Mrs. What? Deliberation On Women Changing Their Name After Marriage
I recently got married. We had a beautiful wedding with gorgeous flowers and great food; all night my husband and I got to dance and celebrate with people we love. Everything, from the wedding planning to last-minute preparations went according to plan. Everything went smoothly, that is, except one thing.
Right up until our wedding, I couldn’t decide if I was going to change my last name.
I knew lots of other women found themselves conflicted when faced with this question, stuck between issues of tradition and individuality and feminism and expectation. For a lot of women, it can be a hard decision to make. But I felt extra pressure because, well, I had already technically changed my name once.
Let me back up.
Originally, my parents gave me my dad’s last name, but my dad wasn’t always in the picture. I never really liked having a name that was different from my mom (who had kept her maiden name) and since my Dad was adopted, I was stuck with a surname that I not only felt little connection to, but also one that didn’t fit my cultural background.
So, by the time I got to high school, I decided enough was enough. I had a friend who had both of her parents’ last names, and I loved that. Having two last names is common practice in many cultures, and I loved the idea of passing on both parent’s names, showing equality in marriage and parenting. But I also loved the idea of sharing a name with the only family really I knew (while still keeping my other last name to avoid confusion on college applications). When I turned 18, I gathered all my birthday money and everything in my bank account, marched myself to the courthouse, and I changed my one last name to two.
Now, I had both names on my driver’s license, but socially and professionally, I used my mom’s family name: Pretzel. For me, it felt like a good compromise between birth and family, and it worked out well.
That is, until I got married.
As soon as I got engaged, the first thing almost everyone asked me was what my new last name would be.
Not, “Congratulations,” not, “Best wishes,” not, “Will you have an open bar at your reception?” (which is usually my first question); it was always about my name.
The problem was, even though I was clearly not opposed to the idea of a name change, I never considered doing it when I got married.
I mean, my mom didn’t change her name. Most of my mom’s friends didn’t change their names. Chrissy Teigen and Emily Blunt didn’t change their names, and look at their relationships — what dreams are made of.
In truth, it didn’t even occur to me that the tradition was still even “a thing.” I knew plenty of women who changed their names in marriage, but the tradition always felt old, stuffy, and regressive. I was always sure that by the time I got married, the old woman-takes-a-man’s-name idea would have died out. The last remaining relic of women being traded for cows and what not would finally bite the dust.
But even now in 2019, the tradition is thriving. We’ve got fourth-wave feminism and #MeToo, but something about a woman changing her name won’t quit. After all, Victoria Beckham changed her name in 1999, Human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin changed her name to Clooney in 2014. Heck, even Demi Moore’s last name comes from her first marriage.
But that’s not all. According to a Google Consumer Survey, only 20% of women who married in 2015 kept their name (another 10% hyphenated).
For comparison, in 1970, 17% of women kept their names, 14% in the 80s, and 18% in the 90s. According to a 2009 study, the percentage of American women who chose to keep their names peaked at 23% at one point in the 1990s. So, the practice of keeping one’s maiden name doesn’t seem to be on the rise, in fact, it might be falling.
And it’s not like women are being forced into changing their names; some women can’t wait to do it. I have a couple friends who got engaged around the time I did, and they were both so excited about it that they each spent small fortunes buying mugs and pillow covers and t-shirts with “Mrs. [new last name]” printed on them.
I started to wonder if maybe I’d missed something. Maybe I hadn’t considered some detail and, if I didn’t change my name, I’d regret it. All these women can’t be wrong, right?
I started to look into arguments for and against a marital name change. After hours of talking to married friends and even more hours sitting at my computer with a glass of wine and an endless supply of articles from Google, I made a list.
I found that some of the main reasons most women wanted to change their names were because:
1. Tradition: Their mother changed her name, their grandmother changed her name, and their great grandmother changed her name. They feel it’s nice to be a part of a tradition that has lived for so long.
2. Ease: Traveling will be easier; their mailbox will say something simple like, “The Greens.”
3. Upgrade: The OG surname was too long/hard to spell/associated with an estranged side of the family.
4. Romantic: Symbolizes a commitment to life-long love.
5. Disappointment: How would their spouse feel? Even if the wife doesn’t feel strongly about the name change, it might be important to her partner.
But on the other hand, there were a lot of great reasons against a name change. Some of the women who decided not to change their names did so because:
1. History: Nothing makes a wedding feel weird like a reminder of the doctrine of coverture, which denied women independent legal identity apart from their husbands.
2. Sexism: If there is to be one family name, it could be the wife’s name.
3. Culture: Going from a name like “Chiang” to something like “Johnson” could be a big shift.
4. Culture (Part 2): People in many cultures and countries (like Greece, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Korea, as well as many Spanish-speaking countries like Spain and Chile) don’t generally practice a name change in marriage.
5. Branding: When someone has made a name for themselves in their industry, it’s almost impossible to change your name or your brand without at least some backlash.
6. Heritage: They don’t want their family name to die with them and would prefer that be the name passed to their children.
I understood the complications of having a child with a different last name because I used to be that child. I understood the awkwardness of having a different name as my husband because I knew how strange it feels to be, on paper, different from your family. I understood the idea of tradition and the idea of a romantic new beginning with a new marriage and new partner, did that also mean a new name?
But I could see the other side, too.
I knew the feminist and historical arguments because I grew up around strong women who weren’t afraid to point them out. I could understand the inconvenience of changing one’s name because I’d already gone through it once. I even understood the fear of not passing down the family name as I’m the only grandchild with the name Pretzel, and the name could end with me.
After examining both options, I felt like I could go either way. I could change my name and call it a fresh start. Or, I could stick with what I had.
In the end, after much deliberation, and stress, and wine, I decided to change it. But I didn’t change it to my husband’s name. When it came time to sign my marriage license, I filled out the name change section, squeezing my two last names into one box, and, in the spot next to it, simply writing “Pretzel.”
I realized that I’d been thinking of my names in terms of other people: my mom, my dad, my husband, my family. But I wanted to think of it in terms of me. When I asked myself what I wanted, I came up with Pretzel.
It’s the name they call me at work. It’s the name on my diplomas and my mortgage. It’s the name that’s hovered below dozens of (not always flattering) Facebook and MySpace profile pictures for years. And in the end, it’s who I am.
Who knows what the future will hold, if my future kids will care if our family names are a little complicated, or if they’ll even care. I don’t know if the name change tradition will live on forever or if one day it’ll fade like I predicted. But after everything, I realize that the whole thing is less about names and more about that power of choice, the ability to change your name (or not) for whatever reason. It’s about knowing who you are and who you want to be. And hopefully, having a name that matches that.