What’s In a Name?

Juliet could not marry Romeo because of a long-standing family feud between her family (the Capulets) and his family (the Montagues). She laments that if it weren’t for the name “Montague” their love could survive  – “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Brides from the 80’s to the present do feel that names matter and often put much thought into whether of not to take their husband’s birth name or retain their own.

History Lesson from Jolly Old England

The heterosexual tradition of the wife taking the husband’s name is based on English common law that held a husband and wife are one “person” under the law – resulting in the end of the wife’s separate legal existence – along with all her “single person” rights. Wives were considered “chattel” and were essentially owned by their husbands. This name change heritage is the reason many feminists beginning in the 70’s retained their birth names.

What to Name my Married Self?

It was 1984 and I was tempted to change my last name to my husband’s – primarily because it is a common name that is easy to pronounce and spell. I toyed with my options – use his name, keep my birth name or do a hyphenated combo – a new naming option that was becoming popular among baby boomer feminists seeking to make a statement about their independent value as wives.

Ultimately I decided to stay with my birth name because that was who I was and that was the statement I chose to make.

I’m glad I did not decide on the hyphenated option – based on the horror stories of friends who did – including confusion with governmental forms and transactions and pharmaceutical prescriptions – to name just a few.

In a bow to tradition, we gave our daughter her father’s last name.

What Goes Around

Fast forward some 20 years and my daughter faced the same decision. She and her husband pondered creating a new last name that was different from either one’s. But when the time came to make the decision, they chose to keep their own birth names.

30-Something Professionals

Two of my nieces, an attorney and a physician, who married within the last 10 years, each decided to change to her husband’s name. Their reasons for changing  were the same –  their husband’s names were easy to spell and pronounce and they wanted the same last name as their children for school and medical communication. They commented that in this day and age, name change is no longer the feminist “statement” that it was in my day. They are both feminists in their own right and make no apologies for changing their last names. It is noteworthy that their mother also changed her name – so tradition may have had something to do with it too.

A Change of Heart

A professional colleague of mine recently celebrated her 20th wedding anniversary. She did not change her name when she married even though her husband wanted her to do so at the time. She is a feminist and wanted to maintain her identity. However, after 20 years, she decided to change her last name as a “gift” to him and in acknowledgement of their love and successful marriage. Surprise . . . surprise . . . although he was deeply touched by her sentiment, he told her that he had gotten used to her name and valued the independence it stood for and wanted it to be an example for their own daughter.

One Couple’s Thought Process

My husband and I both wanted to have the same name as each other. For us, it was a way of expressing our . . . unity / solidarity – an emblem of our family-ness that we wanted to present to the world – also it is easier if you are going to have kids – avoids awkwardness and confusion with teachers, etc. That said, we did not automatically use my husband’s name – we considered combining our names to come up with a new name but that would make it hard for descendants who might want to do some family genealogy and no combination of our names sounded good – one combo was the name of a famous drag queen! We then discussed using my name but ultimately our decision to use my husband’s name came down to consideration of our fathers. My husband’s father is sentimental and wanted to see his name survive – my father wasn’t particularly concerned about his name dying out.

Same Sex Marriage

A 40-something lesbian couple, who are friends of mine, decided to have one name and to use the name of the wife whose grandmother survived the Armenian genocide during and after WWI. At 6 years old, her grandmother witnessed the shooting of her family by Turkish soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. Children not shot were put in a boat and taken out to sea to be drowned. The soldier in charge of her grandmother’s boat could not execute the plan and instead set the children free. Her grandmother was taken in by a local family of Turks and passed as Turkish until at 15 she was taken as a bride by an Armenian soldier who took her to America where she lived to age 93. Proud of her grandmother and her heritage, this couple will continue the Armenian legacy – even though her name is more difficult to pronounce and spell. This couple, married after the Supreme Court’s recent decision approving same-sex marriage, wanted to make their own statement – not about feminism but about remembering the genocide and her grandmother’s struggle.

Another lesbian couple I know decided that each would change her last name to the birth name of one of their mothers. The mother they chose raised her daughter by herself after her husband left home. As tradition had it at the time, the daughter was given the father’s  birth name. Now this daughter wants to honor her mother by making her mother’s birth name the family name for her new family – two moms and two children – each mom giving birth to one child and both children having the same sperm donor.

As for men, the literature suggests that it is uncommon for gay men to change their names when they marry surmising the reason due to the fact that boys, unlike girls, grow up never expecting to change their name.

Interestingly one of my gay friends told me that some gay couples who have a child chose to give the child the father’s name that is most “WASPish” in a belief that such a name will give their child a “leg up” in getting along in a world where bias still exists.

Other Countries

Italy – by law spouses keep their birth names

Greece – by law women are required to keep their birth names

Germany – the couple must choose either name as a “family” name

Spanish-speaking countries – children receive both parents’ names

Japan – the law doesn’t recognize different surnames for married couples

China – wife keeps her birth name but children take husband’s surname

What is Happening Now and What Does it Mean?

According to a 35 year study published in 2009 in the journal Social Behavior and Personality  a woman’s decision to retain her birth name reached its highest point of about 23% in the mid-90’s and the percentage has been declining ever since – down to about 18% at the time of the study.

I’m not sure what this all means – it could mean that most women today are comfortable with spousal equality in marriage and no longer feel compelled to make a statement – it could mean that they agree with Juliet that no matter their name, their marriage, like Juliet’s rose, will “smell as sweet”. Or, it could be a manifestation of an anti-feminism pendulum swing. Whatever the case with hetero-sexual couples, we are likely to see more name creativity among gays and lesbians now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land.

Song for This Post (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself – I love this song! “Just Like Romeo and Juliet” from 1964)




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