Why should I change my name?

// 9 April 2013


Guest blogger Claire Rush argues the historical significance of taking on a married name.

‘Ooh I have forgotten your married name – what is it?’, one of my colleagues innocently asks. I feel my stomach tighten again and say, ‘I have decided to keep my own name, it hasn’t changed.’ I can see the information sink it as she laughs and flippantly says, ‘Oh yes, I forgot that you were one of THOSE feminists.’

She walks off.

I sigh.

Even in the ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’ age of 2013, women get socially stigmatised for not taking their husband’s name when they get married. A recent poll suggests that more than 90 per cent of women change their name when they get married. Women still receive social judgement when they do not follow the cultural norm. For example in the US, 10 per cent of the population feel that it demonstrates a lack of commitment to the marriage.

My husband Chris and I have been married for seven amazing months today and have been together for seven years. I always knew that if we got married, I wouldn’t take his name and become Mrs McClune. In fact, it was very important to me to keep my own name.

I am an historian. I study, explore and analyse our past, our history. Like many of you, I know the cultural origins of this tradition. For many centuries, marriage was an economic transaction. As simply chattel, a daughter was passed from being the property of her father to ownership of her husband. Husbands effectively bought wives with a dowry. Until the late Victorian era, married women in Britain had very little legal rights and could not even own their own property. In the past, the name change of a woman simply indicated a change in who ‘owned’ her.

Thankfully in the UK today, this is not a reality (yet in many cultures and societies, wives still do not possess much legal status). But after being immersed in studying the past for so long, I can’t shake it off. Assuming your husband’s name is a remnant of a patriarchal tradition which possesses important cultural symbolism, even today.

I am Claire Rush. I have looked at Claire Rush in the mirror for 29 years.

I like being Claire Rush.

My name is part of my identity. I am much more than a wife. I am a traveller, graduate, global citizen, social justice advocate, garlic-mayo lover… the list is endless. My identity shouldn’t just be defined by my male relations.

I agree with Guardian commentator Jill Filipovic: ‘Your name is your identity. The term for you is what situates you in the world. The cultural assumption that women will change their names upon marriage – the assumption that we’ll even think about it, and be in a position where we make a “choice” of whether to keep our names or take our husbands’ – cannot be without consequence… When women see our names as temporary or not really ours, when we understand that part of being a woman is subsuming your own identity into our husband’s; that impacts our perception of ourselves , and our role in the world… It disassociates us from ourselves and feeds into a female understanding of self as relational – we are not simply who we are, we are defined by our role as someone’s wife or mother or daughter or sister.’

Well said Jill!

As Claire Rush, I have gained three degrees. As Claire Rush, I have published a book. Why should I change my name? Professionally and personally, a name change has negative consequences in this technological age. For example, it may mean missed job opportunities if someone cannot find you on Google.

And on a practical note – it is expensive and a lot of hassle to change your name. It costs us money to change our passport, our driving license and other professional documentation.

My husband and I discussed the issue of our surname before we are married. I am grateful to have married a man who is secure in his own identity and who did not seem fazed by my wish not to become Mrs McClune. If it had been important to him to share our last name, he would have taken mine. And what about society’s compromise to our predicament? Claire Rush-McClune just doesn’t have the same ring to it? Eh?

Another trend is also immersing in the UK. This year 800 couples in the UK have already merged their surnames together according to the UK Deed Poll service. For example, actor Chris O’Dowd and TV presenter Dawn Porter meshed their names to become the O’Porters. Do you think that this is an innovative compromise? I remain unconvinced.

One group which I love explaining why the name on my Facebook or email hasn’t changed is the young women who I work with. Many of these young women haven’t yet started to question the origin of traditions. They simply accept assuming their future partner’s name as the cultural norm. I LOVE awakening them to the fact that they have choices.

I often feel judged when people scrutinize my decision to keep my own name. So this post is by no means to be judgemental to anyone else, feminist or non-feminist, who has taken their husband’s or partner’s name. Thankfully, feminism gives us choices!

