“What’s in a name” was a quarter-long project by NBN Opinion in which individual writers explore the personal significance of a name.
“It’s spelled the way it sounds. R-A-M-E-N-D-A,” my mother would say.
From a very young age, my mother instilled a strong sense of identity in me by never letting people mispronounce or misspell my name. She encouraged me to always stick up for it and myself – I have heard a ridiculous number of renditions of my relatively simple first name and too many jokes about Miley Cyrus in regard to my last. In my attempts to correct them, I became protective and prideful in its oddity.
When I got married, our lives certainly became forever intertwined, but we maintained our own thoughts, opinions and desires. My identity did not somehow become indistinguishable from his. That is what a name is to many people; it is an identity.
For many, it is the weight they place onto a name that helps shape their identity. My concern is that some women are taught from birth to never be attached to their name due to tradition. I find this incredibly unfair, as men are taught to have so much pride in their family name. This is often not just culturally true, but also legally.
Until 2005, France required children to take their father’s last name; in 2007, Michael Buday sued California’s Department of Health & Services to take his wife's last name, which resulted in the Name Equality Act of 2007. Burghartz v. Switzerland saw the European Court of Human Rights decide that there was no legal justification for women to have to change their name at marriage.
It is no wonder men exhibit so much pride in their family names. Yet, in this pride, the female identity becomes superseded.
This is rooted in sexist, outdated marriage traditions; specifically, coverture laws that explicitly subordinated women after marriage. The tradition continues to signal that women are property.
There is history to the struggle against this tradition in the United States.
Lucy Stone, the American suffragist and abolitionist known for this issue, said her name was “the symbol for [her] identity,” that “must not be lost.” She set a standard by keeping her name, and sparked the creation of the Lucy Stone League, the first group to fight for a woman’s right to keep her maiden name after marriage.
Since there is no legal requirement in the United States or most places, it is surprising that so many women continue to change their names. It appears that cultural norms have only been changing recently. The New York Times found in a 2015 survey that about 20% of women in recent years have opted to keep their last name in some way. This is considerable compared to recent decades.
These cultural norms continue because of social pressure, as evidenced by a 2011 study where 72% of adults responded that they believe a woman should give up her maiden name at marriage. The Atlantic notes that half of those respondents believe it should be a legal requirement instead of a choice.
In Georgia, the marriage license specifically asks what your name will be after the marriage. There was no inner turmoil at the moment that I filled it out, as my husband and I had already discussed the fact that I wouldn’t be taking his last name. It had been the topic of many lengthy discussions between us, a conversation I initiated 100% of the time out of anxiety about his feelings and social judgement.
The clerk made a point to ask me if I was certain. She made sure to let me know that if I changed my mind, I would have to go through the legal process. If you let your marriage certificate reflect a new name, it is relatively easy to get new legal documents. But if you don’t sign your new name on the dotted line that day, you will probably end up petitioning a court.
In other words, it would never be so easy.
But I have never regretted my decision. A USA Today article said, “Making the decision not to change your name is the hard part.”
As someone else who has gone through the emotional process, I agree so much. Despite the social pressure, it is ultimately not anyone’s business but yours.
There are even benefits to not changing your name, as it eliminates the need to go through inconvenient federal processes to obtain new documents and it can help you maintain long-term recognition in your career field.
Marriage tradition – while tremendously variant from culture to culture – has this big common denominator. So much of it is so sexist, and the name changing tradition is the most overt.
Too often tradition is not sexist, or racist – or whatever – simply because it is tradition. I emphatically reject that notion.
Of course it is sometimes more convenient to change your name. Sometimes you change your name to feel closer to your partner and their family, or out of disdain for your own. Sometimes you make an aesthetic decision. Sometimes you feel it is easier for your children.
These are all valid reasons, but it should be remembered that social pressure plays an intense part in all of our lives. If you never even think about this, or refuse to acknowledge it, that’s a problem.
Changing my name was not a romantic notion to my husband nor myself. For me, just having the choice is so meaningful, and I wholeheartedly believe that more women should take advantage of their ability to keep that integral part of their identity in the name of progress and equality.