What’s In a Name?

This is my submission for the latest edition of the Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival. Its theme is Feminism and Love.

DickseeRomeoandJuliet

Three months ago, I got married. I did not change my surname.

In those three months, I’ve had maybe four or five conversations about this at work, with coworkers over lunch or when we’re supposed to be paying attention in meetings or something. They’ve all ended sort of eerily similarly. Basically, they go like this:

Coworker: Hey, didn’t I hear that you got married?

Me: Yup, in October.

Coworker: Congratulations!

Me: Thanks!

Coworker: You haven’t changed your name yet. Does this mean you’re not going to?

Me: No, I’m going to keep the name I already have.

Coworker: Why?

Me: Because it’s my name, and I like it.

Coworker: What does your husband think about that?

I was ready for the, “Why?” question, though I didn’t expect it to come up quite so frequently. But I was taken aback by so many people’s immediate progression to my partner’s reaction. The way I’m seeing it, there are a couple of possible responses:

  • He is okay with it, and it is a non-issue — which is why we, you know, went ahead and got married.
  • It is actually a sticking point in our new marriage, in which case, talking about it with a work acquaintance is at least a little awkward.

In my case, the situation is the former, and I answer as such. Most of the time, people have let it drop there. But on a couple of occasions, people have pressed the issue further.

Coworker the First: He’s not worried you’re, I don’t know, not committed enough to change your name?

Coworker the Second: As long as he doesn’t think you love him less or anything.

Um.

No.

And —

No.

Also?

No.

I am now going to make a statement that should not — and probably will not — shock regular readers of this blog: Whether a woman keeps, changes, hyphenates, or does otherwise with her surname upon marriage is not an inherent indication of either her love for her partner or her commitment to their marriage. I mean, it may true in some individual circumstances, but it’s not the sort of connection that one should assume as the default.

Here’s the thing: We got married in the year 2012, and one of these conversations took place in 2013. I thought people already freaking new this! Apparently, that is also something I cannot assume as the default.

I’m not really sure why this is still a Thing. I don’t think it can be my degree of love or commitment that these folks are actually concerned about, on account of love and commitment are expected qualities for both participants in a marriage to display, and no one has yet asked why my husband hasn’t changed his surname to mine. They may, however, be calling into question my levels of selflessness and submission — qualities that are, on the whole, more socially expected of women than they are of men.

I’m also not sure as to whether not legally adopting my partner’s last name makes me any more assertive. While this was a choice on my part, it was not a choice that faced any kind of pushback from either my partner or from any legal or official channels. (Clueless relatives and annoying coworkers, however, remain another story.)

As for whether it makes me selfish? Maybe. Probably. But when it comes to valuing my right to dictate the terms of my identity, “selfish” is not actually a bad thing.

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18 comments on “What’s In a Name?
  1. Glauke says:

    Boyfriend and I intend to marry in the coming 24 months (we’re not sure on the date yet). I’m bracing myself for the inevitables: there has been no proposal. It is something we decided we wanted to do, and are therefore planning. We intend to keep our names. His family will be horrified. I’ve announced I’m keeping my name years ago, just to make sure they know.

    Still, I’m bracing for the impact.

  2. Great piece and another wonderful example of everyday sexism. People never seem outraged that female celebrities rarely change their name. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Jada Pinkett-Smith.

  3. Siobhan says:

    I have been told (I have no idea if this is true or not) that changing your name is still more common in the US than many other countries (I live in Canada). Not changing has certainly been the norm in my peer group and when I got married a few people asked but nobody seemed to think it noteworthy when I said no.

    • Tori says:

      Interesting. Though I’m in a fairly conservative state in the US, I have friends (relatively recently married friends more or less in my same age bracket) scattered across the country. Of them, I can think of only one other person who did not change their name or hyphenate or begin using a double last name.

      • Glauke says:

        I live in The Netherlands (the first place to introduce civil partnerships for same sex couples, and then the first place to open up both civil partnership and marriage to either-gender-couples) and the norm here is the woman taking the man’s name.

  4. Caitlin says:

    I still find it amazing how much controversy surrounds marriage-related name changes (or the lack thereof). I was married to my husband for about a year before I decided to change my name, plus I’ve also had the experience of being coerced into changing my last name (by my first husband, who threatened to call off the wedding if I didn’t take his name), and so I have a lot of thoughts about all of this, none of which are really all that coherent. What I do know is that I find all of the assumptions that go along with this to be troubling at best and aggravating at worst.

  5. Lisa says:

    Good for you Tori!

    I’ve chosen to change my surname, but man, what a pain! It’s taking forever, and I keep forgetting to sign with the new one. If I had chosen not to change it, it would have simply been to avoid all this paperwork!

    • Tori says:

      Congratulations! And sorry about the red tape that comes with a name change.

      It’s not necessarily why I decided to keep my surname of birth, but I have to say the lack of paperwork associated with doing so has come as a happy relief. I mean, all I had to do was listen to and ignore the courthouse clerk’s instructions for how to change my name (easy) and ask the chaplain who married us not to introduce us as Mr. and Mrs. Hislastname because we weren’t (also easy).