What choice have you made? How have you negotiated the patriarchal traditions of marriage and relationships?

For me, not changing my name was one of the best decisions that I made.

The photo above is of an Edwardian couple in their wedding clothes. Thanks deflam for the photo.

Comments From You

Isla // Posted 10 April 2013 at 12:34 am

I got married 3 months ago. I have the same name I was given at birth. It infuriates me when women I know change their name without even thinking about it. I am a teacher so enjoy letting the children I teach know why I have not changed my name.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 10 April 2013 at 7:58 am

Historically, taking your husband’s names was also about identity; it was just that women were expected to merge their identity with their husband and so the name change symbolised that. In this constructions of female identity and legal status mirrored each other. Moreover, in a world where name was closely related to property, men also regularly changed their names to reflect changes in property ownership, occupation and more. In many ways, while just as patriarchal, name-giving and name-changing was much more fluid historically than today, where we have tied it to an individualised selfhood, rather than to a concept of family.

Also as a fellow Irish historian, I would like to point out that Irish (but not Anglo-Irish) women did NOT historically change their names. Neither did Scottish women. This was a 19thC trend in both countries, if not later. This was because these families liked to emphasise the linking of two families, rather than the merging of women into the conjugal unit. (It still wasn’t about individual female identity).

Just as a small segway, I’m quite interested in the way that name-changing has become a popular discussion point as an example of a patriarchal practice, but we no longer get similar discussions around marriage itself- is this not also patriarchal practice?

A-M // Posted 10 April 2013 at 9:09 am

I changed my name when I got married for a number of reasons.

On a political note, I never felt particularly attached to my maiden name. It was my father’s name, so I viewed it as no less patriarchal and with connotations of ownership than taking on one’s husbands name. I love my father, and have a very close relationship, but I would rather be associated with my husband as he’s the one I’ve actively chosen to be with, not simply been related to by chance. He is more of a reflection of me than my parents could be, as I am by definition a reflection of them. Relationships with others are not the only way I define myself, but they are important, and if I had to pick one to present to society as a judgement of myself, I’d pick my husband.

It did mean an awful lot to my husband that I willingly took his name, I do not think he had assumed I would. For that touching sentiment alone, I was happy to do it. He goes out of his way to do things that mean a lot to me too. That’s how loving, compromising relationships should work.

It didn’t cost me lots of money to change my name; it cost us as a couple a small amount of money to share the bill. That’s what marriage is all about. Anyway, it was a tiny amount compared to what most people spend on their wedding day!

On a very boring and pratical note, it’s nice to have a name I no longer have to spell out everytime! If you’re going to use Google as an argument for keeping your maiden name, I will argue that my married name makes me infinitely easier to find as it only has one accepted spelling!

Caro // Posted 10 April 2013 at 10:36 am

I’m getting married in July, and I will be taking my husband’s name. I thought very carefully about it, being both acutely aware of the derivation of this tradition, and also an empassioned feminist myself. The reasons I’ve chosen to take his name are fourfold.

Firstly, my profession does not require me (as yet) to publish – had maintaining a ‘googleable’ reputation been important to my career, I might have opted for the professional vs personal name.

Secondly, it’s important to me that my husband and I become a unit, and that when we have children, we all have the same name. It really means a lot to me.

Thirdly, the fiance has an AMAZING surname, whereas mine is pretty commonplace. Trading up!

Finally and most importantly – I think the objections raised only really apply if that’s what changing your name would mean to you. It’s absolutely a personal decision.

To me, taking my husband’s name is symbolic of us becoming a family, one team: had I had a cooler surname, he would have taken mine – what is important to us is that it’s the same. While it certainly used to represent being handed over, chattle style, that’s definitely not what it means to me.

The objections raised by the author are totally valid, and clearly mean something to her, so she made the right decision to keep her own name; just as they don’t mean that to me, so I’ve made the right decision by changing mine.

Angela // Posted 10 April 2013 at 11:37 am

Thanks for this post – I have thought about this from time to time.

