On changing the surname upon marriage

This feels like one of those things, a “as soon as I buy a purple Toyota, I start seeing purple Toyotas everywhere” type thing. People my age seem to be tying the knot as fast as they can get their hands on rope. The more weddings I attend, the more I can tell it’s not my thing. But weddings aren’t really what I’m going to write about in this entry, though they could surely take up one if I wanted to write about that.

I am strictly against changing one’s surname upon marriage. Actually, I’m not sure I’m for marriage generally speaking—that’s an entirely different discussion—but let’s assume for the sake of argument that we’ve already had the marriage talk and the consensus is that we’ll go with it for now.

For the women I’ve dated, marriage was never really a serious option because it wasn’t/isn’t a serious legal option, so it was sort of a non-issue. Of the men I’ve dated, one said he was fine with my not changing my name if we ever married, and one was against it from the start. That is, he was of the opinion that a woman should change her name to her husband’s upon marriage and any subsequent children would have the husband’s surname. For him, it was a matter of collective identity—“A family should be united,” he said once, “and a single last name for everyone in the family shows that unity.”—something that, I admit, is hard to argue with. Except to say, “Well, why can’t you change your name to mine, then, if that’s the big deal?” He, of course, didn’t like that idea at all.

That said, and as many people have noted (see my “Further Reading” section below), if you present yourself as a family, people will assume you are one, regardless of your surname(s). This phenomenon has also been noted in unmarried couples who present themselves as married. It’s not that hard to correct someone who thinks you’re Mrs. Smith when you’re actually Ms. Jones who’s married to Mr. Smith.

For me, a woman who changes her name to her husband’s is contributing to patriarchy, and that’s not a good thing. Changing the surname upon marriage is based in the same sexist traditions that have a man walk his daughter down the aisle and “give” her to her future husband, as if she were a man’s property (which, at the time, women were). Some people might argue that, well, a woman has her father‘s surname (probably), so that‘s contributing to sexism, and honestly, that’s true. But in that case, the woman in question hasn’t actively supported a patriarchal tradition because that was the name she was given at birth; she had no choice in the matter. And anyway, the name is hers now, not her father’s anymore.

By the way, I’m also against a man taking his wife’s last name. While a man taking his wife’s surname (a’la Jack White from the band The White Stripes) seems to be much more feminist, the result is actually much the same: people assume that the woman changed her name and it was the man’s all along. The same goes for couples who decide to forgo both surnames all together and create a new one. While it’s actually a subversion of patriarchy, it’s hard to tell on the surface, which may undermine the whole point in the end.

Some people have pointed out that they don’t like their family/ies and don’t want to be associated with an abusive father in any way, name included. Well, my answer to that is: you don’t have to get married to change your name. If you don’t like your family that much (which happens; I’m not saying you should just “tough it out” or something), then change your name now; don’t wait until you get married. That way, the name you choose is yours completely and you’ll be able to carry it with pride without having to connect it to another person.

But I want to connect it to another person! you say. Yes, well, I’m happy you’ve decided to take the plunge and tie the knot. But your name is your identity; especially in today’s world, it holds a lot of weight professionally, and name searches on Google (for example) would be split. But it’s a woman’s choice! you say. Well, yes, it is. And it’s a man’s, too. And if all else were equal, I probably wouldn’t care about it one way or the other. But we do not live on equal terms, here. Women are oppressed. If you don’t believe me, you need to take a class or two in gender studies.

As for children’s surnames, I don’t have a really good answer for that one. (What? I don’t know everything.) My gut reaction is let the child decide for him or herself, but even if a couple did that—at least the way the system is currently set up—they’d still have to give the child some surname in the meantime while the child grew up enough to be self aware enough to decide. Maybe you could mix it up a little and give daughters the man’s surname and sons the woman’s surname. Or hyphenate (ugh; don’t do that). Or choose a completely new name for the children that’s a combination of the parents’ surnames.

The only argument for giving the children the father’s surname exclusively that I’ve ever heard that makes any real sense to me was this. Leaving aside surrogate pregnancies, weird science, orphans, and adoptions for a moment, people know who the (biological) mother is. She’s required by biology to be at the birth. It’s easy to connect her to the child and visa versa. Not necessarily so with the (biological) father, who doesn’t need to do anything more than donate his sperm to the cause. Giving the child the father’s surname is a way of forcing the father to take responsibility for his offspring. Or at least calling attention to the fact that he’s not taking care of said offspring. But that argument presents a sad view of the state of fatherhood; what kind of world do we live in where the only way a man will acknowledge his children is if they have his surname and are therefore connected to him?

As I mentioned above, it’s not that hard to correct someone who thinks the child isn’t yours just because you have different names. (Though I imagine it would get hella tiring eventually, at least as tiring as correcting the pronunciation of a given name, as I have had to do my entire life.) Also, let me state for the record that people, generally speaking, are idiots; sometimes they’ll assume things about you that just aren’t true—like that you aren’t your daughter’s mother just because you have different skin tones—but that’s another journal entry in itself.

I want to live in a world where people who change their name do it for a real, true reason, not just because they’re getting married and it’s what you do. I want to live in a world where the people who change their names because of married are scoffed at, not the reverse, like it is now. “Oh, are you a feminist?” people ask women who haven’t changed their surnames upon marriage. (You know, as though being a feminist is a bad thing.) Really, I want to live in a world where a woman isn’t subsumed into her husband’s identity upon her marriage to him. And for that to happen, we have a long way to go.

You’ll notice I haven’t really mentioned women marrying other women or men marrying other men (or anything else that makes real romantic relationships interesting). That’s because the very act of changing one’s surname upon marriage is a form oppression that’s tied up in gender identity, gender essentialism, and completely erases gay and lesbian relationships (to say nothing of transgender people, bisexuals, and people in polyamorous relationships) because it assumes that one party (the woman) is “obviously” or “naturally” subservient to the other (the man). When two women or two men marry, that “natural” and “obvious” dynamic is necessarily thrown out. It may actually be a form of rebellion (as opposed to an adherence to patriarchy) for two men or two women who are not related by blood to share a surname, and it helps them convince other people that they are family in a world where two men or two women living together aren’t already assumed to be a couple.

Further Reading:
Why Brides Change Last Names
Keeping Your Maiden Name After Marriage
Against the Name Change: A Polemic
Things We Do for Love: Will You Change Your Last Name?
Women, Work and a Name Change
The Cost of a Name Change
Concerning Marriage and Changing Names
Lucy Stone League

Viannah E. Duncan

Viannah E. Duncan is a writer and activist hailing originally from Los Angeles. She lives outside of Baltimore, Maryland, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She has a cat, Cleo.

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