Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Changing Your Married Last Name

Recently, two blogs - The Feminine Mystique and from two to one - started The Last Name Project in which they profiled "a diverse set of individuals and couples who are single, engaged, and married about how and why they decided on their last names." 

I came across this project via Molly at First the Egg, who shared her story. She writes of "the historical resonance of the femme covert, of marriage as the transfer of not just a woman’s property but of a woman as property, of her loss of her legal standing and identity along with her original name" and that she is "suspicious of the rhetoric of free choice and interested in the structural and institutional forces that constrain people’s choices." She writes,

It’s hard not to notice that the vast majority of hetero couples who want ‘a family name’ choose the male partner’s surname. Sometimes specific factors of personal history or values make that the best option; sometimes the couple outright acknowledges not wanting to swim upstream; but often, friends making this choice insisted that they just coincidentally preferred the man’s name. This obliviousness to the historical and cultural pressures at play in one’s decision, to the larger statistical realities in which this individual drama plays out, worries me.
The Huffington Post picked up the project and posted a slideshow with some quotes that represent some of the opinions of those who contributed to the project about changing married last names. The  explanations include why the women and men decided to do the various options, both for themselves and for their children: The woman keeping her name, Changing her name, Hyphenating, Taking both names un-hyphenated, Keeping a name professionally but changing it legally, Being undecided, The man taking the wife's name, Alternating names, and Choosing an entirely new name. If you want to read the stories from any of these categories, they are all laid out here. 

Long before my fiance and I became engaged, we discussed what we would do with our last names were we to marry. For me, hyphenating was out of the question (I'm just not a fan of everyone ending up with hyphenated names, including the kids. And then the hyphenated kids growing up and marrying hyphenated kids - ahhh!) I told him I didn't feel particularly attached to my last name (it is kind of boring and short, and has lame jokes associated with it, and was changed in my family's recent history so I don't feel like it connects me to my roots). He told me that he wasn't particularly attached to his last name, either, and he didn't want me to have to change my name just because I'm the woman. So we discussed choosing an entirely new name!

We toyed with ideas like choosing a really cheesy last name so we could be "The Darlings." We also thought it would be funny to pick a traditionally ethnic-sounding name, like "The Zhangs" so that when people saw our name before meeting us in person, they would be incredibly confused that we weren't Chinese. Ok, lame, but they made us giggle.

I was excited to find, through the Last Name Project, that we weren't the only ones with this idea. For example, [Abby] and her husband chose the last name Phoenix for a variety of reasons including the word's symbolism and that it sounds really cool. [Sue]  and her husband combined their last names into one word. [M] and her husband shared an Irish heritage, so they pulled out the Gaelic Irish dictionary and picked a name that had meaning for them both. [Mike] and his wife [Danielle] also picked a surname that had meaning for them, and kept their old last names as their middle names. Click on their names if you'd like to read more about what went into their decisions and how their families have reacted.

Unfortunately, in my case, neither of us have a strong heritage that we'd like to express with our last name. I think picking a new name entirely would be fun, but I wonder if I'd ever get used to it as a name rather than the random word we chose. I understand the historical context that Molly brings up above, but feel that choosing a random name would be just like choosing his name - neither of them mean, to us, that he "owns" me. Since we're not married yet I still have time to reflect on this.

What do you think? Do you have a last name choosing story to share? What do you think of all the different options laid out above? 


  1. I think in my state (colorado) it's actually illegal for a man to take a woman's last name!

  2. I changed my name the first time I got married at 23. I thought the decision was independent from the historical context. I no longer think so. When we first broke up I thought it would be important to keep that name because now it was my son's name but ultimately it felt important to have my own name back again. When I remarried I didn't think twice of keeping my name. My husband, my son and myself all have different last names. I no longer understand the need for a family to have the same last name. It hasn't made us any less of a family. We often choose a unique first (and middle) name for our children, why don't we give them unique last names as well?

  3. I decided long before I met my husband that I would keep my name if I ever married. To me it's about continuity of personal and kin-group identity throughout my lifespan. This isn't important in all cultures, but it is in the ones I've been most strongly influenced by. I felt no need for my husband and I to share the same surname, so neither of us changed our names.

    When we decided to have a child together, I gave serious thought to what surname the child should have. In the end, I agreed that he should have my husband's surname, for one reason alone: so that he and his older half-brother (child of my husband's first marriage) would share the same surname.

    One curious bit in this story of mine is that the most direct guidance I can remember receiving about this matter of married women's surnames was delivered to me by one of my college professors. He (a gay man) was concerned that we (his female students) not sabotage or complicate our professional academic identities by publishing under a different surname every time we got married or divorced!

  4. My partner and I chose a "family name" that we both took after we had our son and named him. Our son was the first with our family name, and we followed suit legally later. The only sticky wicket with this scenario was when we traveled, we needed to bring his birth certificate with OUR legal names on it, since on paper we didn't look related.

  5. I just learned today (and this may not be in every state) that when a husband and wife get divorced the woman must petition to have her husband's last name removed from her own. oh, the patriarchy.

  6. Thanks so much for profiling The Last Name Project! If you're interested, I've love for you to share your story as part of the project. Submissions are always open and welcome!


  7. Thanks for the link! I think all the diverse stories the project has gathered are so interesting ... and your thoughts here, too.


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