I have been married for nine years, and though I didn’t officially change my surname, I adopted and do use my husband’s name. I find the concept and practice just fraught in itself, one way or another our surnames have come from our fathers, our mothers’ fathers or our new partner.. unless there are some exceptions, that I am unaware of – the comment above about irish women not changing their names though – so perhaps there is more to it also.

I do understand of course the name we grow up with and holding on to that, as you have.

For me, my family name represents/ed a patriarchal arrangement, especially on my father’s father’s side, I was so glad (at the time) to be embracing a new identity that didn’t have the same baggage. Thing is now, I have been thinking about using my real name more – but how does that go down? As an artist, I have a body of work associated with my ‘married’ name, ah so tricky.

I also wondered about children, do they just take the father’s surname (which is what seems to be what my friend’s have done) or the mothers? We all have my husbands surname, it feels more ‘together’, and I didn’t want to hyphenate names.

Thanks – you have given me more to ponder.

SallyT // Posted 10 April 2013 at 11:44 am

I read this piece with interest. I don’t understand how – given all your historical research – you chose to get married at all. My partner and I have rejected marriage as an outdated patriarchal construct, but we each adopted a NEW shared surname to make sure we had the same surname as our children. We remain happily unmarried with a “family” surname.

I genuinely can’t understand why a feminist would get married (please don’t take this as a personal attack, I’m just mystified by the comments too, all about surnames but ignoring the elephant in the room!).

Asiya Islam // Posted 10 April 2013 at 12:01 pm

Good article. A few things –

I am very clear that when I do get married, I wouldn’t take on my husband’s surname. I have been known to myself and everybody else as Asiya Islam, and intend to maintain that identity.

I was recently reading a book by an Indian feminist, Nivedita Menon, entitled ‘Seeing like a feminist’. She briefly discusses the issue of women being expected to change their surname after marriage and mentions a couple of things that I thought were extremely interesting –

1) Surnames are relatively new in India, having been introduced by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries. So, the expectation that a woman will take on her husband’s surname is very recent. Any family in India needs to think back only a couple of generations (for me, my grandmothers’ generation) to realise that ‘in those days’ women never changed their surnames post-marriage. I should also add that my grandmothers did not have their father’s surnames either. My dad’s mum has the surname ‘Khatoon’, which is simply a respectful way of referring to a woman.

2) Nivedita Menon writes that her students often bring up the argument that even if a woman doesn’t change her surname after marriage, her surname is still a man’s, that is, her father’s, surname. She responds by saying that she finds it strange that a man’s name (even though it is his father’s name) is always his own name, but a woman’s name is never be her own! I found her response quite befitting.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 10 April 2013 at 12:36 pm

Taking your husband’s surname on marriage is not particularly widespread. A fair whack of Europe doesn’t even follow this custom, let alone the rest of the world. Similarly, the concept of a ‘family surname’ that is inherited is not typical and neither is taking your father’s name.

Some of the diversity can be seen here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Married_and_maiden_names

Suz // Posted 10 April 2013 at 1:14 pm

I’ve been married a little over a month, and changing my name was never on the table.

1) Why did I get married in the first place? Practical reasons. If something were to happen to either of us, I wanted to ensure that we would be unquestionably each other’s next of kin. I didn’t want to leave any avenue for parents to be able to claim a greater interest in our lives than we had. There’s also the chance that we might have to move abroad with my career, and being officially married makes it just a little easier for him to come with me.

2) I have a lot of excellent reasons for not changing my name. I have publications and a whole googlable work history with my name. My name is unique. There’s no other person with my name on the internet, but there are several (not many, but still a few) of my first name with his last name. I like my name.

3) I have no good reasons to change my name. This is actually more important to me. I do have a list of reasons why not, but I don’t see why I should even have to enumerate them. If anybody wants to know why I didn’t change there name, perhaps they should start with giving (good) reasons why I should. Tradition isn’t. My husband wanting me to isn’t either. If my husband was the type to want me to change my name, either actively or with the insidious passivity of not minding but being oddly delighted when I “chose” to, he wouldn’t be a guy I would want to marry.

