Monday, August 08, 2011

Ladies who change their names: feminist traitors? (Now with data!)

As a long-time reader of the New York Times Sunday wedding page, I like to think that I have a strong, albeit impressionistic sense of the mating and marriage patterns of the ruling class. Since the mid-90s, for example, I've seen a steady decline in pairings between investment bankers and grade-school-teachers-with-art-history-degrees-from-Brown, and a corresponding rise in the number of couples who met in law school or on the job and who seem to be professional peers. I've also kept a general eye on such things as age at first marriage and the frequency with which a woman takes her husband's name--but those are harder to gain an accurate sense of without tracking the numbers.

So this weekend, my dears, I decided to do some valuable procrastination in the service of collecting cold hard marriage data. I skimmed the 500 most recent NYT wedding announcements, from May 1st until yesterday, and recorded how many women in heterosexual partnerships kept their last names, took their husbands', or did something in between. I also recorded their ages.

And I'll state up front that I came to this project with a strong prejudice in favor of women keeping their birth names. About half of my own friends have taken their husbands' names, and that's cool: it's their choice, I'd never tell anyone what to do, blah blah--but I'm not going to pretend that, internally, I've had an entirely neutral reaction to what the women of my acquaintance chose to do in this arena. Moreover, it's been hard not to notice that lots of the women who submit announcements to the NYT and do take their husbands' names are women in their 30s and even 40s, women who went to fancy schools and seem to be high-powered doctors and lawyers--not just, as I would have assumed (and as actual real studies have found), younger women or women with less fully developed professional identities.

So armed with a primitive spreadsheet, I decided to investigate. I can break the numbers down in detail in the comments if anyone cares, but the short version is this: of 450 heterosexual marriage announcements, 75% clearly indicated whether the bride was changing or keeping her name. Of that number, 30% kept their birth name outright, with an additional 10% "continu[ing] to use [their] name professionally"; hyphenating their last names with their husbands'; forming a new shared surname; or indicating that they would be using their maiden name as a middle name, à la Hillary Rodham Clinton. The remaining 60% took their husbands' names.

Moreover, from this sample, there is not a strong correlation between the age of the bride and her decision to keep or change her name. Women who got married at age 26 and younger showed almost exactly the same 40/60 split as the data set as a whole.


The number of women keeping their own names surprised me; it was higher than I'd expected. But more importantly, the process of skimming 500 announcements, including an increasing number celebrating same-sex unions, made me. . . kinda not care any more. There's nothing I can imagine that would make me want to change my own name--but then, I'm in a profession where name-changing after one has established some kind of professional identity is extremely uncommon. However, I'm coming around to the position that for most women this isn't a major feminist issue.

This is not to say that I think the choice is negligible, or that it doesn't relate to important feminist issues (see this post by Historiann for a marriage in which the wife's decision not to change her name revealed what an insecure douchebag her husband was). But perhaps we shouldn't insist on its symbolic importance in every instance.

Here are factors to consider:
  1. Women don't lose their maiden names or identities upon adopting a husband's name as completely as they once did. The internet has a lot to do with this. I've noticed that most of the women whom I went to high school with, virtually all of whom changed their names upon marriage, now identify themselves on Facebook according to the formula "Firstname Maidenname Lastname." This doesn't mean they've actually retained their maiden names legally, or that they use them professionally (my own mother, who has never to my knowledge used her maiden name in the 40-odd years since she got married at age 21, identifies herself thusly on Facebook). However, this informal retention of one's birth name is, I think, part of a larger, pragmatic trend: if adopting their spouse's name seems important to many women, so does retaining a clear link to their birth name.

  2. The rise in legally-recognized same-sex unions. Though the sample size here is even smaller, and it's hard to tell what trends will develop over time, right now it's pretty rare for same-sex couples to change their names upon marriage (and when they do, it's usually by linking both names with a hyphen). How gay and lesbian couples choose to communicate their commitment is bound to have an effect on the rest of us, if only by making a wider range of options seem normal.

