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Feministing Friday: On Marriage & Name changing

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Pictures of some version of this tweet have been circulating around the interwebz , greeted with all kinds of co-signs and Amens.  My reaction to it was repulsion. Change my last name? Why would I want that?

I can’t tell you how many times this topic comes up among  adults I know.  Whether it be over drinks, book club, or a discussion thread on Facebook.  The subject of relationships comes up, which begets conversations about dating, sex, and marriage.  And I really don’t enjoy these conversations. Why? Because they always sound the same.  And no matter how hard we try to act civilized, the man vs. woman line always seems to get drawn with most people retreating to hetero-normative sexists corners spilling points as old and archaic as…well, as time.

I’m usually one of few females who doesn’t side with women.  I have so many objections.  Maybe it’s because I have a very clear comprehension of my feminist identity and my independence is premium to me.  I’m not comfortable being defined by a male companion.  Why does my relationship status matter when making a point about, about – anything.  Also, why is so often assumed that when a single man and single woman meet, that is the woman who is always in search of a relationship.  Women have earned a reputation for being incessantly relationship-seeking.  Perhaps many women are.  Who doesn’t want to meet someone special? And as one approaches and passes 30, then settling down becomes important. But are [most] women really that hawkish about relationships?  I blame serial monogamy. It’s the biggest load of crap dealt to women, ever.

Maybe it’s because I’m a biologist.  I have to admit, behavioral ecology has completely ruined my Fairy tale fantasies of love.  I’m unapologetically practical about sex. It happens. It can be great. Men and women are capable of foul behavior such as cheating and exploitation. Likewise, both men and women can be capable of generosity, affection and devotion. There is no female-only/male-only traits that make people people inherently suited/ill-suited for love and marriage.

But I have never been very marriage-focused (disclaimer). So I’m often challenging everyone’s assumptions about gender roles/expectations annoying many women and surprising the men. Long before I knew what feminism was or comprehended how feminism affected politics and marriage, I stood out from my friends. Remember this game, MASH?


Back when I was 10, there was category for number of children, not career.  Your friends would count down to scratch out option based on the age you said you would be when you married.  Most girls would pick an age between 17 and 21.  I always picked the number 24 and my friends would look at me like I was a two-headed monster.

Why so old? they would shriek.  I always said because I wanted to go to college then med school first, with an incredulous look to boot.  The game would end with a final declaration, prophesying the girl’s married future as the mother of X children, living in a whatever house, with a whatever car and her married name: Mrs. Blankety His-lastname.  Again the record would scratch. “I’m not changing my last name” I would say. Say whaaat? It was simple vanity.  The names of the boys on my list just didn’t sound right next to my first name.  My name rolls nicely off the tongue. I just can’t take that chance.  What if I marry a Lipschitz? Nope.

Then I learned in my high school practical law class that after marriage a woman’s name changes such that she drops her middle name and her maiden name becomes her new middle name. What?  I’ll lose my middle name? I then started looking at the signatures of women I knew. I noticed for the first time that they had odd middle names.  You mean James is my grandmother’s maiden name, not her middle name given to her when she was born?!! (I thought is was strange name for a girl, but what did I know. I was a kid). And to this day I have absolutely no idea what my grandmother’s middle name was or if she had one.

This losing the middle name really disturbed me.  For me, name change is more than taking on someone’s else name as my own, it also signals a lose of my own name, my own identity and personhood.  I wonder if other women have felt/feel this way? This is my name. MY NAME people. It makes me feel like this:

My name: It’s the first thing I say when I introduce myself or others introduce me.  It’s what I’ve been called my whole life.  Why don’t I have the privilege and right to keep my name – which identifies me to a host of people from childhood to adulthood to death and beyond – simply because I married? It’s about continuity. (And not losing girlfriends. How many of you have lost contact with female friends because of this? So confusing and frustrating.)

Men get get to keep their names following marriage?  What about me, as a woman, denies me the exact same right? This is why the whole notion name change following marriage…ALWAYS.GETS.MY.GOAT.

