The Name Change Debate

I've been married for 15 years now. I didn't change my name. Actually, I'm not even wearing a wedding ring right now, because I lost mine seven years ago and never got around to replacing it. Without the common last name and the ring, I don't have the usual markers for marriage. This doesn't bother me in the least, though I do like jewelry, so I really should set up a wedding ring date with my husband. 

It does cause some confusion with school officials though, who seem to be the only group of people who need to know my marital status. They don't know what to call me, so they often call Miss McKenna, er… Mrs. Steveslastname, er… . Their discomfort causes me some amusement, so I like to let them flounder around for a while before I rescue them. "Just call me Laura," I say.  

It also bothers Ian a little bit, because he has autism and he has trouble dealing with people who don't follow the rules. I'm sure that it bothers some older relatives, too. Whatever. They've gotten used to it. 

Jill Filipovic added some nice stats this old discussion. 

Ten percent of the American public still thinks that keeping your name means you aren't dedicated to your marriage. And a full 50% of Americans think you should be legally required to take your husband's name. Somewhere upwards of 90% of women do change their names when they get married.

She thinks that to get around this, men should change their last names. 

I think there shouldn't be any "shoulds" in this debate. I very much like the fact that I didn't change my name. I also like that I don't have a huge rock and matching band on my left finger. I also like wearing all black and big boots to PTA meetings. But not everybody is like me. 

My only suggestion is that young couples pause and think before they follow this tradition (or, really, any other tradition). You don't have to do anything just to please old grandmothers or school officials. 


53 thoughts on “The Name Change Debate

  1. We were both married during the Clinton administration, then. Back then, I felt like the “new normal” for Democratic women was the “Hillary Rodham Clinton” model of not hyphenating and instead making the maiden name the middle name. That’s what we did, and what all of our friends seemed to do, also.
    I agree that there is no “should,” except that you should always ask a newly married woman how she would like to be addressed now, and that go with that.

  2. I kept my name and also don’t wear a ring so we frequently look like a divorced couple on very good terms. I frequently answer to my husband’s name at the kids’ school. People ask me if it’s confusing and I think “it’s not confusing to me.”

  3. I’m surprised by the 90% statistic, as very few people I know changed their name. My name has never really been my identity as my parents divorced, remarried then constantly fought, so changing it was a way to leave that all behind.
    Legally mandating it is a waste of time – it should be something everyone can choose without judgement. In Quebec it’s illegal to change it, which leads to a big hassle for people that aren’t married in the province, since they have federal ids with a married name and provincial ids in the maiden name.

  4. The best name changing story I’ve ever heard is this:
    I was at a meeting with my boss (a man) and we started discussing searching for old friends on Facebook. He said that probably his friends would have a hard time finding him, since they might not know his married name. He has a hyphenated last name and I had always assumed that it was from his parents, but it turns out that he took his wife’s name when they got married! And this was back in the ’80’s!

  5. In Quebec it’s illegal to change it, which leads to a big hassle for people that aren’t married in the province
    Is that just them trying to keep English-speaking people out?

  6. Love, love, love this post. I have family members who say, “But didn’t you get married? Why don’t you have your husband’s last name?” Similarly, I don’t wear a wedding band (nor does Husband). I do wear an engagement ring on my right hand about 40% of the time, and this is typically when I’m going out because like Laura I too like jewelry. When people call me “Mrs. MaidenName” I say, “I’m not married to my father, it’s Ms. MaidenName.” This drives me crazy. I suspect because I’m newly married. Maybe in another 5 years I’ll care less?

  7. I used to be more militant on this question — I think partially because it *is* a bigger deal in academia, where your citation record is a big part of your identity. Many people did not change their name, and some who did, found themselves with long citation records with their ex-husband’s name, which they then felt they couldn’t change. So, although I wouldn’t have supported a legal manadate, I did respect women less when they changed their name.
    I still have a bit of judgement left in me, and am more likely to think that a woman is sympatico (I want to use Anne’s phrase of “being from the race of Joseph”, but don’t know what that means, so I won’t) if she hasn’t changed her name. But, having now encountered a large number of mothers, some of whom change their name and others who don’t (and, yes, the ones who don’t are more likely to be “sympatico”, but not exclusively likely), I’ve softened. Yes, you’re signalling something about yourself with the decision, but it isn’t the only signal (and, signals don’t make friends).
    I don’t fight this battle, though I do correct people, simply because they do need to know my name — calling me by my husband/children’s name will not find me in records.

