Name Changes?

April 12, 2004

Via Just One Bite I see that folks have dug up the old debate about whether or not women should change their names at marriage.

Eden suspects that if she were to remarry she would take husband's name. That confuses me, because she is a professional woman living and working on the East Coast, and as such is in the demographic most likely to retain their previous name.

J kept her last name, mostly because "thats me" and partially because she had the beginnings of a professional career and publication record under that name. Academics and professional women have changed their names without losing their careers for a long time, and folks do adjust, but for many the name change suggests that she will stop creating things and start raising children instead.

We compromise, she agrees that the kids teachers will call her Mrs Red Ted, I accept that her co-workers will call me Mr J, and the dry cleaners and other business establishments we frequent know us by the surname of the partner who first started dealing with the vendor.

In other words, we made a low-key decision and are living with it, much like Amanda Butler expects to do if and when she marries.

That seems to be a surprising choice considering some of the overheated rhetoric bouncing around the blogosphere. And, as everyone knows, people use blogs to post nothing other than well considered policy positions that have gone through an extensive editing and rethinking process and that the poster is willing to commit their life's work to implementing. Still, when Matthew Yglesias suggests that women be shamed into keeping their maiden names and his first commenter trolls that "If my wife doesn't want to take my last name, she can marry someone else" then there does seem to be a little heat in the question.

With comments like that, and with Dean Esmay and Sara at Diotima both complaining about feminist misogynists who insist that women who change their names are perpetuating male hegemony, it does appear that there is more to the question than simple practicalities.

It seems to me that the debate about whether she should change her name, and the relative balance of normative and practical decisions, is in many ways a debate about the meaning of marriage. If marriage is the creation of a single new organic whole then that whole should have a single collective name, in our society the man's name. If marriage is a collaberation of individuals to perform specific purposes - raising children, caring for one another, getting a tax break - then it is best to retain separate names.

The first conception of marriage is closer to that espoused by the folks who argue that marriage is the foundation of all society and that to mess with the institutions of marriage is to mess with the very basis of the commonwealth. It is a fine Reformation understanding of the institution. The second is a modern interpretation, the logical successor to companionate marriage, the new woman, and now same-sex marriage.

As a practical matter, living in a society with relatively easy divorce and a very high divorce rate, marriages are de facto in the second model already. The only meaningful debate we could be having is how to strengthen marriage as a companionship of equals.

And here we have a paradox. I believe that words matter, that the labels we use to describe the world shape the way the we understand and act on the world. But, where Matthew Yglesias would shame people into following his preferred model of the world, I am among those who argue that her decision about changing her name is a matter of preference and practicalities.

If you live in Boston where it is common for women to keep their maiden name, then you face one set of assumptions and norms. If you live in rural Virginia where women almost never keep their names you face another set. The name decision can not be made in a vacuum nor can it be made based on national norms or national data. It is a personal decision and thus a local decision.

We have met a fair number of folks in Jersey, especially the traditional Catholic sections of Jersey, who are completely baffled by the different names. Academic folks, by contrast, take it as a matter of course.

In any case, J is keeping her last name because it makes her happy to do so.

Edit - typo'd Dean's last name.

Posted by Red Ted at April 12, 2004 10:25 AM | TrackBack

I asked the GM1 the other night if, had it been the trend when we married, if he would have wanted to change his name to mine. He said he had no problem with it. Out of curiousity, I asked him his reasons, as most men I know would have answered otherwise.
"At the end of the day" he explained, "I know your true name, and you know mine. What other people call us is kind of trivial, far as I'm concerned."
How can I resist a romantic answer like that? :)

Posted by: LeeAnn at April 12, 2004 01:32 AM

Thanks for taking note of my post and adding more interesting commentary, Ted. I specifically chose to sidestep the heated debate going on elsewhere in the blogosphere because it all seems so silly to me. Names are deeply personal, but most of us relate more intensely to our first name than our last. I would guess that is more true of women, who grew up with the assumption that someday they would bear a different surname -- witness the prevalence of lovesick high school doodles that feature a girl's first name partnered with the letters splashed across the quarterback's jersey.

While in my BDSM play, a name is about ownership, in daily life I would be unlikely to marry a man who had a strong opinion about my last name, so it won't be an issue.

As for professional life, my maiden name would live on as long as I was at this company, because I would not change my e-mail address. I'd expect people to continue to call me by it at work, and I'd be listing both names for years on articles and at speaking engagements. Eventually, though, I'd shed it like a snake sheds a skin -- emerging no different, but again recognizable as myself.

