Is your name the heart of your identity, or a patriarchal hand-me-down? If you lose it, is that choice or capitulation? The debate over women changing their names continues, and—at the risk of adding oxygen to a curiously unquenchable fire—I’d like to argue that supporting women who keep their names (as we should!) doesn’t necessitate scolding women who don’t. We should also resist making easy assumptions about why women take their spouse’s name; it’s the conventional path, yes, but that doesn’t mean their reasons are necessarily conventional.
I got married in my mid-20s and took my husband’s name, slotting in my former surname (I think we can all agree that “maiden name” is archaic) as a new middle name. Apparently, 90 percent of American women still change their names upon marriage, but you could have fooled me: Right away, my moniker became a subject of overweening interest among other women and occasionally men.
The younger and better-educated a co-worker or acquaintance, the more I was made to feel that I’d done something ... not wrong, exactly, but faintly embarrassing. It was as if I’d admitted my favorite restaurant was the Cheesecake Factory, or that I listened to Nickelback. “Wow, that’s quite unusual these days,” some people would say, often after an uncomfortable pause.
The chief source of their surprise was that a young, graduate-schooled professional living on the East Coast would willingly adopt her spouse’s name. Even weirder to them, I suppose, was the fact that my choice wasn’t based on religious or political tradition: I’m agnostic and politically liberal.
Still, there are modern and secular reasons why someone would want to take their spouse’s name, reasons that critics can’t seem to imagine.
Taking your spouse’s name can be an act of self-fashioning—a feminist act, whatever your gender (or theirs).
James Somers argued recently in this magazine that, “unless one of their names is truly awful,” both spouses should keep their own names. Somers goes further: If the practice of name-changing doesn’t die on its own, he says, social pressure should be applied to kill it.
“We should treat taking his name with a slight raise of our eyebrow, a small chorus of righteous whispers,” he writes. “With luck and time ... it will come to seem as outmoded and gauche as smoking on an airplane.” This social shaming of people to conform is precisely what we should not do.
One of the biggest downsides of taking a new name is the potential loss of identity, as Somers points out. Yet not everyone’s sense of self is bound inextricably to a surname, and sometimes the benefits of changing it outweigh the loss.
Take my former last name, Kolson. To me, it represents the family I love. That family is small and reserved, even around the Thanksgiving table; it’s not one of those big families where cousins and great-aunts gather on Sundays to watch football or celebrate a birthday. If I came from that kind of family, I might feel defined by it, wrapped up snugly in its name like a clan tartan; but I don’t.
Naming is primal, one of the acts that makes us human.
Not only is my family small, the name it bears is an Ellis Island coinage, an approximation of something Carpatho-Rusyn from Slovakia. (Kolcun?) I’m proud of that in itself, because what could be more American? But it’s probably easier, psychologically, to drop a name that has only been around for a few generations than one that goes back for centuries. A last name that represented a cultural heritage I valued deeply, or an ethnic identity for which my ancestors suffered, would be harder to leave behind, as would a name on which I’d staked my professional reputation. (I married young enough that this wasn’t an issue; later on, I might have made a different choice.)
So what are the benefits of taking your spouse’s name? For me, it was liberating to forge a new identity. I was joining a new family while remaining part of the one that had raised me. I was starting a new phase of life, crossing the threshold from youth to adulthood: Why not mark that transition in the words I use to describe myself?
Naming is primal, one of the acts that makes us human.Yet it is fluid—not absolute—and fraught. Ralph Ellison, in his lecture “Hidden Name and Complex Fate,” describes watching a little girl play while saying to herself over and over, “‘I am Mimi Livisay? I am Mimi Livisay’ ... working playfully to establish the unity between herself and her name.” Doing so is not easy for many of us, Ellison concedes; he himself felt burdened by the aspirational name Ralph Waldo, and “suppressed” his middle name under the initial W.
For millennia, the custom of husbands giving their names to their wives signified that women were men’s property. The custom remains, but laws and society have changed, and now, at least in most of America and Western Europe, it has become a voluntary gesture of taking, not giving. Taking your spouse’s name can be an act of self-fashioning—a feminist act, whatever your gender, or theirs. (For the record, I’m an advocate of more men taking their spouse’s name, too.)
The opportunity to change your name mid-life is sometimes a godsend. What would critics say to a woman who had been disowned by her family because she was a lesbian, so chose to take the name of her new wife, whose relatives welcomed her with open arms? I can imagine that a person in this situation might want to honor her new family and distance herself from her old one. (Melissa McEwan of the feminist blog Shakesville has an excellent rundown of possible rationales for name-changing.)
Many people have good reasons to cut family ties, in word and deed. Survivors of abuse, especially, may be grateful for the chance to jettison a name that holds bad memories or could be traced by a dangerous ex. For these and others, it is not a cop-out to take your spouse’s last name instead of the more radical option of devising your own, as the writer Cheryl Strayed did. It still offers a chance to re-make and re-assert yourself, just in a way that is legible to society at large—a good option for people who don’t want to explain themselves constantly, and I’m guessing that’s a lot of people.
If your birth name means the world to you, if you wouldn’t think of giving it up, that’s great! I’m not trying to change your mind. But please don’t assume that anyone who takes her spouse’s name is a hopeless reactionary, religious zealot, or Stepford Wife.