When A Feminist Marries, Part 2: What’s In A Name?

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One of the comments that Jessica Valenti got about her feminist wedding (see my previous post, “[intlink id=”when-a-feminist-marries” type=”post”]When A Feminist Marries[/intlink]”) is that “tying together weddings with feminist values is probably a herculean task to pull off.” I couldn’t agree more. Another wrote that “if anyone can get married in an awesome, non-lame, non-patriarchal hardcore way, it’d be you.” I agree with that also.

Thank you, Jessica, for being willing to reveal your personal life as a way to help the rest of us work out the meaning of feminism in our lives.

When you announce your impending wedding, one of the first questions you will be asked is: What are you going to do about your name?

This comes up even among women who are not feminists, which goes to show you how much influence feminism has had on our society. Valenti is leaning toward hyphenation, she says. What are the other options?

  • Keeping your own name.
  • Taking your husband’s name socially but keeping your own name professionally.
  • Having your husband take your name.
  • Switching last names.
  • Making up an entirely new name for both of you.
  • Replacing your middle name with your maiden name while taking his name as your last name.
  • Taking his name and giving your maiden name to your children as their first or middle names.
  • Adding his last name at the end of your name without a hyphen. (For example, you would be known as Susan Ann Smith Jones.)

One thing to consider is that it is not, at least in this country, as easy for your husband to change his last name as it is for you to. He has to get a court order in most cases to have his name changed; all you have to do is get married. This is changing, however: in some places both of you are asked when you get your marriage license what names you want to go by.

What I think is interesting is that there are many cultures where the wife traditionally does not take the husband’s name. Ironically enough (considering the patriarchal nature of their society), Arabic cultures do not combine or change names upon marriage. (See here for a full discussion of how various cultures handle married and maiden names.)

One reason to keep your own name is because this issue only gets more complicated if there is a divorce. It has to be written in the divorce decree that you get your maiden name back, if that’s what you want. Otherwise, you will retain the name you had when you were married. Some women like this, especially if there are children, so that their name matches their children’s. But I wouldn’t recommend keeping your own name just because you might someday get divorced.

In some cultures or classes, a woman collects all the names she has ever been known under. That can get a bit cumbersome, to say the least. Plus it immediately advertises that you’ve been married before. If you don’t want to let go of that part of your identity, you may want to keep your previous married name even after a remarriage. Some women like to collect their identities. Your ex-husband may not like it, but you have the right to do so.

Not many people are faced with the dilemma of what to do about multiple names. But it does beg the question: Isn’t a last name rather artificial if it can be changed so easily?� I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care what my last name is. Nowadays, I fluctuate between Appleby, Appleby-Keim and Keim. But my life has been pretty complicated, matrimonial-wise. (Okay, I’ve been divorced and remarried more than once.)� What would I do if I were starting anew in this day and age?

Knowing what I know now, I would probably keep my own name and just be done with it. The only problem with that solution is that then there is no outward way to signify that you’re attached to someone. But does there need to be? I don’t wear a wedding ring either and neither does my husband. And it doesn’t seem to make us feel–or act–less married. Do we have to have things like new last names and wedding rings in order to make ourselves feel married? Or do we do it just for other people, so that they will know?

Each woman has to decide for herself what it means to her to change or retain her maiden name. Yes, it’s yet another decision that has to be made when planning your wedding.� Just remember: you couldn’t do anything about the name you were born with, but when you get married you have a chance to re-invent yourself. It would be a pity to waste the opportunity.

For more perspectives on changing your last name, see this discussion on Feministing.com.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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