I’ve meant to write a post about changing my last name after the wedding, especially since Rose-Anne asked about it, but I’ve been holding off because I felt like it was a somewhat, well, important (and usually controversial) subject and I wanted to do it justice. This post got long. I wound up writing not only about how I feel about the decision, but also what it’s been like to change my name in various places and settings, and how it feels and so on. Apparently I have a lot of feelings on the matter.
I know a lot of women out there who have made the decision to keep their last names after marriage, sometimes as a professional decision (like writers/academics who have a career built on work they’ve already published), sometimes simply as a feminist decision — they don’t believe in keeping up the old, patriarchal practice of a husband giving his wife his last name as a signifier of his ownership over her. And right on!
I certainly identify as a feminist (even tough my academic work isn’t in this area) and I firmly disagree with the view that women who marry a man can be passed on from their fathers to their husbands as property. To say I find this notion offensive and distasteful would be an understatement.
But nonetheless, I still decided to take my husband’s last name after marrying, which seems to be a choice that doesn’t reflect the above statement.
The professional and career concerns weren’t a factor for me: I have published and presented academic work under my maiden name, but I’ve taken the teaching-based path in my work (as opposed to the research-and-publication-based path), so publications aren’t my focus anyway. If there’s ever any confusion in the future about the work I’ve put out with my maiden name on it, I can’t imagine it would be too difficult to resolve. It certainly isn’t an issue in my workplace.
When it comes to the (what I perceive as) more important issue, the feminist issue, it might be more complicated.
(And, if I may be allowed an aside, I really feel like I ought to be calling it The Feminist Issue, don’t you? It feels like it needs title caps. And maybe a colon and a subtitle after it. “The Feminist Issue: Unraveling the Patriarchal Naming System.”)
I’m certainly not okay with feeling like or being treated as property. But would changing my name make me feel like that? Would it allow me to be treated like that? The first question is easier to answer: no, I don’t feel like that. I considered it early on and I didn’t think I would feel as if I were being transferred over to my husband’s “ownership.” And after the fact, I still don’t feel that way. I do feel like sharing the same last name supports our vision of ourselves as a family unit. I (we!) like that we share it and that any future children we might have will share the name, too. And, you know, these are just usual feelings women cite when discussing why they made the same choice I did. I don’t have any new or earth-shattering ideas here, I’m afraid.
The second question, would changing my name lead to me being treated like my husband’s property, is a little different. Living where we do, we are bound to run into no small number of people who have fairly antiquated or downright sexist ideas about marriage. The people who call us “Mr. and Mrs. Hisfirst Hislast,” for example, seem to betray a little of this attitude. (Technically, we’re Drs. Hisfirst and Herfirst Hislast, thankyouverymuch.) For the portion of the population who still thinks of wives as their husband’s property, I don’t think my last name would make much difference. Even if I’d kept it, I’d probably still be referred to as Mrs. Hislast, whether correct or not. How others treat me wouldn’t, I suspect, suddenly be more egalitarian if I’d kept my old last name.
(Another aside here: It sounds like I’m saying, “Hey, people are idiots and continue sexist practices no matter what we do, so why bother trying to change things?” I don’t like that attitude and I hope I’m not guilty of it.)
I don’t want to make some kind of blanket claim that names don’t affect how people think of, respond to, or treat me. That clearly isn’t the case. People do respond to these decisions in noticeable ways. Colleagues might respond with a brief-but-palpable pause, for example. In-laws might be more overtly pleased with the news. My friends and family haven’t voiced any opinions on the matter, so are either being tactful or just don’t care. The opinions I care most about, of course, are my own, CW’s, and our families’.
I feel like some of this post reads too much like an apologia — like a response to some imagined accusation. That really shouldn’t be the point here, and the world hardly needs me to sit at my keyboard defending myself. So I’ll move on to some other issues:
How was the process of changing my name? How did I feel about it?
Online: Changing your name on social media is the easiest and somehow most fun thing to do. The day after the wedding: boom goes the dynamite.
The Legal Name Change: I kept hearing (rumors of) nightmares people had with changing their names legally. Long lines, inscrutable paperwork, confusing procedures, lengthy bureaucratic processes, and plenty of hoops through which to jump. In my case, at least, it wound up being really simple. I had one afternoon off work, and I had my IDs and a certified copy of my marriage license on hand, and I quickly went to the Social Security office and then the DMV. By the time I was done, I had my new driver’s license in hand and the promise of receiving a new Social Security card by mail in 10 business days. Once armed with my new IDs, it was easy to change my name at my bank and my workplace and to get a new faculty ID card. Ordering a new Passport was simple, too — once I realized that because I was both renewing the passport AND changing my name, I had to mail in an application rather than stop by an office. Fine. I’m a pretty organized person who often enjoys filling out forms, sure, but honestly, I don’t know what people were complaining about.