Posted by: Eden at April 12, 2004 11:37 AM

Thanks for the linkage there, Ted. But, psst, the name starts with an "E". [grin]

By the way, here's an interesting trivia question for you: Who is the only First Lady who never changed her name to her husband's?

Answer: Eleanor Roosevelt. How? Her family name was Roosevelt in the first place. She and Franklin were something like 4th cousins. ;-)

There was a time when the main reason to change your name was to signal to bachelors that you were unavailable: you could call yourself Mrs. and identify your husband by his name. That and the tradition of a man and wife coming to one flesh seems to have been the real reason for the change, and not the notion that women are "property," which has never really been the case in Anglo-American culture. And regardless of the tradition, an awful lot of young girls wind up fantasizing about it anyway, as Eden notes.

I do note a lot of women who do sort of shed the maiden name slowly over a period of years, as Eden suggests. I find that interesting.

Posted by: Dean Esmay at April 12, 2004 11:49 AM

I belong in the first of your two camps, but I don't see separate names as incompatible with it.

OTOH, in the highly unlikely event that I ever get caught^H^H^H^H^H^Hmarried, unless her name is Mxlyzptlyk I'm going to use her name. Actually I'd rather that we both changed our names to a mutally-agreeable choice, even though that's kind of Californian.

Posted by: DFH at April 12, 2004 12:04 PM

Dean, Whoops sorry. Fixed the goof in an edit.

Eden, I know you are frustrated at blogging into a vacuum now that you changed email. I read your stuff daily; I think about it often, I have not been blogging often enough to give you feedback. Keep on chugging!

Posted by: Red Ted at April 12, 2004 12:49 PM

I wouldn't have any hesitation using his name. Mostly because I don't have a business association with my name, but also because my surname name is Long, uncommon, and easy to mis-pronounce. I wish I had a nickle for every time I was asked to spell my last name. "Can ya spell that?" Sure, I can spell it. I do it All The Time.

I sign my name first-initial, last-name on credit card receipts, otherwise it a) takes too long and b) I don't have enough space. I hope I find a nice guy with a last name that has 4-6 letters in it.

IMO, whatever people want to do with their names upon marriage is their business, and their business alone. But I also don't think people should get offended if they receive a Holiday Greeting Card addressed to Mr. and Mrs. so-and-so, if the senders have not been previously notified of arrangements to the contrary.

Posted by: Me. at April 13, 2004 01:15 AM

Considering the divorce rate in this country, I understand why some women donít want to change their names. Personally, I intend to use my husband's last name. Partially to follow through with tradition, but also because I intend to have children and I want there to be no confusion when dealing with external agencies (i.e. schools, health care agencies, etc.). With that said, I do intend to still use my maiden name. No I'm not going to hyphenate. That just causes further confusion down the road. I just plan to make my maiden name my middle name.

Posted by: Ursula at April 13, 2004 05:34 AM

Personally, I can't understand why women change their names after marriage? Should I ever get married, I wouldn't even think of it...but a lot of women don't feel the same...I honestly can't even understand why children don't take the mother's name more often...again, should I ever choose to breed, my children are getting MY name (or at least my girl will while the boy can have the father's last name).

I don't buy into the arguement that "it's easier". I have my mother's last name, she kept her's, and it's not been a problem. Granted she's divorced. However, I can't see how a family having two last names within it would be such a big concern...I know a few families that have children with different last names and it doesn't cause any problems.

Some traditions just die slowly...but I'm glad it's happening!

Posted by: Cat at April 14, 2004 01:38 AM

In my first marriage, I took my husband's surname. When we got divorced, I originally intended to keep his name, but changed my mind when I met DanglyBits - I didn't want to be married to him and have another man's name (though he was fine with that). So, I went back to my family name (my father's surname).

We did talk about picking a third name that we would both either take whole-heartedly or hyphenate onto our existing names, but we couldn't agree on one.

When we went to Dangly's high school reunion, I became "Mrs DanglyBits" because otherwise nobody would know who I belonged with. When we go to my high school reunion next year, he will be "Mr TwiddlyBits" for the same reason. We've both answered to both names. (One time, Dangly even had to answer to "Mr Twiddly'sPreviousHusband'sName" since it was still my legal name at the time.)

All in all, I kept my family name after our marriage for 2 reasons: 1) I didn't want to have 3 surnames in one year; and 2) I was just beginning my artistic career and it was a good chance to pick a name and stick with it.

Posted by: TwiddlyBits at June 5, 2006 09:25 PM
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