Being evangelical and in my mid-twenties means that summer (and, to a lesser extent, fall, winter and spring) for people my age is wedding season. And boy, is it ever. From June until August I can count 16 weddings off the top of my head that were celebrated–I was going to say that at least 32 people I know got married this summer, which is true, but only because I am apparently friends with quite a few couples. These weddings have occurred all over North America, from Vancouver to Virginia to the Maritimes, and they have all varied (however slightly) in style and theme. However, there is one constant that exists between all of these new marriages: Every newlywed woman has changed her last name to her husband’s.
Now, I know that this is in no way a new phenomenon, nor is it an uncommon one. And I know that, when we are discussing the subject of a woman’s choice, wanting someone to have a choice means I also want someone to have the opportunity to make a choice I may personally disagree with, and it’s none of my business if they do. However. There still exists in the evangelical community and oftentimes in the broader Western culture at large the idea that a woman should, or even must, take on a new last name should she choose to get married to a man. And the delight that is Facebook allows a woman to “change her name” before anything is legal about it.
The advent of Facebook and other social networking-type sites brings a very interesting new component to the mix of the discussion of changing one’s name or not when marrying: people get to comment on your name change! I’ve noticed people “liking” statuses that say “Off to legally change my name!”; lots of “Congratulations, Mrs. _____” once a name change has occurred; in a couple of cases, “You aren’t FirstName LastName anymore! Don’t forget to change it!!!!” or even just a comment that says [I will assume excitedly and congratulatorily] “FirstName NEW HUSBAND’S LAST NAME!!!” The assumption that each of these women have or will change their last names, or the assumption that it’s something inherently exciting and positive abounds, and I am always curious about what would happen if one of the newly married women in question replied, in just as a celebratory tone, “Oh, I’m keeping my name! But wow, am I glad to be married to ____!” or something like that.
The fact that this has been on my mind a lot lately has a lot to do with the sheer volume of post-nuptial name changes I’ve been seeing over the past few months, and the more I see, the more I wish that at least one of my girlfriends would keep her last name, or maybe even hyphenate! Or, at least, I wish there were a little bit more discussion involved before the seemingly automatic name change.
I mentioned this to a few of my friends, that I wonder if maybe a bit more discussion surrounding marriage and name changes might be a good thing? That maybe it would be okay if we didn’t automatically assume every woman is going to change her name upon marrying. These are a few of the responses I received:
“Of course I would change my name. I don’t want a husband I can walk all over.” (woman, early thirties).
“If a woman doesn’t want to change her last name I hope she’s happy being single.” (man, mid-twenties).
“That shows she’s not actually committed to your relationship.” (man, late twenties).
“I would never marry a woman who could be that disrespectful.” (man, mid-twenties).
When I asked if perhaps there might be a way to make the name change more egalitarian, say, by hyphenating, or by taking one’s new wife’s last name as a middle name, or anything one can think of, I was met with mostly blank stares, and also complete disbelief. The idea that a woman might not want to change her last name, or that a man might be willing to and that neither choices would have any bearing on anyone’s commitment or masculinity seems completely absurd, apparently.
As I said, I realize that wanting someone to be able to make choices for themselves means that includes choices I myself wouldn’t make, and the fact that I will be keeping my last name as is gives me a pretty definite bias, but in my observations over the past few months there really doesn’t, at least in the circles I frequent, seem to be even some semblance of discussion surrounding whether or not a woman is truly free to choose to keep her own name, or whether any choice other than giving up one’s last name could, as was my own experience, result in the end of a relationship. There doesn’t seem to be any other “choice” than “a woman changes her name and is unequivocally excited about it.”
How long until we reach a point where a name change or lack thereof truly is a choice, and not a signifier of lack of commitment or lack of “respect” or anything other than a signifier of self? How long until we are able to congratulate people on their commitments without including our own assumptions about what their name is or should be?
ABOVE: A 1960 wedding announcement in which a woman is forced to publicly declare that she has changed her name from Sally Ann Draper to Mrs. Chester Tolbert Dickerson, Jr. Photo from Flickr user Bertd under Creative Commons 2.0.
Reprinted with permission from Persephone Magazine.