At Work: I’ve had some awkward moments at work. Academia is the one place in my life where I feel like an oddball for changing my name. One weird moment happened as a result of it’s being almost too easy for me to change my name in the university records. I assumed it would be one of those typical bureaucratic things that just took a long time “in the system,” so I started the procedure during the last week of fall semester, hoping to have everything fully changed over before spring semester started. I didn’t want to have any confusion in January with my new students who would just be getting to know me. So. I walked over to HR on my lunch break, let them photocopy my new Social Security card, and then walked back to my office. By the time I sat down at my desk and logged into our course management system, my new name showed up. Oh. That was fast. This led to me having to tell my classes about the change during our last week together. (I’d imagined it happening between semesters, thereby avoiding awkward in-class announcements.) I was all, “So, um, if you get an email from someone named Dr. W____, you should still read it. It’s really just me!” My students took this as an opportunity to go “Awwww” and …clap a little. Well, if they insist, I s’pose.
On another occasion, just before classes started, I attended a teaching workshop with people from all across the university — some from my department and a lot of strangers. On the way down to the room, in the elevator, I ran into a lady I recognized from previous workshops and we both re-introduced ourselves — except I forgot and automatically said my old last name. D’oh! I was too embarrassed to correct myself. Then, in the workshop, during the go-around-the-room-and-introduce-yourselves segment (which, as an introvert, I already hate), I thought about the awkwardness that would ensue: not only would I be introducing myself by a new last name in front of people who knew me mainly by my old last name, but I’d also be introducing myself by a different name than I’d just given to this woman in the elevator ten minutes prior. Some people would not let this situation produce anxiety, but I am not some people. Ugh.
Email: For the 14 years I have been teaching, I’ve been signing my work emails with my initials: KO. I’ve mentioned this here before, but I really love(d) those initials. KO. How cool, right? Anyway. I’ve switched over to signing KOW (I moved my maiden name to my middle name slot and ditched my former, unused middle name — adieu, Elizabeth.) KOW doesn’t have the same ring to it, but I will adjust. I GUESS.
In General: It’s weird. I’ll just say that straight out. It’s disconcerting. Seeing and hearing it, remembering to use it, introducing yourself. Not having the same name you’ve had for 35 years of life — it’s a strange feeling and although I like (LOVE) my new last name and everything it signifies, I still think of myself as Kate O______. That name feels like me. Kate W______ doesn’t — not 100%, not yet. But it’s starting to feel more me-like as time goes by.
One way I’m starting to get used to it is changing my name in all sorts of places: all kinds of online accounts, for example. Not just Facebook and Twitter, but Instagram and Flickr, Amazon and Goodreads and Ipsy and Hulu and such. (It occurs to me that I haven’t yet changed it at LinkedIn, but let’s face it: LinkedIn is a joke.) Getting my Amazon packages addressed to my new last name, seeing it when I log in, that sort of thing — it all adds up and reinforces. I buy personalized day planners every year, and this year I went ahead and ordered my new one to start in November, after the wedding, with my new name on it. I think I’d like something monogrammed with my new initials, too. (Necklace? Tote bag?) I had lovely monogrammed stationery with my old initials. Surely it’s time to replace that, too. Fully embracing the change and seeing the new name everywhere seems to help the transition.
Zoë asked me on Twitter how long it takes to get used to it, and the short answer is, I guess, “longer than three months.” I’ll let you know!
I also took my maiden name as my middle name. For me, answering the phone was the hardest for a while…so I just started saying the whole thing (Kelly MaidenName NewLastName) it did get easier and 11 years later it’s not a problem.
But yeah, the points you made about the feminist argument are valid. I didn’t feel, though, that I was really giving up my identity by changing my name. And even though we don’t plan on ever having kids, sharing the last name with my husband just felt right.
I’ve been doing something similar by using all three names at work — on my office door, my paperwork, etc. It’s helping because the old first-last combo is still there, just with something new tacked on the end!
Thanks for such a thoughtful post! I am endlessly interested in The Name Change Debate (which also feels like it should be bolded and subtitled). As you know, I did not change my name, for all the usual reasons that people cite, and also because I am lazy. Since I write and publish for a living (or plan to, anyway) keeping my name was exta important to me. Plus my last name is cooler than Nathan’s. But I fully support anyone and everyone’s choices, so I’m glad you ended up doing what made you feel happiest. So many people give into pressures in both directions – cheers to doing what’s right for you.
As for the initials, I think KOW sounds like KA-POW! which is also really cool.
KA-POW! Yes, it’s crazy how much pressure there is in both directions! I can imagine if I’d decided to keep my last name, I’d be faced with a lot of people just assuming I’d changed it, and I’d have to correct them, and maybe I’d also feel resentful and judged by that. Have you encountered any people who just assume you did change yours, or any weird responses?
