Written by Paige Athanasopoulos Art by Angharad Neal-Williams
When I was young, I thought that when I got married I’d obviously change my last name. My own surname is 14 letters long and despite it being phonetic, nobody can pronounce it, let alone spell it. I don’t even think I knew how to spell my own surname until I was in school, so I thought I would change my name to my husband’s, even if it was as conventional as Smith.
Taking your husband’s name sounds like just another marital tradition, just like wearing something old, new, borrowed and blue. But the origins of the tradition are murky at best. The idea was brought to England by the French during the Norman Conquest as a way of eliminating female identity. After marriage, couples were considered to be a single entity: the husband. While this is no longer the reason behind the tradition, the patriarchal legacy remains. Now in the 21st century, the idea of marriage is changing and adopting the husband’s last name is slowly becoming less common.
We live in a world where feminism has made great strides in terms of gender equality and the sanctity of marriage has finally embraced same-sex couples. Long-held patriarchal traditions are no longer law. The act of changing one’s surname is now a conversation amongst couples or an individual choice. This once unquestioned tradition is now a lot more complicated. What happens in a relationship with two men or no men? What happens when the woman clearly has the better last name? What does it mean not to have the same name as your child? These modern questions and concerns are the new norms between married couples.
Married people may keep their maiden names for a range of reasons. Firstly, the process of changing the name on all documents and records is long and laborious. Also in some professions, such as academia, changing your name means disassociating with already established careers. Additionally, a surname can tell a lot about somebody’s cultural background and family history. In many ways, your name is linked to your identity. The choice also becomes more convoluted when considering that divorce and multiple marriages are becoming increasingly common.
There are endless options nowadays to combat these issues. In a heteronormal marriage, the husband could take their wife’s name or both parties could keep their maiden names. Couples can hyphenate both names or even blend both names together. There should no longer any rules or expectations.
Historically, women have been the ones to change their names after marriage, so I asked some women in my life about their experiences.
I got married in 1996 at the age of 35. I have always liked my surname and didn’t want to change it since it was what identified me. I had told my partner that I was not changing my name and he did not have an issue. I have not regretted my decision; except I would have liked to have hyphenated my daughter’s name to reflect my contribution.
I got married on the 19th of January 2019. I changed my name so that when we have kids, we all have one family name. It was my own decision and I don’t regret it.
We got married on the 28th of April 2018. I haven’t officially taken my partner’s surname as there is quite a bit of paperwork involved. I have spoken to my partner about it and she doesn’t mind either way. I am still thinking about whether I will change my name officially. The other issue is that she is not out to any of her family and I am not out to all my family either and it makes our marriage very obvious once the name is changed. I think in time we might not worry so much about other people and just make the name change when we are ready.
Writing this article made me wonder if changing my name is what I really want. Although my name is long and apparently hard to say, I share that experience with my family and whoever reads it can easily identify my ethnicity as Greek. Changing your surname is a deeply personal act. It means changing a part of your identity, part of who you are. There is something gained when you take your partner’s name but also something lost. So in the end, there’s no right or wrong choice.