  6. Props to you for knowing what you want, doing it, and not backing down afterwards because of mindless objections. Also, congratulations on getting married! : ) Keep sharing, loved reading your writing!

    cambriacorner.wordpress.com

    P.S. You should try reading the essay “There is no Unmarked Woman” by Deborah Tannen; I feel that you would find it very interesting. It has a really interesting perspective pertaining to your decision.

    • This one? I read it, it’s pretty good!

      I thought her name sounded familiar, then when I started reading the essay I realized it was the same person who wrote these articles:

      Does Gray [author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus] think that maleness is a disability? And if he really believes men cannot process indirect requests from women, how does he explain the fact that men quite frequently make indirect requests to women?

      A friend once told me a story about the family dinners of her childhood. Each night as the family sat down to eat, her father would examine the food on his plate and then say to his wife something like, “Is there any ketchup, Vera?” His wife would then get up and fetch whatever condiment he had mentioned. According to Gray’s theory, he should have reacted with surprise: “Oh, I didn’t mean I wanted ketchup, I was just asking whether we had any.” Needless to say, that was not his reaction. Both he and his wife understood “Is there any ketchup?” as an indirect request to get the ketchup, rather than “merely a question gathering information”.

      Yet if my friend made the same request, her mother’s response was different: she treated it as an information question and said, “Yes, dear, it’s in the cupboard.” Presumably, that was not because she had suddenly become incapable of understanding indirectness. Rather, she pretended to hear her daughter’s request as an information question because she wanted to send her a message along the lines of, “I may get ketchup for your father, but I don’t feel obliged to do the same for you.”

  7. Anna says:

    One of my favorite teachers in high school — the first to go by Ms. in my entire K-12 “career” — was a self-proclaimed feminist, which of course made me love her and of course made a lot of my classmates dislike her. They would whisper about catching a glimpse of her key chain, which bore the phrase “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like.” This was a big deal in the conservative town I grew up in, and when I heard about that key chain I knew I had an awesome teacher I could talk to for some relief from the horrible atmosphere I was stuck in.

    One day during class it came out that the name she used after Ms. was the name she had always had, and not her husband’s name.

    “What’s your husband’s last name?” one student asked.

    “Sailor,” she replied.

    “So your real name is Ms. Sailor,” another student stated. She might have even said “Mrs. Sailor,” I can’t remember.

    Cue me rolling my eyes. I can’t remember how my teacher responded, but she was very patient. It still baffles me why anyone would care so very much about someone else’s name preferences.

    Relatedly, when I moved in with my partner, his sister mailed something to us addressed “Him and Anna Hislastname,” which I thought was weird given that we weren’t even married, and if we were, why on Earth did she think I’d take their family name? If anything, he’s more likely to take mine! I later found out that his mother thinks we secretly eloped, or something, but she convinces herself of all kinds of outlandish things. Whatever.

    • Tori says:

      We’ve received mail too addressed to Hisfirstname & Tori Hislastname. I keep fighting the urge to write, “Not at this address” and send half the envelope back. ;)

      • Anna says:

        Haha, a friend of mine was receiving letters from her new husband’s (and longtime partner’s) family addressed “Mrs. Hisfirstname Hislastname,” which is about as low as you can go, especially because she was pretty clear with them that her name would NOT be changing. That was their passive-aggressive way of noting their disapproval. She wanted to write “No one here by that name” and return to sender as well.

      • Glauke says:

        Every now and again we receive mail -from his relatives- addressed to
        His first name His last name & my first name.

        Because they have no idea how to address me. Or how to spell my last name.

        And because I’m a nice person I give them kudos for not addressing me by his last name.

        • Tori says:

          My mom has sent us mail just addressed to [Hisfirstname] & Tori. While it’s not a good solution for more formal communications, I can at least appreciate that it’s both accurate and internally consistent. :)

  8. kat says:

    I kept my last name (10 yrs ago this spring!) and I still get puzzled looks about it! And when people ask me if it ‘bothers my husband that I kept my last name’ I like to tell them if it really bothered him that we had different names he could have changed his name to match mine. That usually shuts ‘em up quick!

  9. R. H. Ward says:

    I did change my name – because we planned to have children, it was important to me that our family all have the same name. ,But since I never had a middle name to start with, I was able to easily move my former last name into the middle name spot. I love my name now! I love having a middle initial! And most of all I like that it was my choice to do this and that I am able to have the name I want. I have at least two friends who would’ve liked to drop their original middle names and do what I did, but it would have cost them a lot of money to do so. I just lucked out.

    After my marriage, I got a piece of mail from my old college addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Hisfirstname Hislastname”. Um, excuse me, alma mater, my spouse has no relationship with you. I graduated from you, I paid to graduate from you, so you can address your mailings to me, especially when you are asking me for money. I wrote a nasty email. Apparently their computer system defaults to this archaicism (is that a word?) because of older alums who may prefer the “more traditional” form of address. I told them it’s ridiculous. I haven’t gotten a mailing like that again but I don’t know if they just put me on a special “flagged” list or if they fixed their system.

  10. adya00 says:

    I’d just like to say, thank you.

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