I haven’t had too many weird responses. We’ve been using the pretend last name “Henneward” for a really long time (it’s a portmanteau of both our last names) and all of our friends and even most of our family addresses letters and refers to us as a couple by that last name. (Nathan actually wanted both of us to adopt that as our legal married name, but I didn’t feel like it. Again: lazy.) I run mostly in progressive, liberal circles, plus we’re sort of unconventional as-is, so no one was really shocked that I kept my name. (Though my MIL confessed she was disappointed. Oh, well.) That said, I have been surprised that only one of my recently married friends also kept her name – everyone else has changed it. Which is fine, I’m all for personal choice and whatever works best for an individual woman/family, but it did strike me as odd.
We recently opened a joint banking/savings account, so now both our names appear on our checks. Somehow, even though we’ve been married over a year now, this still felt like a big step. 🙂
I’ve been lurking for a little while–we’re the same age and got engaged around the same time. I really appreciated your tone and thoughtfulness with this post.
I’m keeping my name for the usual reasons, and I was shocked, given my age, profession (not academia, but the arts, so similar demographic), and location (urban, liberal) by how much pushback I’m getting. I’ve also been surprised that the women I know who’ve been married in the past three years who aren’t work friends (but are my age, live in my city) have ALL changed their names. So I want to quibble with one thing– I will buy there is pressure in both directions, but with fewer than 10% of American women changing their names, the pressure not to change is not equivalent. The “system” is set up for couples who share a last name. My doctor couldn’t get the nurses at the hospital where she delivered her baby– a hospital where she has privileges!– to use her name. I’ve had a preview with the phone calls to the vet where I have to explain over and over that the dog and I have different last names! It is annoying, and I am struggling with how I’m going to spend my life correcting people without getting really bitter and risking accusations of strident feminism, or if I’m just going to put up with being called the wrong name regularly.
Until/unless keeping your name becomes more mainstream, every woman who keeps her name makes it easier for the ones who do. So I can’t help but be disappointed (and, totally unfairly, sometimes a little angry) when someone changes. I think for a lot of women who challenge their friends who do change, this is at the root. And yet, I acknowledge it’s REALLY not my business what you do, and I can’t be mad at any individual for choosing to change when she’s really thought it through.
You are absolutely right about the system being set up for couples with the same last name and the pressure that causes! That’s one question I didn’t write about here: will my decision underscore the practice of treating ALL women as less than equal? And that’s a big one. I admit I’m glad for some of the ease that the name change allows me when it comes to those issues. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one and for bringing up such good points.
Sorry, I didn’t read any of the comments, so this might be redundant, but — does anyone REALLY, genuinely equate a woman changing her name to her feeling like she is property? I get that that was historical context, but really? Even now? I saw it as more like my husband and I becoming one family. It would have been the same if we had chosen a new surname (the Awesomes, of course), but we didn’t, and that was fine with me. So, I don’t know. The property thing seems way out there to me.
I think there’s a big difference between getting married/changing your name early on in your career, too. When I got married, I was 22 and had been a professional for 6 months. No one batted an eye when my old name went away, never to be seen again. But my sister was a public accountant for 10 years when she got married, and I doubt she’ll use her husband’s name professionally, even though she has no, like, moral/philosophical problems with the practice. It’s just inconvenient, and to her mind, unnecessary.
As far as dealing with different approaches (“What if my kids and I have different names?” “What if my husband and I have different names?” “What if I get divorced?” “What if my family expects a certain method?”), I don’t know. I feel like we are all adults, and we can roll with it.
With regard to the property thing, I agree in that I don’t think anyone REALLY thinks of it that way anymore. But I do hear (or read) people referencing that history as an important reason why they chose not to change their names after marrying. It’s often tossed out as one of those “and THIS is the reason why I’ll NEVER ______” (insert: change my name, wear a veil/white dress, be given away by my father, etc.). So in that sense it may be sort of a straw man, right? Because in practical terms the name doesn’t function that way anymore. But because I kept seeing it discussed, it was something I considered.
And yeah, you’re right — we should be able to just roll with it as 21st century adults. And I hope that is getting easier for more and more people, who do or don’t change their names, for whatever reasons.
I love that you shared this. I had a hard time with that choice even though it was 10 years ago (!) and I had no professional reasons for keeping it. I just liked my last name and had some feminist-y feelings, but I also liked the idea of sharing a name. We’re the Seymours. We’re Team Seymour in all kinds of cases. I didn’t know how I’d feel about it at the time, and it took me YEARS before it felt less weird, but now, I’m really happy I did it. That being said, I still kept my maiden name as middle, like you, and I’m VERY glad I did that — I feel like I got to hold on to that part of myself, just added a little more to it.
Your thoughts on this are really similar to mine. Glad I’m not alone with feeling weird to some degree even though I’m happy with the decision!