Marriage and name change delves into the personal and political and grounds itself in spiritual.  Though that last one is some marlarkey.  There’s nothing uniquely Christian or Godly that necessitates a woman taking her husband’s last name.  Latin American couples rarely share the same name and people from those countries are Catholic, definitely Christian.  But still many people, especially men – and Black men that I know – are really firm on this issue.  I mean these conversations really get passionate with many people – men and women, coming down on the side of name change or at least hyphenation.  It’s abundantly clear that adopting the husband’s name is very important to many people.  Many men want their wives to change their name. Some men might make an exception if she’s truly established herself professionally, but most are not that progressive. What is that all about?  And I wonder if they’ve thought about how it might feel if someone asked expected them to change their name after 20, 30 or 40+ years of attachment?

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. streepie 9:12 am 06/15/2012

    I got married with 25 (and I had just graduated with a MSc degree) and and I took on my husband’s name. That did not stop me from being my own self, neither from getting a doctorate degree or having a career. For me, taking on (as it was) my husband’s name was showing that we are now creating a new entity. A kid came nearly fifteen years after the marriage, and I am glad we all have the same last name.

    I have a friend who kept her name, one who carries both names separated by a hypen, and one who convinced her husband to take on her name….

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  2. 2. bkwilson 2:14 pm 06/15/2012

    This is a hot topic for me right now, in the face of my wedding in October, and I’ve heard all the reasons to take HIS name, but no one seems to be listening to MY reasons for keeping MY name. It isn’t that I don’t love my fiancee, or his family, but I also love my family (and myself). As a child of a mother who married after I was born, I can honestly say that there was NEVER a problem with my mother having a different name, whether it was at school or elsewhere. There was no doubt I was her child and she was my mother. To me, that’s the only argument that really holds any merit, but it’s culture dependent. If someone wants to fight with me about whether future baby is actually my kid, well, I’m willing to have that fight.

    This is a very personal choice and one that should be given great thought, not just “Well, everyone else does it and it’s tradition and etc etc”. I have nothing against women who take their husbands’ last names, because that was their choice, but they seem to have an issue with me exercising the same right…

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  3. 3. lawhite 2:26 pm 06/15/2012

    Huh. My first thought on reading that tweet was “So women get screwed both ways?”

    Thank you for this. I didn’t change my name and I don’t regret it one bit. Big hassle, for one thing.

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  4. 4. yaponcedeleon 10:13 am 06/16/2012

    It’s time to stop attacking and criticizing women for wanting to keep their names. As a hardcore Lucy Stoner, I can respect a woman’s decision to change her name upon marriage. Why can’t men and women respect my decision to keep mine?

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  5. 5. tillotson 6:32 pm 06/16/2012

    in the old days (!) (“easy Rider” movie had just come out) we were going to drive cross country as a biracial couple and all the people we knew, bi-cultural and mono cultural, said this was dangerous, best to have the same last name when stopped by law enforcement and when registering at motels and campgrounds…. we heard horror stories fromthose who had their own last names…

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  6. 6. aidel 6:47 am 06/17/2012

    I changed my name on purpose. I didn’t have a very good relationship with my father (putting it mildly) and while I chose my husband, I did not choose my father. Trust me, I am no less of a feminist for doing so.

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  7. 7. DNLee 9:46 am 06/18/2012

    Thank you everyone for your comments.
    I think name changing – whether one chooses to do so or not is an important feminist conversation. It’s about having choices and other people (men and women) acknowledging that we have a choice – it’s isn’t shouldn’t be automatically expected of us – and no woman should be made to feel bad for either choice.

    Thanks for sharing

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  8. 8. MsKruse 2:07 pm 06/18/2012

    Excellent article, DNLee. I bring up this scene from Roots whenever the name-change conversation comes up and people think it’s an extreme comparison. But, losing one’s identity is losing one’s identity. It’s sick that the quaintness of marriage makes it palatable to most people — when it is indeed a savage thing to take one’s name away. At the end of the day, you’re name is all you have.

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