  8. Because this is what I do, I just analyzed my kiddo’s class. 34% of women have different names from their husbands (and children). Some signalling, because women with graduate degrees are less likely to have changed their name, and also divorced parents (though in some of those instances, the divorce may have led to changing the name back). A fair number of the unchanged names also signal different ethnicity in the two parents (though not necessarily difference in race).
    Two women use their birth last name as their middle name — with one of these it can be confusing, because she uses her birth last name in her professional work, so one has to look at both last names. Inconsistency is my bane, but again, I’ve mellowed.

  9. And, 30% in my younger kiddos class. I think this signals no detectable trend — not really different (and minor differences may reflect, for example, the number of moms with graduate degrees).
    Clearly I’m not working with a statistical sample, but I’m guessing 70% of college educated women change their name (with the percent being potentially higher in populations that are more conservative/religious/non-coastal than my population)?

  10. It’s a sign of good breeding sometimes to do things just to “please old grandmothers,” particularly where the things are old family traditions that would mean the world to them and would pretty much be no skin off your back anyway (such as me getting married in a church and having my babies baptized).
    I changed my name when I got married, but then again it was largely because I had always detested my long, often-mispronounced maiden name, and I love the sound and the flow of my married name.
    Some of my feministy friends lovingly called me out on it, and I reminded them that my choice was between keeping my father’s last name and taking my husband’s last name, so really, who cares? Of course, in theory my husband could have taken my unwieldy, unspeakable maiden name as his own, or we could have both hyphenated. The best choice for everyone involved was for me to take his name. Style concerns really ought to be more of a factor in these decisions.
    “Huge rocks and matching bands” are fug – again, style concerns ought to be prioritized here. I have my husband’s grandmother’s antique ring, and I don’t wear a wedding band, and I love it. (See there is an upside to “pleasing old grandmothers.”)

  11. My sister has a professional degree and stay-at-home husband, but changed her name. Googling “new name” + “bong” produces zero hits, which is boring.

  12. I hyphenated, but we didn’t hyphenate our children’s names. I use my maiden name professionally.
    I once read of solution to this problem where children take on their parent’s hyphenated last names, and when they grow up and get married they remove their parent of the opposite sex’s last name and replace it with their spouse’s parent of the same sex’s last name, so that they each have a new hyphenated last name. Then this repeats in the next generation, so women who have daughters will have their maiden continue on in their daughter’s married name and their daughter’s daughter’s, etc, and men who have sons will have the same, and each family will have its own, special, unique hyphenated last name. I like that solution, but unfortunately we’d all have to agree to it for it to work.

  13. I kept my last name. Never even considered changing it so it wasn’t much of a decision. I don’t wear any sort of ring because we never got them mostly because the symbolism of it has never been important to me.
    My children have different last names-oldest has my husband’s, youngest has mine-and that does seem to bother some people. If not bother, then it is something that people find remarkable enough to mention.
    I don’t buy the “it’s your husband’s last name or your father’s so it doesn’t really matter” spiel. Yes, this name came from my father, but it has been my name my whole life and is part of who I am. I feel like passing down my name to my son has reclaimed it in a way or at least muddied the patrilineage of it.
    That said, I think name-changing is a pretty minor deal in the grand scheme of things and not a much of a marker for a woman’s personal feminism.

  14. I think we should make it easier for people to pick new last names based on their occupation. No job new to the last 300 years appears to have a last name based on it.

  15. That is, no name in English. You need a steady supply of new last names or everybody winds up called Zhang in the end.

  16. Did you take your husband last name or your father last name. That is the hard question. [URL=””][/URL]

  17. Another dimension to this problem is when you say “I kept my name” or “I kept my birth name.” It just grates on me to hear the phrase “maiden name.”
    I changed my name ONLY because my husband’s name went so well with my first name. Is that a bad reason?