  3. It's not all-or-nothing. Related to both of the above, I'm interested in the various compromises I've seen in the selection of wedding announcements I perused: women who continue to use their names professionally, women who merged their names somehow with their husbands', and a tiny minority of women who chose entirely new surnames for both themselves and their husbands. This strikes me as an age in which there's a lot of experimentation with naming conventions. So, you know: let a thousand flowers bloom.

  4. Retaining one's birth name upon marriage may remain a minority custom, but it's now a well-established one. Thus it's unlikely suddenly to die out, be thought of as irremediably bizarre, or cause serious, regular problems for women who don't change their names. (Note: I reserve the right to retract this claim if, in a few years, I encounter such problems.)

So in sum: if you're fighting the good fight at home or in the workplace and making generally gender-conscious decisions? I really don't care what you call yourself.

But as always, readers, I trust you to tell me how I'm wrong


life_of_a_fool said...

I love that you did this.

I don't think the facebook example means all that much one way or the other. I've assumed that it is as much about making yourself findable by people you went to high school with or who knew you before you were married. I don't really know how it all works (I've seen combinations of names show up differently), so maybe I'm wrong, but I've never seen this as meaning anything beyond that. Which doesn't mean your larger point isn't true, but I don't think that's a good example of it.

I really like the idea of the impact of legal same sex unions changing what we see as "normal." Of course, that's true, but I've never thought of it in terms of naming conventions.

Flavia said...

LoaF: I think you're right that the impetus behind resurrecting the maiden name is purely pragmatic, based on the desire to make oneself searchable under that name (some of the women I'm friends with used to identify themselves only as "Firstname Marriedname," and the maiden/middle name is a late addition), but whatever the intention is, if this is becoming a commonplace way of identifying a married woman--or even the new default standard--it means the culture accepts it as normal that a woman's birth name is part of her identity.

So to me, the very fact that women who have no intention of keeping their maiden names are making that name part of their public online identity is a bit of a big deal.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

One year ago I met a woman, a hotel clerk in Kalamazoo, MI, who had no idea that it was even possible *not* to change your name when you got married. I explained that it was perfectly possible and that many women chose that option, and I hope my shock did not show. But I'm still shocked. The NYT is one thing (and I do love to read about the marriages/celebrations on Sunday), and then there's the rest of the country.

Veralinda said...

I love that you did this too. And I will say that I have always felt extremely strongly about this, for the same reasons. Inevitably, when I hear about a woman taking her husband's name, I do feel disappointed, and I've always said I would never do it myself. This is the position that satisfies me publicly and professionally and biographically: I'd hate to be misread as *not* a feminist by someone who could not read the gesture in any other way. And yet, with all that said, privately it is more complicated. Remember: there is not non-patriarchal choice. You are simply choosing to retain the name given to you by your father rather than take the name given to you by your husband. And, well, I'm with Cordelia and Ophelia in preferring my (future) husband. The only consolation for me is that I've been known this way my whole life, so it's "me" enough; but to the part of me that would as soon be known by the family I create as by the family I was born into, that's not totally satisfying. This doesn't answer the other feminist objection of why it is the woman who always has to make this decision. But I would say that privately, being known by my father's name is not at all an ideal choice. Is it the least bad choice, is the only question.

What Now? said...

Great post, Flavia!

Having left higher ed., where women who have published under their birth name are unlikely to change their name upon marriage (although it does happen, of course), I have still not gotten used to the fact that all of my heterosexual women colleagues at FGS change their name upon getting married (with the exception of the head of school -- love her!). None of the lesbians (and that's quite a large sample size at FGS) changed their names. Several of us had the conversation at lunch one day, and what shocked me is that it hadn't even seemed like a question to consider for most of the straight women, which was just so different from my experience in academia. (Although I did learn at that lunch that one of my male colleagues had taken the option of creating a new last name with his wife when they got married.)

And then I discovered that my students didn't really seem to think that it was a question to be considered either. So now I have yet another secret agenda: I try to make sure that, in each class, we discuss the symbolism of wedding conventions: name changes, fathers walking daughters down the aisle, "Who gives this woman ...?," etc. It's always apropos of something or other and thus pedagogically sound, and ultimately I (mostly) don't necessarily care what decision they ultimately make, but I want them to actually think about it and make a real decision instead of just going with the flow.

Flavia said...

