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By the Power Vested in Me, I Vow to Keep my Name

Have you ever done something “because it’s tradition” without really realizing where the tradition comes from? Every culture practices traditions passed down over generations. But few of us examine deeply the sometimes disturbing practices and historical meanings that some traditions reflect.  In this post, Sarah Nell examines the common practice of women changing their names upon marriage.

I got married when I was 25, which 13 years later seems awfully young. Although I had “girl power” feminist leanings at the time, and rejected completely a June Cleaver future, I was madly in love and did not yet consider the feminist implications of my choices. Specifically, I did not see the point of keeping my own last name. I considered it, but at that time in my life taking my future husband’s last name seemed like the right thing to do. It’s what most women do. And more people expected me to change my name than not. In fact, some people would have been dismayed if I didn’t  change it.

The practice of women taking their husband’s last name is an old tradition that goes back to a time[1] when women were viewed as the property of men, just like the cows and chickens given as dowry. Marriage, then, was not an arrangement based on mutual love, rather it was a business transaction. In this context, women were commodities traded or exchanged for debts.

Over the years, the meaning of the name changing practice has changed. That is, my father and husband certainly did not view me as property to be transferred from one man to the other (though the rituals we performed suggest otherwise). Today,  the practice of women taking their husband’s name is a symbolic gesture that reflects a couple’s desire to share a common name for their family unit. That seemed reasonable to me. So I did it. I took his name.

It didn’t take long for me to regret my choice.

I realized I’d given into a historically and profoundly patriarchal tradition.  Like many others, I believed in the idea that marriage was “until death do us part.” As it turns out, my marriage did not last until death. Here I am, no longer married, but still very much alive. And I have a name that isn’t mine.

Why must I be a maiden OR a Mrs.? Must my name depend on my relationship to a man?

Upon the decision to divorce, I considered keeping my married name, or returning to my maiden name. But the more I thought about it, the more questions I had. Why must I be a maiden OR a Mrs.?  Must my name depend on my relationship to a man? Why do we assume that the deep attachment and pride men feel about their names and identities are not also felt by women? What does it say about women’s contributions to the family that only men can “carry on the family name”? Why do we expect women to abandon their names and their identities in ways we would never expect men? How have we internalized this practice, and why do we perpetuate it?

My married name bothered me. It wasn’t my name after all—it was his.  As a writer in a profession where I am more likely to be known by my name than by my face, I realized that I did not want a constant reminder of a bygone day. I did not want people to know me by his name. I want to be known by my name. Attaching his name to my work seemed disingenuous. I wanted to shed the name I acquired upon marriage, for all its symbolic weight–the remnants of the sexist tradition and the weight of carrying around the name of a man I no longer identify with.

I considered changing it back to my maiden name.  But must I go back to my father’s name when my husband’s no longer fits, especially when I disagree with this practice to begin with? Is a man’s name my only option?  I viewed my choice to divorce as a forward-moving step; if I paired it with a backwards-moving name change, would I feel defeated rather empowered? Like a failure at marriage who had to go back home?  I am not a failure, nor does my identity depend on my relationship to a man. I am a person and a scholar, independent from a father or husband. I did not want any man’s name—in part to preserve my own independent self, and in part to poke a metaphorical finger in the eye of patriarchy which suggests I should.

I needed a new name. I considered taking the first name of my dear and beloved paternal Grandma, Lorraine, as a last name.  This would be an honor to my grandmother, a meaningful name that I would never abandon, and a symbolic gesture of feminism by shedding the men’s names by which I’ve been identified and known. After all, this woman gave birth to my father, whose last name I bore for the first 25 years of my life.

I also considered adopting my middle name (Nell)  as my last name (as I’ve done here at SociologyinFocus). It’s the name I was given by my parents—mother and father—when I was born. In fact, my middle name was given to me to honor the woman who gave birth to my father’s father, who thus also bore the same last name as I did until I married. I still like both of these options a great deal. But practically speaking, renaming myself is cost-prohibitive and involves additional layers of bureaucracy, time, and energy.

Upon deeper consideration, now years in the thought process, I have made a decision. Although the last name I was given at birth did come from my father, this name does not only belong to the men in the family. It was also the name of my father’s mother and his father’s mother, and is the name of my mother. Most importantly, it was my name for most of my life. And so it is again.

Although my identity dilemma has been a very personal and intimate experience for me, it actually reflects a much larger cultural reality.

Although sorting out my name/identity dilemma has been a very personal and intimate experience for me, it actually reflects a much larger cultural reality. That is, what does it say about our culture that we cling to traditions without regard to their oppressive roots? Allan Johnson calls this “taking the path of least resistance[2].”

When I got married and changed my name, I chose a path of least resistance without thinking much about how this seemingly small practice reproduced gender inequality. When I announced my marriage and new name, everyone congratulated me.

The announcement this time, however, is harder. While divorce was definitely the right decision, I am not beaming, “I got divorced!” at the DMV or the bank. Changing my last name symbolically announces to the world, not just those close to me, that I experienced a failed marriage. The cultural stigma of divorce remains harsh enough to induce shame, even though my divorce is not something I am or should be ashamed of. Had I kept my name to begin with, I would have escaped this dilemma and simply moved on with my life. Instead, I had to spend precious energy thinking about the implications of my name, whatever I chose. Upon marriage or divorce, this is not something we expect men to grapple with.

I write this blog with the hope that others will learn something from my experience. Norms and traditions persist because we go along with them, often without thinking about why they exist, what consequences they may create and for whom, or what other possibilities exist. You will find plenty of reasons people give for why a woman should change her name. I urge you to consider all the reasons a woman shouldn’t, and all those reasons that the choice to do so should be based on a conscientious decision, rather than an archaic, sexist tradition[3].

Dig Deeper:

  1. Ask your friends and family—both women and men—if they did or will change their name, and how they came/will come to that decision. How do they react to these questions? What does this say about the internalization of archaic traditions?
  2. Do you know any married women who kept their names? Do you know any divorced women who kept their married names? Do you know any couples who have created a new name for their family, including hyphenating or combining their names?  Ask them how and why they made this choice.
  3. Have you, or do you plan to change your name upon entering or exiting a relationship? Why or why not? What might your decision signal to those around you?
  4. I’m grateful for feminism not only for allowing me to examine the deeper meanings—and consequences—of such traditions, but for so much more. For instance, thanks to feminism, I can support myself financially, without a man, in a satisfying career. Thanks to feminism, I don’t have to stay in a marriage in which I am unhappy. Thanks to feminism, I know I deserve to be respected, supported, and encouraged. Thanks to feminism, I have a community of people who understand not only my desire for more, but also my worthiness of more. What three things can you thank feminism for? Explain your answers. 

  1. To be sure, the idea that women are property is still very much apparent across the globe.  ↩

  2. Allan Johnson, The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy  ↩

  3. Read more in chapter 3 of Michael Schwalbe’s The Sociologically Examined Life  ↩