Friday, October 15, 2010

Should Women Change Their Surnames?

Mulling over this topic in the last few days, I’ve come to learn that most people seem to hold very strong convictions regarding the issue of maiden names and whether or not a woman should renounce her surname to adopt her husband’s.

There are women who base their convictions upon solid, feminist ideals; women are marrying much later, building up a professional career attached to their original names and don’t see how a man’s name should have any more importance or significance than their own. Then there are women who nestle in the reverence for tradition, accusing others of being too radical or too sensitive, romantic or nostalgic about the idea of taking their husbands’ surnames and feeling warm and fuzzy about one day seeing their shiny, new names printed elegantly on the front of a wedding invitation.

Asking my male friends of their opinions, I’ve learnt also that there is no lack of men delicate about this issue, considering it to be deeply insulting and claiming that a woman rejecting her husband’s name would be an absolute deal breaker. This comes with little surprise of course; very few men seem to have detached themselves from the primitive fixation with marking just about anything. Climbing the Great Wall earlier this year, I remember watching almost every man in my tour group determinedly scribbling their names on the ancient bricks with thick, black marker pens. One of them, with a good humoured self-awareness, joked that he was waiting for me to turn away so that he could later pee on it. I still don’t doubt today that given the privacy, he might’ve actually done just that.

Today we see various alternatives to the tradition, with some women choosing to use their husbands’ names in their social lives and their maiden names in their professional. Some couples meet halfway and hyphenate their names, while others even blend the two names together to create an entirely new one. Then of course, some women choose to keep their maiden names altogether. However, with all these alternatives arise some very obvious complications, and as for the feminists who passionately argue (and quite understandably) that gender equality cannot be achieved until naming practices are ‘equal’, one cannot help but imagine the conundrums; how can we achieve this in a practical sense?

With separate surnames, there is the dilemma surrounding which one would be given to their children. Blended names not only require a good amount of creativity if your names are something other than Jones or Smithfield, they can also take away the resonance of cultural and ethnic heritage. As for hyphenated names, at which point would you finally stop linking name after name? Imagine a few generations down the track, signing your name on the dotted line only to have it spill right off the page. Our names, whether or not we choose to deny it, play a large role in identifying who we are, but with all the complexities nowadays, would it be so outrageous if we all just changed our names to our first names followed by the digits of our drivers’ licences?

In the end, it just comes down to compromise. At the moment, I plan on keeping my surname, not because of heated feminist ideals but because of how strongly I identify myself as being part of my family. As for the potential complications, I will cross that bridge when I come to it.

*Published in Trespass Magazine, 15 October 2010


  1. If boys took their father's surname and girl's took their mother's surname, you could have male and female surnames. I wonder if any cultures do that.

  2. I think this should be completely up to the woman to decide, if she wants to stay with only her own name, if she want to take the husbands name, or use both. Another question is which sunames to give to the kids. I f the kids have both surnames (like mine have), the next generation would potentially get 4 surnames, and after that 8 >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  3. I must be the world's most ambivalent person on this topic, because here's the deal. My last name is sort of hard to spell. So if I married someone with an easier last name, I'd take theirs - hands down. But if their name was longer, harder to spell or just ugly, I'd keep my own.

    Maybe that's not actually ambivalent, but shallow. ;)

  4. My husband was shocked when I said I likely wouldn't be changing my name after we married - as a writer, I enjoyed the simplicity of my maiden name AND I had begun to build an identity of a writer under this name. But when I actually did get married, I fell a bit under the romantic spell of being his "mrs" and have conceded slightly... Although my maiden name is used professionally, I TRY and go with my married name for day-to-day stuff. That being said, it's been over a year and I haven't gone through and changed my last name on official documents. I just swoon a little when he calls me Mrs. Dalton :-)

  5. My ex-wife did not want to take my surname. It offended me a bit a the time, though it should have be a clear indication of her commitment to the marriage if you ask me.

    She settle on hyphenating her last name, which I had no problem with. It turned her last name into a long unwieldy Italian nightmare but that was her choice.

    After years of marriage she again change her name and dropped the hyphenation and took my surname. One would have thought that showed a sign of strengthening to the marriage.

    A few years later her dad died, she inherited thousands and abruptly divorced, making sure to change her name back. It was an important statement for her.

    If I EVER get married again I won't care if she takes my surname or not but I certainly will be aware of WHY she decides.

  6. I don't have strong feelings on this matter, except that hyphenated names drive me crazy. I can only imagine the poor, confused kids when they have to write their last names out on school assignments. I changed my name, for different reasons and strictly by personal choice, when I married. I don't regret it, though I was beyond thrilled to get my name back when the divorce went through.

  7. I have to say that I do like my name and prefer it to many of the names I've seen in the world. At the same time, I think it would get a little silly if every woman kept her name and gave their kids hyphenated names. What happens when their daughter want's to marry. Does she hyphenate her hyphenated name with her husband's name? Then what about her daughter? Does she hyphenate her hyphenated hyphenated name. It would go on and on.


  8. It's the whole ownership thing is it not? Ownership of women and much more importantly...the ownership of the offspring.
    Since the dawning of time men have taken and owned women and the children they produce.
    These days we see that for the folly it is but will it change just because a few enlightened people see that it should?...the name issue is just a tiny bit of the overall.
    In many countries men can still rape and even murder their wives without concern and here we are bitching about the use of a surname...