Dame Eleanor: you're right that the NYT isn't representative, and that the women featured in those announcements surely all know they had a choice, even if they didn't take it. I'm always surprised, though, by the number of my female students--not a huge number, but bigger than zero--that hyphenate their names upon marriage. It's not even that popular among the NYT announcement class, and my red county students are doing it?

Veralinda: yes! I think what gets left out of the debate over changing or not changing one's name is the idea that part of being an adult woman with agency is choosing your own family, and the choice of a name is part of that. It's not always just bowing to some bullshit tradition (just as retaining one's name isn't necessarily more than an equally bullshit assertion of independence).

But for all that, I'm not remotely compelled by the argument that a family and its members all need the same names--not as long as the default assumption is that it's the husband's/father's name that wins out. Personally, I think hyphenated or blended names are the only remotely practical solution. . . but they aren't, alas, always so very practical.

So we're left with a bunch of imperfect options.

WN: you are indeed fighting the good fight. And for what it's worth, I do think most women's sense of their options opens up as they grow--I'm pretty sure I was still doodling my name attached to the last name of a crush-object when I was in college.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

You're wrong! You're wrong! (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

I don't think you're wrong. I do think the NYT marriages page is hugely non-representative of national trends, except for a very small slice of the population, though. The numbers I've seen previously suggest that about 17% of women keep their name. (Anecdatally, only one of my law school classmates plans to keep her name, and there are a ton of married chicks in my class. And my classmate regularly announces she's keeping her name because her fiance's name is pretty ugly - I don't for a second think that's the only reason why she's keeping her name, given the woman in question, but I find it interesting that she feels the need to deflect.)

The age thing is interesting; what I've found is that when I graduated college, I was under the impression of us women had plans to change our names. But those who married later - that is, closer in time to now - actually seemed to change their names at a higher rate than those who married earlier. So maybe it's not actually age, but time of marriage? (I think my college cohort is closer to your 30% figure, but demographically that would fit.)

Anyway, while I haven't run into serious, regular problems, I still regularly encounter people who find the practice bizarre. They don't usually disapprove (openly), but they're frequently...confused that I didn't take my husband's name. I really don't think it's a neutral practice yet.

(That said, I also now encounter women who get married and are sort of defensive about taking their husband's name, so I guess it's a minefield whatever you do.)

Ajnabieh said...

My mother never changed her name when she married my father thirty-five years ago. This was scandalous to her conservative Catholic mother--but I was raised with the understanding that this was "the right, feminist" thing to do. I definitely remember being the only kid in elementary school whose parents had different last names--and that everybody was confused my parents weren't divorced because of it! So changing my name never occurred to me, even before I knew I'd be marrying a woman.

Now, it is much more common. I'm interested in seeing, in practice, how it trickles down into the naming of children. For example, my niece attended a super-crunchy Brooklyn preschool: more than half of the parents in the class had different last names, but only my niece had both her parents' names. But of my nearly-three-year-old son's friend group, 0% of the moms changed their names, two or three of the kids have hyphenated names, and the remaining kids have mom's name as a middle. So, mixed (Brooklyn-centric) data there.

Another interesting data point. My mother was just widowed a few months ago. As she does things like apply for the social security widow's benefit and his pension, she finds that she's needing to mail copies of her marriage certificate around, because otherwise they won't accept she and my dad were married...because they don't share a last name. I wonder how interaction with bureaucracy will affect these things?

Dr. Virago said...

Two things.

Bullock and I aren't legally married, but we could be. Thus, when telemarketing types call for Bullock and ask if I'm "Mrs. Bullock," I say "no" mainly because that's not my name. But invariably they hang up before I can get out "I'm Dr. Virago." If we were married, I'd still say "no" and they'd still assume I had no legal relationship to him and hang up.

As you know, in real life I have a patronymic name. So does Bullock, but his is the second half. I've long thought it would be hilarious -- and a comment on the patriarchal practice of naming in the West -- if we made up a joint last name composed of the two syllables that mean "son."

Flavia said...


I also now encounter women who get married and are sort of defensive about taking their husband's name, so I guess it's a minefield whatever you do.

That sounds about right!


