The name change game
What are your thoughts on changing your surname post-marriage?
This question came up in Diem the other day and there were a lot of different takes. But before we get into it — it’s worth acknowledging that changing one’s name after marriage (or anytime!) is a personal choice. If you want to change your name, it’s completely your prerogative to do so. But it is an interesting and nuanced topic worth candidly discussing — since marriage has a fraught history as a construct full of things like dowries and purity culture. It’s also important to acknowledge that marriage traditions, such as changing one’s name, varies greatly across cultures and religions. This essay is simply our attempt to get the conversation going.
To lay my cards on the table: If I get married, I personally want my partner and I to keep our respective names. I am not yet sure how I would approach naming children, but I know that, if I have children, I would want them to have at least part of my name, in addition to my partner’s. Hear my thinking: If I were to give up my name when I get married, I think that it would profoundly affect how I think about my own identity. While this may seem controversial to some, I don’t view marriage as a change in one’s identity. To me, it signifies a symbolic gesture of love, respect and partnership with someone, versus a fundamental change to who you are as a person.
Perhaps I’ll have a change of heart — I certainly used to assume that I would change my name one day. But as I’ve begun to establish myself under my current name, I get further from ever wanting to change it. I also really love that my surname connects me to my family — I am one of two daughters and I don’t like the idea of our name not moving forward with future generations for no good reason. My maternal ancestors had to consistently change their names to distance themselves from our Jewish heritage upon immigrating to England in the late 1800s — why should I have to do the same?
But let’s back up a bit. For historical context, it’s worth noting that women changing their name after marriage is a specifically English phenomenon. British hereditary surnames are around 1,000 years old — originally imported by the French around the time of the Norman Conquest. At the time, married women had no surname at all, since the Normans had also brought with them the “doctrine of overture,” which was the legal principle that upon marriage, a woman became her husband’s possession. Her consequent state of “namelessness” reflected this. When a woman got married, her and her husband essentially became one — her identity was essentially erased under the law of coverture. Husbands had complete control over their wives, legally and financially. As this idea gained popularity, so did the habit of designating a married woman by her husband’s surname. This, of course, trickled down to the domination of patrilineal baby naming. None of this was really questioned in a big way until the 1970s.
As you can imagine, the Diem community had a lot of interesting takes on this. Here’s a sampling of their thoughts:
“What happens when you become ‘unsearchable’?”
Our names and our @usernames (!) are a central piece of our digital identities. Many of us have been building a searchable backlog of ourselves online, whether that be intentionally (press, “influencing”, etc) or unintentionally via what we share. So what happens when you change your name and you’re no longer associated with your prior digital identity? A friend raised the point that it’s reminiscent of when our parents were unable to reconnect with old friends because many women had changed their names with marriage. Although that likely wouldn’t be a problem now — since we’re all so intimately connected via the social graphs of social networks — it’s an interesting thought. Perhaps being unsearchable would be a relief to many and exciting to some. For others (myself included), it could feel like a loss.
“A woman passing on her name demands an explanation, while a man doing the same does not.”
One of my favourite journalists, Aubrey Hirsch, wrote about giving her children her last name instead of their father’s and copping a significant outpouring of confusion/internet hate as a result. She said that over her 9+ years of motherhood, she’s seen so many variations of people asking, “Why would you give the kids your father’s last name instead of your husband’s?” that often she felt invisible. “It’s not just my father’s name. It’s my name. Couldn’t they see that erasing a woman’s ownership of her own name is a symptom of the same disease I’m trying to remedy?” In a similar vein a member of the Diem community shared that she “was taken to court over [her] son having [her] last name and not his father’s. Almost every child that goes through the court system has their father’s last name and it is never once questioned as to why this is.” A recent ruling in Italy could put this discussion to bed, with an Italian court ruling that children should not automatically inherit the father’s name. The ruling cites that, “in the wake of the principle of equality and in the interest of the child, both parents must be able to share the choice on his surname, which constitutes a fundamental element of personal identity.” Simply put, there is an ingrained assumption that a woman’s personal identity is not one that can be separated from a man — husband or father. Perhaps we should all take a page out of Italy’s book.
“Choosing a new name can be cathartic.”
Many married friends have said the changing of their name digitally was easy, often fun, and that the hard part has come from actually filing the paperwork and formally saying “goodbye” to the name they grew up with. I know people who used this moment in life to separate themselves from a bad relationship with their family history, forging a new future under a new, chosen family unit.
“The impact of different religions on marriage and changing of names.”
While this varies drastically across religions, I found the perspective of this Diemer super interesting. “I’m Indian and in the Indian culture your last name historically dictates a lot about your status in the world and is associated with the caste system. However, I am Sikh and in the Sikh religion a lot of our tenets are based on equality for all. It’s always been interesting growing up in a sect of the Indian community where women were equal to men vs. what is typically seen in the Indian culture. In typical Indian culture women are below men and to the extent that when a woman’s husband dies and he is being cremated, it is expected that the woman throw herself on top of the fire and die as well. The Sikh culture goes against all of this. Related to last name, in the Sikh culture, in an effort to go against the caste system, all Sikh men are supposed to have the last name “Singh” which translates to lion and women have the last name “Kaur” which translates to princess.”
“In heterosexual marriages, why don’t men take women’s names?”
There’s a very obvious answer to this question that centers almost entirely around male ego and pride. There’s also the fact that if we’re really striving for equal representation of heritage/identity, changing to the woman’s name would not really be equal. Having polled numerous couples, this debate usually gets heated in heterosexual couples, with many male partners trying to justify why they’re so annoyed at the thought before realizing it’s almost entirely socialized norms (much to my personal amusement). There was also a pretty interesting remark that cropped up a few times: they would change their name if their wife’s family name was “prestigious”(!) From my querying, in same-sex marriages the matter is often uncomplicated by tradition, with less historical prejudice on which partner takes the other’s name, leaving it more up to the couple on what they choose to move forward with. I highly recommend posing the question at the next group dinner you attend. Although I can’t guarantee you’ll be invited back ;)
Again, I personally really don’t care what others choose to do with their name when they get married–it’s none of my business! But it’s interesting to explore how complex something so engrained in a lot of American/British culture is for many of us as we grapple with a loss of identity.
What do you think? Join the conversation in Diem.
This article was originally featured in Diem’s weekly newsletter on July 12th 2022, subscribe here.