Marriage and Last Names

I’m a little obsessed with the custom of women taking their husband’s last names. It’s something I come back to over and over again, even now I’m dating a woman who I wasn’t even *able* to marry at the start of our relationship, to whom the idea of either taking or giving a last name seems somewhat absurd. (Although, she did just agree to get in the kitchen and make me some pie…)

The thing that gets me about it, is that – at least in my circles – it’s usually the woman who wants to take the last name of her husband. I have a few feministy-type male friends whose wives took their last name. When I asked them about it, they usually said something like “yeah, it was a little weird, but whatever – if she wanted it…” I have a few less-feministy male friends who might prefer their wives take their last name, but probably wouldn’t put up a fight if they were engaged to a woman who didn’t want to.

Here’s an interesting thing, in the US, the number of women keeping their birth names is decreasing, from 23% in the 90s down to 8% now. However, in the UK, more women are keeping their birth names –  it’s up to about one third now. Truthfully, I always find it a little annoying when one of my female friends takes her husband’s last name, and part of that is I don’t think any of them has given me the honest reason for it. I think they’re embarrassed to tell me the real reason, because in many of these cases I know their husbands didn’t push it on them (in fact, one of them said “I’d sort of rather she just kept her own name.”)

The reasons I usually hear are usually incidental – “I never really liked my last name much,” or “It just seemed easier,” – something like that. The same type of excuse I’d use to not wash the dishes after dinner. You lie, woman! You’re not telling me the whole story.

I think this comment from HuffPo reader happywifenmom sums up what I suspect it is:

I proudly took my husband’s name and never looked back. What a privilege that he loves me so much that he would be willing to GIVE me his name! When an envelope comes in the mail addressed to Mr. and Mrs. His Name, I don’t get offended like the woman in the article (Please! Seriously?!?!) but rather, I am reminded how blessed I am to be the one he chose to give his name to. I am not ashamed to be identified with my man. A lot of ladies have my first name, but NO ONE else gets to be Mrs. His Name. Just me!

All you name takers out there, I think you’re just like this woman! J/k – seriously though, it’s interesting that all the followup responses shamed this woman for her viewpoint. (The first response is “Do you live in Stepford?” which is pretty funny, but, is still full of pointy shamey fingers.)

I think a very obvious thing is happening here. I suspect women change their names because they *want* their identity to be tied in with their husband’s. The fact that the world will see Dianne Woodard as Mrs. Ayo Kalejaiye after her marriage isn’t a slightly irritating side effect to family unity, it’s the whole point. It provides a way to blast away the mistakes of the past, and start again in a new life. Perhaps it also provides some security, like a good luck charm against the specter of divorce. However, I think these desires to identify with another person are not “acceptable” in our current self-centered culture, so many women end up downplaying their decision to change their name.

Personally, I always knew I would never take someone else’s last name. When I was 6, I told my aunts “My husband is going to take my last name!” They all laughed at me. “Good luck finding a man who will do that!” Even my girlfriend said she didn’t like the idea of taking my last name! What’s a girl to do?

Truthfully, I’d probably be weirded out if my girlfriend wanted my last name. But, ever since I was a little girl, I knew that “wife” role wasn’t what I wanted. I’d always been studious and mathematically inclined, I was captain of my high-school wrestling team, I got a degree in computer science and make my living as a computer programmer since college (though, I’ll admit, I’ve asked my parents for money from time to time – usually, when I’m trying to start a company of some sort.) I have supported some people I’ve dated, and would be willing to be the financial base of any family I ever had. The idea of getting pregnant and staying home with my kids – well, it’s just not what I want. If it’s the thing for some other women, that’s fine.

But, what happens in some of my straight relationships is that there are all these assumptions brought in. Like, the guy assumes without asking “oh, if we had kids, they’d take my last name.” I remember getting into an argument with a boyfriend once, and I said “if I ever had a daughter, I would want her to have *my* last name.” He could still get the sons! It’s still a 50/50 split, but he got so frustrated with me he said “you are so power hungry about this name thing.”

Isn’t that interesting, that demanding an equal split is “power hungry?” But, it seemed that way to him, right? When most of his girlfriends were ok with the idea of naming all their kids after him, and probably even wanted his last name in marriage, I probably seemed very selfish by comparison. I always try to be “fair” in my relationships, but one thing about straight relationships is that most of the men I date are conditioned by the other women they date. So, when I feel like I’m asking for equality, I sometimes come across as a femi-nazi , denying them all these things they always assumed they’d have.

Conversely, when I started dating/interacting with gay people, something became so much easier. I remember making the declaration to my gay therapist “Everything that comes out of my vagina will have my last name!” “Ok,” he said. To him, a gay man, that seemed reasonable. I even repeated that to my girlfriend once, and she said something to the effect of “that makes sense.” To these gay people, carrying a baby for 9 months seemed a reasonable enough reason to give it your last name. By comparison, many of my straight male boyfriends seemed somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of naming *half* my kids after me, naming *all* of them after me was never even on the table.

This is just one example, but there were others. Often I’d drift toward doing the cooking, even though I hate it, or cleaning, even though I’m very messy. These things were never stated, they were tasks my boyfriends would just expect of me and wouldn’t do for themselves. In fact, when you considered that I was usually making at least what they were and paid half, or more, in the household expenses I just ended up completely taking care of people who would not reciprocate. Usually, they did not appreciate my financial contributions – they ended up feeling “emasculated” by them. What I was willing to give embarrassed them, and what I didn’t want to give was demanded of me.

With my girlfriend, however, things are easy. She does most of the cooking when we don’t order out. We’re both messy, but I’ve cleaned her laundry and organized some of her stuff on occasion, and we both pay for things. We just drifted toward the tasks we liked more (or, hated the least.) When I date men, I don’t drift toward the tasks I like or am better at – I drift toward the ones expected of me because I’m a woman.

And, the whole last name thing is just part of that. The good news though, is I don’t have to date any of those guys. I’ve come to realize that only women, and the most radically feminist men would be suitable life partners for me. And, that’s fine – I wish happiness to all those more traditional couples out there. I just wish they could be *honest* about it.

If you *like* the idea of merging your identity with your husband’s, that’s fine! If you want a woman to merge her identity with yours, that’s also fine! But, if that’s the case, someone like you and someone like me are not romantically compatible. If you downplay last name change to “not a big deal,” then it gets confusing – the real motives remain hidden, and it becomes much harder to figure out the type of partnership that will make you happy. It *is* a big deal, it’s just giving you something you want – something it’s totally ok to want. But, changing my last name is also not going to give me what I want, so what is a good choice for many women would not be a good choice for me.

If someone said to me on a first date, “I’m looking for a woman who will take on a more traditional role in the relationship” that would be great! It would save us both a lot of time. I know I’m not looking to be in that role. I’ve known it since I was 6. But, it’s ok they are looking for that – there are plenty of women out there who want to *be* that. We all just need to find people we fit well with, ideally without coercion and without guilt.

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