  18. No. It’s really not that important either way. I didn’t keep my name, because of feminism. I’m just lazy. It seemed like a lot of work to learn a new name. Anyway, I never had planned on changing my name, so the fact that my husband’s name has a vowel deficit really didn’t have anything to do with it.

  19. “Did you take your husband last name or your father last name. That is the hard question”
    I’ve always thought that was a meaningless question, unless you didn’t have a last name until you got married. Otherwise, the name your parents gave you is *your* name.
    The “patriarchy” question does come up with children, when almost all of us give our children their father’s names (and not ours). We decided not to hyphenate our kids names for trivial reasons, and I mildly regret our decision. And, the answer to the question of what you do with names in the next generation (instead of making them 4 names long, and 8, and 16, . . . ) is you chose one of each of the hyphenated names from the parents and combine them for the kids (Ms. Shostokovich-Srinivasan & Mr. Garcia-Nordgren marry and their children are named Little Srinivasan-Nordgren or whatever combination their parents choose). And everyone keeps their name for their whole life.
    But, as scantee said, this isn’t a big one on the grand scale order, for me. I feel awfully strongly about it for me, but don’t need to impose my choice on others.

  20. BJ, I think you responded to comment spam. Not that the comment spam didn’t reflect ideas put into the debate by not-spam comments.

  21. Oh, and I’ve been married for almost 25 years and had children for 12, and I haven’t found my name to be a big deal. I do have to take the step of identifying my children’s names. Occasionally there’s an annoyance in finding the name of a kid in our school directory, when you remember the mother’s name, but not the child’s (they haven’t indexed by parents). I’ve had a couple of times when I’ve been with friends whose children’s last names are different from theirs and had to think (for example, when a name is announced that the Srinivasan really belongs to friend Shostokovich). In the early days, we’d occasionally see forms that assumed a common last name for the two parents but I haven’t seen that in ages.
    These days families can be complicated enough by name choices, but also differing ethnic traditions on naming and divorce and unmarried parents that people don’t generally make trivial assumptions that everyone in a family will have the same name, so it really hasn’t been a big deal.

  22. Yes, I realized I might have, though I did not click through the link, realized it was spam in time. Hush had made the comment earlier in the thread, though, so I wasn’t only responding to the spam comment.

  23. I know of only two women IRL who kept their last names and two women who turned their last name into a middle name (i.e. Jane Olson Smith). Everyone else has taken their husband’s name.

  24. First time commenting here. Found my way over from hush.
    I kept my own name when I married. I don’t remember a lot of discussion around it at the time. I don’t think it ever really occurred to me or my husband that we do anything else. I’ve been asked a few times by scandalized people, “How does your husband feel about that?” I can’t help but laugh. I mean, first off, there’s the whole “why is this your business?” question. But even more ridiculous to me is the idea that two people with radically different views on the topic would get married in the first place. I always want to say, “Oh, he HATES it! We fight about it every day.”
    For us, the bigger issue was how to handle our children’s names. We chose to hyphenate and have taken some flak for that as well. My favorite question is “What will they do when they get married?!?” I figure a) I’m not going to assume marriage is in their future. I wish them happiness, whatever form that takes. And b) they’re smart kids; I have faith they’ll figure it out. Considering the list of things there are to be shocked by in the world, I just can’t believe this kind of stuff even rates.
    I guess, in hyphenating the kids’ names, we wanted to make sure they really had the opportunity to identify with both sides of their family. My experience growing up was that I didn’t really see myself as belonging to my mother’s family, because neither my mother or I used that name. I was surprised when, as a young adult, I started getting to know my maternal relatives better and realized I had a lot more in common with them than with my father’s family. So hyphenating our kids’ names was, for me, a way of addressing that. For people who haven’t experienced it the way I did, I can see that it wouldn’t be an issue.
    I have friends who’ve changed their names, and friends who’ve kept their names and friends who’ve both chosen to hyphenate. The survey data surprises me, somewhat. It seems a little strange that people would have such strong opinions about anybody else’s name but their own. Really, what’s the big deal?

