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!