I’m also ok with my future family (if we choose to have children) not all having the same name. It’s not like my children will be harmed if they don’t share a name with both their parents.

5) But it’s your father’s name! While there is some truth in this, it’s also my name. I’ve been using this name for nearly three decades. My claim on it is valid, regardless of where it came from. It gets under my skin when people suggest that the fact that three decades ago my father passed his name on to his two daughters is a reason why I might as well discard it and those three decades of my life, and subsume my identity into that of my husband, as if those are equal options.

Josephine Tsui // Posted 10 April 2013 at 1:25 pm

Following Jill Filipovic’s article, has anyone been successful in having their male partners change their names?

Anna // Posted 10 April 2013 at 1:56 pm

I am surprised Claire encountered such reactions in her professional life. In my experience, academia is one of the few areas where it is absolutely ‘normal’ to keep your maiden name, largely because everyone understands it’s important to your career.

In fact, I’ve rather encountered opposite reactions from my female colleagues and academic friends. When I announced I was getting married, several made of point of letting me know how they felt on the issue, by saying something like “you’re not changing your name, are you?!”. I had planned to keep my maiden name all along, but I found their pushiness irritating. I would have definitely felt judged if I had decided to change my name.

It’s like Claire said – what feminism does is give you a CHOICE. It all depends on how you personally feel about your name, and it doesn’t make you a bad feminist if you decide to change it.

The Goldfish // Posted 10 April 2013 at 3:03 pm

I wrote about this recently. On my first marriage, my ex-husband and I kept our own surnames. In my second marriage, the two of us talked about it a lot, wished to share a surname for certain purposes (and not others) and after much discussion chose my husband’s. We also decided to add my surname as a middle name (like you two, we didn’t fancy double-barreling). I feel entirely comfortable with both these decisions, and whilst my first marriage was an unmitigated disaster, the name thing is no reflection of that fact.

I think it’s really important to tell our stories about this, because sharing experiences shows that all things are possible – and that’s what feminism is trying to achieve. I have problems with a lot of mainstream feminist discussions of this – Filipovic’s article talked about women “making excuses” for sharing their husband’s name, which strikes me as just as bad as your colleague’s snide remarks. It is a very personal issue to do with identity and family, and there’s social pressure which some people feel much heavier than others.

In the long term, given that some couples wish to share a name and certainly children need to be named, the only practical and fair scenario would be if some of us share/ give our children women’s names, and some give men’s. Most of the gay married couples I know share a surname, and folks don’t judge them as either sacrificing their identity or failing to make a commitment according to whose name they chose.

Flyover Feminism have done a great series on names and identity, including surnames, and they’ve collated the posts into a Tumblr here: Let’s Talk About Names.

Loveandp0ison // Posted 10 April 2013 at 5:50 pm

I didn’t change my name when I got married, and was astounded by people’s reactions to this. After repeatedly telling the registrars that I would not be changing my name, the celebrant at the wedding still introduced us as ‘Mr and Mrs X’ (and I use Ms instead of Mrs!). The company that we had a gift list with took it upon themselves to start addressing correspondence to ‘Mr and Mrs X’ after the date of the wedding even though I had not given them any indication that I wanted them to do this. Well meaning family friends still address cards to ‘Mr and Mrs X’, even though I’ve aired my views on the subject many times. When asked what my new surname would be, I replied ‘I’m not changing my name’ and was asked in response, ‘yeah, but what will your *real* surname be?’.

Like the writer of this article, I’ve had my name for a long time. It’s unique – I’m the only person in the world with this name (to my knowledge!) and I don’t want to lose that. As a feminist, I struggled with the idea of marriage, but came around to the idea as I began to see it as a signifier of a commitment to an equal partnership. While I believe that marriage as an institution can be free of its patriarchal overtones (at least once it is available to people in all relationships), I struggle to see how a woman taking a man’s surname can ever be.