  25. I’m shocked at those stats – and a little suspicious. Legally *required* to take your husband’s name? Good lord. At the very least, I’d like to see a geographic breakdown.
    I kept my name for awhile, didn’t change anything legally, but began tacking my husband’s name on the end in social situations when we had kids, and kind of wish I hadn’t because people are SO excited to switch me to Artemisia HisLast.
    Here’s something strange: I don’t wear a ring either (metal allergy) and that doesn’t bother my husband, but I’ve found out that the name thing does.

  26. For us, adopting some of the symbolism of patriarchy has smoothed the experience of maintaining equitable professional/domestic/parenting relations. You’ve got to be tenacious about something, but it’s hard to be tenacious about everything at the same time.

  27. My college-age students in NJ didn’t understand how I could be married and not have a wedding ring. I said, “You marry in your heart and soul. A piece of metal doesn’t make you married.” They seemed shocked.

  28. I changed my name simply because I liked the new last name better. Old last name was hard to spell and I didn’t like how it sounded. I liked the idea of having the same last name and hyphenation would have been horrendous in our case.
    I’ve been shocked how many people have had a really big problem with me changing my name. Some of my more feminist friends have gotten a bit nasty over it. Like I’ve abandoned the cause and betrayed women everywhere. For me, it’s just not that big a deal.
    Maybe we’ll get to a point where the couple will look at an array of family names, and pick the one they like best…from either side of the family?
    I have a wedding band, but no engagement ring. It gets in my way, so it sits in a box.

  29. I didn’t take my husband’s last name, though our names are really, really close. His name is part of my name, which confuses the heck out of people. More people call him by my last name than the other way around. I think it’s because longer=more important so I must have taken his name. That’s my reasoning anyway. At my school, tons, in fact, most parents have different last names. Kids are used to it. Although my name being so similar to my daughter’s freaks them out for some reason. Even though their own parents may have different last names.
    Personally, I hate the tradition of taking a last name when you’re married. I get why people do, and understand all the practical reasons for it, but I would have felt weird and like I’d become another person.
    (Now reading the comments. I know. I’m bad.)

  30. I used to complain to my students about the Ms./Mrs. thing–gave them a whole lesson in the history of the abbreviations. They never called me Mrs. again. And now I’m Dr., so that solves a few things. 🙂

  31. I made sure that my MA diploma was Amy Maidenname (sorry Tasha) Marriedname to make it easier for my paperwork to follow me. For anything very official, I try to use both last names. In normal life, I don’t use my maiden name at all. (I feel that “birth name” is a somewhat different concept–that terminology suggests a name change after adoption. Anyway, some women might be using their step-father’s name, so “birth name” would be inaccurate.)
    There was a year or so of pain in changing my documents, but since then, it’s been smooth sailing. On the pro side to changing:
    1. I wasn’t famous
    2. I didn’t have a large body of work that I wanted to connect myself to
    3. It made it more difficult for anybody from my previous life to track me down, if I wasn’t interested in being tracked down
    4. I was in my early 20s at the time, so the change wasn’t wrenchingly difficult
    5. Tradition!
    6. I believe in making life easier for genealogists of the future.
    7. It makes life simpler (except when I have to correct people’s pronunciation of my married name).
    I have a gold wedding band (no engagement ring), but haven’t worn it since my first pregnancy caused my paws to get pudgy. At some point, I will bow to reality and get it resized for the new me. We were too poor for an engagement ring and anyway, I think the diamond industry is a racket. (If diamonds are forever, why do people need to get new ones?)
    My maiden name is one of those super common Scandinavian patronymics. My married name is short, but very uncommon, mispronounced exactly 50% of the time and very hard to place ethnically. I get spam email from one or two Hispanic organizations, and when I give it on the phone or even in person, people mishear it as a common Hispanic surname.
    My husband’s family is a cautionary tale on the hazards of name changing. In short:
    1. The family name started out as an aristocratic hyphenated name: P [the Polish clan name]-W [the surname]
    2. Under the communists, they went to W [hyphenated names suggested political unreliability]. Hence, all their official Polish documents are in the name W.
    3. In Canada, they switched to the more pronounceable P.
    4. Realizing that French Canadians would pronounce the final consonant as silent, they doubled the consonant.
    My husband is eventually going to try to get his Polish passport changed to P, but it’s going to be an awful hassle (there’s no Polish consulate closer than Los Angeles). Up to now, he’s been traveling under a Canadian passport as P and under a Polish passport in Poland as W, but given current traveling conditions, carrying two passports under two different names seems like a good way to wind up in the proverbial windowless room at the airport.