Your mother's needing to apply for Social Security benefits shouldn't surprise me, but it does--doesn't the SSA have vital statistics on everyone? Seriously.

Someone at Historiann's linked to this NYT piece, which seems relevant. The point is to make any naming choice equally doable, whatever people in practice choose to do.

Dr. V: I love it! In my friend group it's common to assign couples who haven't changed their names (or aren't married) the most ridiculous mash-up names--alternating syllables, for example--and use those names to refer to the couple. Works best with long names, but the resulting appellations are all pretty great.

Flavia said...

Oh, and here's another thing that speaks to my original point #1, about maiden names/identities not being so thoroughly obliterated these days even for women who changed their names: people are marrying later. Once upon a time, if you changed you name when you were 20, your entire adult life took place with your spouse's name--and everyone from your extremely short past was probably assumed to know that you got married.

These days, if a lawyer gets married at 35 and changes her name, TONS of people from various life stages knew her under her maiden name, and she's lost touch with lots of them, including people she might wish to be in touch with. This is where the informal restoration of the maiden name (on Facebook, e.g.) comes in. So changing one's name just isn't quite the same thing, nor is it likely to be as absolute, even for women who think they're changing their names for good.

I'd speculate that, over time, the "Hillary Rodham Clinton" model becomes the dominant naming convention for married women, as women who deliberately chose that formula and women who simply found it useful in certain social situations converge.

Or in other words, expect the return of the double-barreled names of yore.

Tenured Radical said...

My sister married last year and took her husband's name, which I think my 78 year old mother was more surprised by than I was. I think it was very symbolic of starting a new life for her, although she uses her maiden name as her middle name now and always identifies herself with all three.

That said, I remember her telling me it was a huge pain in the a$$ to do it: not just changing it on her driver's license, but actually having to go down to the courthouse and do the whole legal thing prior to changing her name on other documents. So actually, at least in some states, you have to be determined to make it happen. Aside from being a homosexual and a feminist and not having ever wanted such a thing, I would be far too lazy to do it.

Dr. Koshary said...

Thought-provoking and amusing, to boot! I can just imagine you keeled over your computer, unable to look at another goddamned wedding announcement.

I think New Kid nailed it: there is no right choice, because women can be scorned for any and every choice they make. The whole topic makes me wonder vaguely what this will bring up out of the depths of my psyche, if I ever get into a relationship serious enough to contemplate marriage. Will my inner patriarch come raging out, or will my inner feminist have thrown him down a well?

Marie said...

The unmentioned elephant in the room when people discuss this issue is that many marriages and partnerships end. Under traditional heterosexual-marriage protocols it is the woman, not the man, who gets stuck with the moniker of a now-defunct relationship. No one wants to talk about this when they get partnered or married, but there it is.

Bardiac said...

I used to care, but partly because so many people I respect have made really different decisions, and partly because what Veralinda said about there NOT being a choice un-controlled by patriarchy, and mostly (I think) because I only have so much energy to fight patriarchy, I just don't care. But I try to remember what people prefer.

I think sometimes, we police ourselves with horrible cruelty, and I'm trying not to contribute if I can avoid it.

Leslie M-B said...

I, too, love that you undertook this project--even if NYC is a bit out of the ordinary culturally.

I kept my birth name upon marriage, but hyphenated within the year because I realized it was really important to my spouse that we share a name, and because his parents were considerably older than mine (his: b. 1913; mine: b. 1944), he has a more conservative view of these things than I do--so there was never any consideration of him changing his name.

If I were to do it all again, I might eliminate the hyphen, changing from M-B to just MB. Too many pieces of software (e.g. Southwest Airlines ticketing) don't recognize hyphens at all--which seems to me to pose problems for women in particular (since I'm guessing more of us hyphenate than do men) and also probably people with hyphenated Arabic names (e.g. al-Fulan). And while my first post-marriage driver's license managed to include the hyphen, none of the subsequent ones have--and yes, I have had both TSA and store clerks question me about the difference between my DL and credit card, boarding pass, or alternate ID.

I guess my point is that hyphenating at first seemed like a good solution to me, but it can be a pain in the ass, and I've come to understand the appeal of keeping just one's birth name, although in my case I would have an entirely different last name from my son--he's just B, while I'm M-B.

