considering most Western societies to not use the Icelandic system of surnames, what have your name-keeping friends chosen for their kids’ surnames?


    1. I’ve never had any difficulties with having kept my own name and I don’t think any family or close friends have either.

      Of the folks I mentioned, I think they used father’s name or hyphenated.

      A friend of mine (common law) has two kids, so elder has her name and younger has his. There are so many options!


      1. I’ve not come across that. Having heard two first hand accounts (and more outraged anecdotage) of mothers having problems at airports because their surnames didn’t match their kids’. I’m impressed two kids with two names hasn’t hit that problem.
        We chose my surname for kids as no one ever doubts who your mother is based on your name, but my Wife remembered kids getting teased at school with “he’s not your dad.”
        Society is cruel and defied logic sometimes.


        1. I don’t know of anyone having that kind of trouble here. Common law relationships and blended families are so common that no one really bats an eye. My two half-siblings and I all have different last names! (Our mom has three kids, but each of our fathers has only one.) From what I’ve seen, the UK is a bit behind on such matters (and gender roles in general) compared to North America.


            1. We’ve had one and the current Cabinet is almost half women, but I don’t think upper levels of politics are that reliable a measure: everyone who is there is an outlier of sorts. (FYI, I’m not keen to talk politics here but am happy to do so on Twitter.)

              During the year (total) that I lived in England, I got the sense that tradition carried more weight there, and that men and women conformed more to “masculinity” and “femininity” respectively than what was familiar to me, in terms of dress, interactions among same or different genders, job choices, family choices, etc. I also saw clearer examples of toxic masculinity.


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