  32. Like Lisa SG, legally my name is hyphenated to add my spouse’s last name. I don’t teach or publish with it, though and, in retrospect, it wasn’t worth the hassle to add those extra six characters just to smooth matters with the schools.
    (Some airlines can’t handle hyphens. Spending time making sure my surname gets correctly registered and doesn’t bork up my boarding pass, requiring an extra hour to correct matters at check-in? Yucky times!)

  33. My wife kept her maiden name, but it’s never been a crusade. If you send us a party invitation to Mr. and Mrs. [myfirstname] [mylastname], we will come. Also, a different last name makes life difficult for people who know you through your children, so camp counselors, Sunday school teachers etc. often call my wife Mrs. [mylastname]. Then again, when we first got married, the apartment lease was in my wife’s name, so the building staff used to call me Mr. [herlastname], which we thought was funny.
    As for the phrase “maiden name,” note that words, including compound words and phrases, have a meaning not equivalent to their etymology. I am not a peasant who maintains a house, but I am a husband.

  34. My husband and I have the same last name, but it’s because we both ditched our old names and made a new last name to give ourselves, and then our children.

  35. I tried to comment yesterday, but Typepad was being funky to me. 😦
    My husband and I kept our names. On one level, like for Laura, it was an issue of laziness–why bother? But the laziness is, I think, a feminist issue. Women in the US are expected to do all the work to “make” a family. Why should I have to change my name and do all that work? (I’m starting to wonder if what we need are more strong-willed yet lazy women in the world to make the feminist utopia happen.)
    No other woman in my family (including my three sisters) has kept her name. Pretty much all my colleagues have changed their names at marriage. Among college friends and grad school friends, most have kept their names. My kids have my last name as a middle name.
    I hate the argument “Oh, how will people know you’re a family?” Oh, trust me, people know I’m my kids’ mother. The secretary at E’s school knows my voice already. And even so, on the phone, it takes a millisecond more to say “Hi, I’m Wendy MyLastName, Eric HisLastName’s mother.”
    And what about blended families? My realtor divorced and remarried. Her two kids from her first marriage have LastName1, while hers is LastName2. Should her kids have to change their names? They have two step-siblings. Should the step-siblings change their names? Or can we just accept that families can contain people with many last names?

  36. “And what about blended families? My realtor divorced and remarried. Her two kids from her first marriage have LastName1, while hers is LastName2. Should her kids have to change their names? They have two step-siblings. Should the step-siblings change their names? Or can we just accept that families can contain people with many last names?”
    Depends on the age of the kids, kids’ wishes, relationship to father, relationship to paternal relatives, relationship to step-father, etc. If there’s no relationship to the father’s side of the family and the kids like the step-dad, it would seem like a very good idea.
    Some step-parents adopt their step-kids. In that case, taking or giving a single family name might be very important symbolically.

  37. I took my husband’s name because his matches the region of the world I study, and therefore enhances MY academic credibility in writing about that part of the world – since people now feel that I have the bona fides. (It would be like if you were a professor of Hispanic studies and you had the option of being Ramirez rather than Smith. Who wouldn’t?)
    I think that taking your husband’s name was probably easier when people tended to marry people of the same ethnicity. I had a friend named Katie Chen who wasn’t Chinese (her husband was) and people always did a sort of double-take when they met her.
    As a academic, it has also worked well for me to take my husband’s name because it’s much more unique than mine, making it easier for my academic citations not to get intermingled with other people’s academic citations who might have the same name.
    We occasionally wish we hadn’t given our kids such ethnic first names. Although we are not Middle EAstern, people sometimes think we are, and after September 11, that added a whole other layer of complexity to the naming issue. But we had our kids in the 90’s, before all that.