Britta said...

I think Marie brings up a good point. There is a relatively prominent academic in my field who married after establishing a professional identity and did the Hillary Rodham Clinton thing. Then, at some later point, she divorced and dropped her husband's last name, and now she is forever known as Prof. X, formerly Prof. X-Y, or, if someone is citing an article from her married period, it's Prof. X-Y, now Prof. X (again). I had no plans to take my husband's last name anyways, but the idea that my academic reputation would be permanently tied to a failed relationship and that my divorce would be known to every person in my field makes me cringe.

hd said...

I have been a bit curious to hear stories about mothers who kept their names and gave their child THEIR last name. DC data here: I know of only one, who actually lives in Brooklyn, whereas I know scores of moms like me. ftr, i kept my name, but my son has his dad's name. I told myself at the time that I liked this--that it preserved a sense of identity that isn't bound by motherhood AND disrupted normative assumptions about nuclear families (like say every single effing time I go to CVS to fill his RXs)--but sometimes I wonder about that decision. My dude didn't care a whit about me not taking his name (though his relatives sure did), but he was VERY into his son having his last name. and the whole theory about how everyone would know the kid was mine--bollucks. the spawn is the SPITTING image of his dad.

Flavia said...

Marie and Britta: absolutely. There's a scholar in my own field whose work I've occasionally had to cite under three different names in a single footnote.

But while I used to mutter under my breath "50% of marriages end in divorce!" when reading a whole string of wedding announcements where the women were changing their names, I've stopped doing that after reading this recent NYT article, which notes that divorce rates for educated/upper-middle-class Americans have declined steeply; now only 11% divorce in their first 10 years of marriage, compared with 37% for those without college degrees. That doesn't mean it won't happen, of course--a one in ten (or seven or five or whatever over the longer term) chance still isn't great odds--but the declining divorce rates among wealthy Americans, and their growing conservatism about marriage, is surely part of what has encouraged so many professional women to change their names.

Bardiac: well said.

Flavia said...

Leslie and hd: thanks for reports from the parenting field. I know a few couples who have multiple children who have given one child the father's name, one the mother's. But of course, people just assume they're step-siblings.

If Cosimo and I have children, they're getting our hyphenated last names. But we have relatively short last names, from the same ethnic group, that sound good together--not everyone is that lucky.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

hd: I have friends, a straight couple, whose two sons bear her last name, not his. It's true that she's from a place generally known as "The People's Republic of [City}," and his name is harder for Americans to spell.

Prof. de Breeze said...

Sorry to come to this discussion late. I just wanted to reinforce one point which has been mentioned already: children greatly complicate the whole birth name/married name decision. When we married (20 years ago), my wife did not take my last name, a decision which I still applaud (and only partially for political reasons; she also has a much better last name than I do). There were occasional questions or raised eyebrows, mainly from people whose job it is to fill out forms, but overall it was no big deal.

When we had our first child, my wife suggested that we just give her my last name, on the argument that it would be easier for everyone involved. I insisted that the little one be marked with both names in some way, but we didn't really like hyphens, so we ended up giving her two last names (with no hyphen). This decision led to various complications, since computers sometimes don't like spaces in names. As a result, both last names show up in some systems (the federal government, our local school system, etc.) but not in others (our YMCA membership, for example). As you can imagine, headaches abound.

When our son was born, we decided to just go the easy route and give him one last name (mine). Not surprisingly, the fact that he has a different last name than his sister has simply led to more confusion.

My wife now says she regrets not taking my last name 20 years ago and has suggested doing so now. I'm very resistant to this idea, simply because it would almost certainly result in further complications. :)

the rebel lettriste said...

Oh the patronym. I know I am late too, but just wanted to mention that my sons have a hyphenated last name (mine-their father's). Because my name comes first, they are often listed under my name only, which is easy enough until I start being addressed as "Mrs. Mylastname." Their father, douchebag that he is, was VERY UPSET in the hospital when I filled out the birth certificates with the hyphen. The certificates, btw, came exclusively to me because I was unmarried--and the babies were named Baby Boy A and Baby Boy B Mylastname in the hospital. But I figured, hey, douchebag was lucky I was giving them even the hyphen given that he'd made them bastards by refusing to marry us. You should all know, also, that the courts allow unmarried fathers to "give" their children their last name only when they are officially and legally declared the father. Until that point, they get no say.