But the next challenge for me, is what surname will our children take? I’m not in to double barrels.

maia // Posted 10 April 2013 at 6:18 pm

I’d like to start from where A-M mentioned the patriarchal origins of last names in the first place and insert my own peculiar history here: I am not married (my partner and I are considering it and will probably apply for a ‘different sex Civil Partnership’ as a form of protest) but changed my last name recently after coming to some sudden realisations about a long history of sexual abuse by my father. My mother died about ten years before these realisations. I chose to exit my father’s life and take my mother’s ‘maiden name’ as a statement that I am no longer affiliated with him or his name. The feminist in me recognises that my mother’s name is in fact her father’s name, but I find it infinitely more comfortable because nobody with that name has hurt me in this way, and it’s also a way of honouring her memory.

CBH // Posted 10 April 2013 at 6:19 pm

As many people above have said it’s not necessarily what the end result is (i.e. whether you keep your name/change to your husband’s name/ he take your name /go double barrelled/ make up a new one/use one name for home and one for work)

what matters is the process – when we decided to get married I didn’t want to lose my old name but I didn’t want us to have different names (and then to have to think about children’s surnames) and I didn’t want to ‘subjegate’ him by insisting that he take my name.

We talked about the meaning of our marriage to us which was about the joining together of two families with the prospect of creating our own family (with one family name) so for us the double barrelled option was right and my husband went double barrelled as well. We get a lot of flack for sounding posher than we are (and he took some stick from some friends initially). We can handle the flack because we are happy with our choice. It was right for us but feminism should allow variety and not be prescriptive – particularly when there are so many configurations of families.

A more practical issue is how married couples manage their finances and some of the arrangements I know about seem prehistoric

Beca // Posted 10 April 2013 at 10:21 pm

I’ve been reading this blog for a while, and I love it.

Beca // Posted 10 April 2013 at 10:47 pm

I completely feel your frustration! I didn’t even consider changing my name when I got married, and I was more than a little indignant when I found out that I had to fill out paperwork to keep the same name because Nebraska assumes that I would change it.

In regards to Loveandp0ison’s remark about not wanting to give children double-barrelled names, I ponder that as well.

I feel a bit conflicted when I think about naming kids. I feel strangely guilty that I want to give kids my name- people tell me that I’m being selfish and that if I want the kids to have my name, they can have it as part of a combined name. But all the same, I think that if I ever have kids, they will have my last name.

CBH // Posted 10 April 2013 at 11:28 pm

Re people’s fears about the double barrelled option – what are these fears? I guess some names go better together than others but we were prepared to take some flack for our principles – our children are now at an age when they ask about our surname and where it came from and we take pride in our rationale for it. They will decide for themselves what they do when/if they marry but I like the Spanish? idea of girls taking the female half of 2 surnames and boys taking the male half to create a new 2 name surname

part of being a feminist is challenging preconceptions and that includes prejudice against double barrelled names!

CBH // Posted 10 April 2013 at 11:30 pm

BTW Rush-McClune sounds fine to me and I don’t see how compromise is a bad thing? Especially not when it comes to relationships

tom hulley // Posted 11 April 2013 at 8:42 am

Malcolm X argued that enslaved people do not have names except those given by enslavers. Similarly, women do not have names except men’s names from husbands or fathers.

So why not choose a whole new name because even the female line of a family can only offer a series of men’s names. Maybe one day I will come across people with names like Sunita Superstar or Griselda Firestorm.

I have noticed that women in a partnership sometimes use both surnames while the men they partner stick to their own one.

Cycleboy // Posted 11 April 2013 at 3:13 pm

Ah, my favourite topic. This is something I’ve thought a great deal about and try to shoe-horn it into conversations, no doubt to the intense irritation of some of my friends.

A number of women here have given reasons why they changed their names. There are very good reasons why a person might want to change their name and I’ve dealt with them in the is article http://keepyoursurname.livejournal.com/. However, I have NEVER seen any reason that cannot be applied with equal validity to men. So, while an individual woman might have a valid reason to change, those reasons cannot be used as a justification as to why this is only ever discussed as being a woman’s issue.