  38. making it easier for my academic citations not to get intermingled with other people’s academic citations who might have the same name.
    I just counted. Only 17 of 71 articles the PubMed hits for my name (Last, First MI) are me. I wonder if there’s a form or something I can fill out so they keep us straight. Anyway, the one guy is a really big deal in some field, but I think I can blow past the others if I keep working.

  39. Interesting wikipedia entry on women changing their names on marriage — it suggests that the tradition is a limited one, with many countries having no tradition of name change(arabic countries, china, korea) others forbidding it, at least legally (greece, italy, belgium, the spanish/portugese countris, with their own tradition of combining names, and a minority requiring a “family name” (germany, japan).
    I would love to see a demographic analysis (using facebook, perhaps). My own facebook sample is too biased.

  40. I changed my name for two reasons. #1 I have a cousin three years younger than me who had the exact same name. I got tired of explaining I wasn’t “that Lisa Jones”. #2 B’s name was more interesting. I still like it better than my maiden name, which is why I’m keeping it even though we are splitting up. It’s one of the first things people ask me when they hear we are going our separate ways. I still like it and I’ve had it too long to change. I imagine I will keep it even if I one day remarry.
    For years I’ve thought it was funny that so many women saw this as a marker of feminism. I could’ve kept my father’s name or taken my husband’s. Patriarchy wins either way really.

  41. I was just noting that when we talk about the wives of Henry VIII, we use their maiden names (Anne Boleyn, Catherine Parr, Catherine Howard, etc.).

  42. A friend from college, we’ll call him Jack Riddick, married a woman with the same name, Jane Riddick. In almost my only opinion about other people’s names, I’m disappointed they didn’t hyphenate. Because really, the Riddick-Riddicks. What’s not to like?
    Related to MH’s PubMed point, when your doppelnamensgänger was once CIO of Google, you might as well be invisible to the Internet.

  43. Patti Smith married Fred “Sonic” Smith.
    I like that there are so many people with my name. It’s a good thing to be anonymous on the Internet. Well, maybe only if you’re me.

  44. “I like that there are so many people with my name. It’s a good thing to be anonymous on the Internet. Well, maybe only if you’re me.”
    That would have been a good reason to keep my maiden name–I think there must have been thousands of us.
    (back from googling maiden name)
    Here are some additional reasons to keep a name:
    1. If husband and kids have a different name, it means that you can use your own name on the internet with less concern about privacy issues (which is basically Laura’s situation).
    2. I know a couple where it’s probably helped the wife that her husband’s more controversial activities don’t get associated with her professional life. That would work in either direction.

  45. I hyphenated so I had a link to my pre-marriage professional paper trail and so that I could keep my Armenian heritage in the spotlight. Thank goodness I didn’t marry a fellow Armenian- that name would have gone on forever…

  46. “almost as good as Random Penguin”
    If that’s not the post-merger name, everyone on Wall Street should dump the stock.
    Alternatively, “Almost as Good as Random Penguin” is the name of my next band.

  47. Ten percent of the American public still thinks that keeping your name means you aren’t dedicated to your marriage.
    Over the weekend, I was talking to an old friend who had re-married a few years ago. She did not take her first husband’s last name, but did change her name this time around. I couldn’t help but think, “That signals a dedication to the marriage that this one is more likely to last.”
    Maybe not. Maybe there were specific reasons (I didn’t ask, and I don’t think it was any of my business to ask.) But I found myself in that 10%. I’m not proud of that, but it kind of seemed like a logical assumption.

  48. My husband and I were just watching the BBC’s “North & South” and one of the actors is surnamed “Pigott-Smith.”
    The guy must be super talented, because only real talent could overcome a name like that.
    Also on the subject of hyphenated names, I recently saw the following over in the comment section at the Skeptical OB. What are the leading risk factors of c-sections in the opinion of residents?
    a. having a birth plan
    b. driving a $60k car
    c. having a hyphenated last name

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s