Historiann said...

Prof. de Breeze: why didn't you take your wife's (admittedly nicer) last name? Problem solved then, even after the arrival of children.

Flavia said...

Those of you who don't read Phoebe should read her response--which also includes the first, but I hope not the last, declaration that choosing a husband in part for his looks is also a feminist act.

Rachel said...

I'm definitely in the "disappointed when women change their names camp," and this includes family members who know I disapprove. And I disapprove (internally, most of the time) because women changing their names, meh, women taking a man's name, is the default. If everyone changed their names or if men changed their names 50% of the time, I wouldn't care (as much). But men don't. Maybe a couple do, but they're rarer than an almost extinct bird. And to me the symbolism -- the acquisition of another human being via a name -- is too much to bear, too much to just say "whatever about." I truly hate watching friends marry and change their names. And facebook shows me just how many friends and acquiantences do this. Blech.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...



Anyway, a couple other things to consider...

-Is the relevant question what to make of women who do consider themselves feminists, yet change their names, thus courting accusations of hypocrisy, thus eliciting the tsk-tsks of disappointed fellow travelers? Or is it what to make of the existence of women who, in a society in which name-change is not mandatory, opt to do so, women who may or may not consider themselves feminists? It seems a very different issue if women are (for example) dropping out of the workforce voluntarily, than if symbolic trappings of Bad Old Marriage, once rejected by 1970s feminists who didn't want to repeat their own mothers' lives, now no longer seem so tainted.

-Yes yes, the whole 'it's my father's name, anyway' is something you never hear men say. But is this really a case of 'excuses, excuses'? Or do women maybe - assuming freely-chosen peer marriages - have the better end of this deal? Once it ceases to be associated with women's powerlessness in Bad Old Marriage, might the taking-on of a new name come to be seen as desirable and, in time, something men would wish to adopt as well?

-Oh, and the "Choose an identity" request from Blogger is especially amusing in this context.

Anonymous said...

@ New Kid on the Hallway -- That's totally me!

It is true that my last name is awesome in many ways and DH's is not.

It is also true that there are many other reasons I would not change my name even if his were awesome instead of the opposite of awesome. Laziness is a big one. It being my name is another. Me being a professional with a professional history etc. another.

When people ask, I generally do say, would you want DH's last name? Maybe that is a bit of defensiveness. But it's also a way of not offending people who have made other decisions, because only my SIL and MIL have had that same choice-set and made a different choice. (With them, I say it's because of my career. They understand.)

I do that a lot... pick the least offensive reason that doesn't judge the intrusive questioner's choice. It makes life easier, especially on issues I truly could not give a rat's patootie about.

Flavia said...


The relevant question for me in writing this post was less "what to make of women who [fill in the blank]" than to think through my own (and other people's) instinctive reactions to the matter of name change, and what underlies those reactions, assumptions, and prejudices. (The title of the post was intended both to be deliberately provocative and also somewhat tongue-in-cheek--speaking for myself, I've never considered anyone a feminist traitor for anything, much less for something like changing or not changing her name!)

But insofar as there's a larger question here, it's more broadly about the relationship between a symbolic act, like changing or keeping one's name, and political commitments. I absolutely believe that there is a connection between the two, but it's not (as I hope this post and its comments demonstrate) an uncomplicated relationship, and neither do all symbolic actions mean the same thing for--or resonate in the same way with--all people.

Keeping my name is meaningful for me, but lots of women whom I respect (and who in some cases are clearly fighting the feminist fight more intensely than I am, on a daily basis) don't find it equally important or meaningful. Moreover, it's not as if I'm doing something super rebellious or unique in keeping my name. Although none of the women in my family or my future spouse's family have kept their names, and it's not normal in the communities in which we grew up, no one really seems to care, either. Not only has no one fussed, no one has said anything.