Just to pick out one point, also made by Asiya Islam; how is it that a man becomes the OWNER of his surname at birth, but a woman is considered to merely borrow it?

Given that society thinks only women should change their surname, I guess it’s inevitable that this is discussed in women’s fora (forums?). However, I long for the day when as many men as women discuss this issue.

Cycleboy // Posted 11 April 2013 at 3:24 pm

Goldfish: “Filipovic’s article talked about women “making excuses” for sharing their husband’s name, which strikes me as just as bad as your colleague’s snide remarks”

While I would side with you, were anyone to critisise a woman for her personal choice, I think Filopovic was quite right, in that I believe she was referring to women – generally.

There are many valid reasons for a person to change their surname. However, there are no good reasons (that I’ve ever heard) why ONLY women should change their name. Ever reason a woman gives can be applied equally to men. The fact that they so evidently are NOT used by men I believe is the point Filipovic was making.

Cycleboy // Posted 11 April 2013 at 3:42 pm

tom hully: “I have noticed that women in a partnership sometimes use both surnames while the men they partner stick to their own one.”

You bring up an excellent point; one that I’ve been puzzling over for some time.

Given that your family and friends know whether or not you are married, the adoption of a single surname cannot be for their benefit, but for the wider society. Therefore, you are making a public statement. So, I would genuinely like to know what is Jane Brown saying to the wider public when she becomes Jane Brown-Smith, given that John Smith REMAINS John Smith? Or, perhaps more pointedly, WHY is Jane Brown announcing that she is Brown-Smith when John Smith does not make such a statement?

Cat W // Posted 11 April 2013 at 9:32 pm

I changed my name when I got married. I thought about it and decided for similar reasons as to why I got married in the first place that a) I see it as a family name and want to have the same name as my son and I believe instead of patriarchy nowadays its more a symbol of family unity and b) I believe that only from within what is perceived as a patriarchal framework can we change it for the best and show that men and women can be equal. I am representing that just because we have the same name I am still equal to my husband and not his possession. Don’t assume that because I took my husbands name I’m not a feminist or someone who is ignorant to the patriarchal society we live in!

Cycleboy // Posted 11 April 2013 at 10:55 pm

Cat W: All your reasons are perfectly valid. But, as I’ve said earlier, they could equally be applied to men.

For example, a man could equally validly say, “I took my wife’s name because I see it as a family name and want to have the same name as my son.” Yet, they don’t. I’m genuinely curious to know why they don’t and why (no doubt your good self excluded) so few women consider it either?

JP // Posted 15 April 2013 at 10:36 pm

I’m not taking my boyfriend’s surname when I get married for a number of reasons I won’t go into because they’ve all been discussed already! But the BF did come up with a rather excellent suggestion for something we might do instead. We’re thinking of asking his mother to choose me a middle name – that way I’ll have a name from both mums.

TracyMc // Posted 20 November 2013 at 7:49 pm

It didn’t really bother me, taking my husband’s surname BUT what infuriates me is when we receive mail that is addressed to both of us that has his full name on it…eg

Mr & Mrs D Fruit, my name does not begin with a D

Yes i changed my surname when i married but no way did i change my given birth name, this is my identity always will be.

Isn’t it enough that the majority of women change their surname?

This should be classed as discrimination

freomob // Posted 14 December 2015 at 3:10 pm

Bloke view: Before we married my wife indicated she would not be changing anything. A couple of months down the line she has chosen not to change anything official like bank accounts or driving licence etc, but now does answer to Mrs if anyone were to assume that’s her name. I think she likes the option of using whatever she feels at the time, although specifically for business reasons she says she will always use maiden name. In the end it makes no difference to me as the most important aspect of a marriage is the relationship. People know we are a married couple no matter what surname she uses.

And look here you can call yourself anything you want: http://www.deed-poll-name-change.co.uk/

Simon, UK

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