  9. For me, there was never any question of not taking my husband's surname. It was no big deal, just seemed the thing to do. I don't regard it as an ownership thing, but it felt right to me. But then I regard myself as more than a mere name, so maybe that's why it didn't bother me.

  10. I am my wife's second marriage. She hyphenated her name, however her maiden name is on neither end of the hyphen; her name is hyphenated with her first husband's and my surnames.

    When my daughter married, she took her husband's last name but retained her surname as her middle name. A prudent choice in that she married a man named Smith.

  11. I ended up taking my maiden name as my middle name, then adopting my husband's last name as mine, too. It's worked out pretty well for me. I feel like I've still held onto my identity while embracing a new one.

  12. IMO the word "should" word in the title of your post is misleading and the word "could" would have been a better choice. It's entirely up to the woman whether or not she wishes to change her surname upon marrying. Moreover, it's inappropriate for anyone else to make this decision or her behalf, or to pressure her into making the choice to retain her maiden name, or to change her surname to her husband's surname, or to choose to create a hyphenated surname that reflects both her maiden name and her husband's surname.

    I'm a baby boomer and most of my girlfriends made the choice to retain their maiden names. Our partners did not pressure us to make the choice to take their surnames. Some made the choice to have hyphenated surnames but I thought that was silly and so did my partner. Only a few chose to take their husband's surname. Our parents did not necessarily approve of not changing our surnames to our husband's but as we were marriageable age we simply listened to their blah, blah, blah and then went on to make our own decision.

    I did not choose to change my surname upon marriage and there was no dilemma involved in the decision making process for me or my partner. The connotation attached to changing my surname smacked of losing my identity, and agreeing to my partner "owning" me to both of us. We also knew that I could legally use my husband's surname if I wanted to without officially changing my own surname so that's what I opted to do years after the fact. I'm currently known by two surnames.

    Remarkably, over 30 years later only 3 couples we know who married at the same time or close to the same time that we married are still together today. Those who made either the hyphenated name choice or the husband's surname choice have changed partners and surnames more than once and have children by different fathers who have various surnames. Keeping up with their name changes has been a challenge.

  13. @ the comment above me. "could" women change their surnames is stupid. Of course they can.


  14. I think if I had been older when I had married I would have hyphenated my last name, but I got married at my college sweetheart that I met when I was 17. I didn't know who I was or who I wanted to be...

    Great post!

  15. I like Gorilla's suggestion...But for kids, I think it is nice if their kids share a "family" name. My opinion? That family name should be whichever the couple chooses--wife's or husband's. (Oh, think of the problems for future geneologists!)

    I didn't feel strongly one way or the other, and I took my husband's last name. Traditional? Definitely. But I also liked the idea of completely "joining" his family. It seemed part of the union to me. I DID keep my maiden name as my middle name.

    I don't understand the "could" comment either. Does Time mean legally, morally, socially? I get that it is everyone's own choice, but "could?"

    Who would have thought this subject would be so RAW!


  16. I never thought that this was an issue....I guess because I never faced it. My wife accepted my name which made it easier as far as the kids were concerned. And I guess that would be my only concern...what impact would differing last names...or multiple last names have on the kids. Otherwise I simply wouldn't care.

    Interesting post and it made me stop and think.

  17. Interesting issue. In some cases I get why people do it. But in most cases it just makes life more complex.

  18. interesting post.,,
    my best friend got married last year she didn't change her surname and i did:-)...well i personally believe(may be its somehow submissive).When you opt someone's name you not only give him importance but also assign him a task of caring you and loving you.

  19. I didn't change my surname when I got married. It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me why it's just taken for granted that I should change mine. But, the kid thing will make it more complicated.

  20. Sorry about the formatting in that last comment. Not sure what happened.

  21. When this topic is discussed, I am always astonished at the assumptions people make, yet they don't even seem to be aware they are making any assumptions. Everyone seems to assume it is a question women need to address, never men. Why? Well, obviously most of the Anglo-Saxon world has grown up with the idea of having a single family name, yet this is only 1000 years old. It's certainly not Biblical (or Qur'anic). And yes, it has traditionally been the woman who has changed her surname. However, apart from the argument of habit, why do we still do it?

    Try inverting the situation. Would a man “just swoon a little when he calls me Mr Hername”? If not, why not? Would a woman state “My ex-huasband did not want to take my surname. It offended me a bit a the time, though it should have be a clear indication of his commitment to the marriage if you ask me.”? No? Why not? Why do men not say, “So if I married someone with an easier last name, I'd take theirs.”?

    I could go through all the comments on this thread using the same inversion technique, but I'll resist the temptation. The thing is, we seem to presume either that women have some biological 'need' to show their marrital status to the world or that men have a biological 'need' to metaphorically brand their family. Yet, as I've said, this is very young, evolutinarily speaking, so cannot be coded into our genes.

    And neither is it universal. The Spanish speaking world doesn't do it. Nor, I'm told, do the Chinese, Arabs or Iranians (at least, not traditionally). So, that's probably at least half the world's population. In Iceland, a family with a boy and girl would have 4 entirely different surnames, yet their society hasn't collapsed. The banks may have, but not the family. So, clearly, the lack of a unifying surname is NOT a pre-requisite for either stability or unity, as far as the family is concerned.

    Nor is genealogy an issue. To trace a family line you need records. It doesn't make any difference what-so-ever whether you change your surname or not, as long as the records are correct.

    Now, I'm not telling women (or men) what they should or should not do, but I am asking them to be clear in their own mind as to he reasons they give for the choices they make.

    So, I ask the question again; why are we still doing it?