So although I'm not able to say that I think the act of deciding to keep or change one's name is trivial, the process of writing (and, ahem, "researching") this post has convinced me that there isn't a single right choice, even for feminists.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I guess what I'm wondering is whether there's necessarily such political content to the decision, in all cases. For women too young to associate name-change with an unsavory, misogynistic dynamic within marriages, name-change can just seem the convenient way of sharing the name with future kids, because why should the husband have that privilege? Also, women my age have seen that keeping one's name doesn't necessarily go along with progressive dynamics within a marriage. I mean, this still suggests there's political content to changing one's name, insofar as it's about rejecting the idea that keeping one's name is a key part of the list of feminist expectations. But if one has opted out of angst re: symbolism, and to focus instead on the content of the marriage (not that one can't focus on symbolism as well as content!), I'm not sure that name-change is all that political.

Flavia said...


Perhaps "political" isn't exactly the word I want--or at any rate, I'm not restricting "political" to "gender-political." A wife might choose to take her husband's name because she's asserting that the family she chooses is more important than the family she was born into--or because her husband has, let's say, an Asian or Middle Eastern name, and she wishes to assert solidarity with/participation in his ethnic heritage. I read those as political decisions too.

So what I'm saying is really only that I believe name-changing (or not) is a symbolic action that reflects the values of the person who makes them. But that being said, those values are not always immediately transparent, nor are the values-thus-expressed the same for each person who makes the same decision. (A woman who keeps her name might be saying, "I am an independent, professional woman!" But then again, she might be saying, "the ethnic heritage in my last name is key to my identity," or, "my husband's name is ugly, and aesthetics matter to me.")

Lyta said...

So what I'm saying is really only that I believe name-changing (or not) is a symbolic action that reflects the values of the person who makes them. But that being said, those values are not always immediately transparent, nor are the values-thus-expressed the same for each person who makes the same decision.


I changed my name for my first marriage. My birth name was difficult to spell and pronounce, so taking my husband's name made my life easier.

After the divorce, I changed my name entirely for a handful of reasons, including sidestepping the false choice of "either way, it's a man's name."

When I got married again, the thought of giving up the name I chose for myself barely even occurred to me. Of course I was going to keep my awesome True Name!

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


True. There are all kinds of political-broadly-defined reasons for these choices. I don't like to attribute political motives to spousal choice itself, but this is another matter.

So I guess where I'm wavering is, if we all accept that name-choice is political, are we also supposed to judge the name-choice of others, according to our politics, as, for example, Rachel does earlier in this thread? And do the judged then owe the judges explanations, something like 'you may think I'm a bad feminist, but I just wanted to be a Cho, too, which is why I got rid of Smith'?

I think if we got to a point where we all accepted, as you do, that the political content of these choices is "not always immediately transparent," that would mean an end, if not to many of us having opinions on the behavior of others, based on our guesses about their motivations (which is unavoidable), but to the vocalized "disappointed" response.

Perpetua said...

I have to say that I do think the choice of name-changing is political, and significant. I agree that there are lots of complicated/nuanced reasons why women might change their names when getting married and it's important not to oversimplify. But that said, the choices is only a "choice" (IMO) if there's no price attached to o/not choosing. What I mean is that while I think it's okay for a woman to take her husband's name (I'm not interested in judgment on an individual level, and think it's important to talk generally on such issues rather than individually - thus I don't think anybody "owes" anybody any kind of explanation), every feminist should be aware of the name issue as a feminist issue and should think about it, even if she decides in the end to take her husband's name. I don't want taking a husband's name to be *automatic* and I especially don't want women to be pressured or harassed into changing their names. As soon as that no longer happens, then to me it's no longer a political-feminist issue. But I know many women who were harassed and pressured by family/spouse to change their names. Those of us who refuse make it easier in the long run to everyone to refuse, should she wish. Thus, I think it is generally better for more women to refuse. Same goes with kids' names. I'm continually astonished - shocked even - by all the women I know who keep their names and give the children's their husband's surname without reflection. My kids have my last name, no hyphen. The more families who make this choice, the more it will be a real choice that people can make or not make. Diversity, without harassment.

Flavia said...


"Diversity, without harassment": yes. And yes to almost everything else, too.