In Catalyst Wedding Co. editor Liz Susong's weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the crazy history behind common wedding traditions we may take for granted. Liz investigates here.
This is a true story: before I was Liz Susong, a feminist wedding expert, I was just an average human being by the name of Liz Lemons. That was a pretty cool name at the height of 30 Rock, and I didn’t hate being associated with Tina Fey. Many people referred to me using both my first and last names at all times (i.e. “I invited Tina, Bob, and Liz Lemons.”).
Despite having what you might consider a top-notch name, when it came time to tie the knot, I reasonably informed my spouse-to-be that whatever he wanted to do with his last name, I’d do the same. If he wanted to keep his last name, so would I. If he wanted to change it, I was on board for that, too. See how flexible and agreeable we feminists can be?
The History of Women's Last Names
Women’s last names are politically charged because, before the women’s movement, a woman had few rights outside of her connection to her father or her husband. Taking his last name wasn’t a romantic choice; it was a denotation that her husband now had the sole rights to her property, wages, and children. So, you can imagine how totally radical it was when abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone elected to keep her own name after marrying Henry Blackwell in 1855.
Even in the 1970s, a woman was required by law in some states to use her husband’s name to vote, do banking, or get a passport. Today, in 2017, according to a recent study, “more than 70% of U.S. adults believe that a woman should change her name after she gets married. More surprisingly, about half feel that it should be required by law.”
Combining Last Names
Personally, I had never dreamed of myself as Mrs. Anybody. I liked being Liz Lemons, and my friends jokingly referred to my long-time boyfriend as Mr. Lemons. But as our wedding approached, we had to decide if we would maintain our respective last names or if we would choose a new name together to signify our new family unit. In the end, we both felt excited about the idea of sharing a name, so we tested out some combinations of our last names, which all amounted to a bunch of nasty sounding desserts. Instead, we decided to take his mom’s last name. It felt like the perfect choice to honor her role in both of our lives.
Our feminist mothers’ options upon marriage were to keep one’s “maiden name” or to hyphenate last names—typically leaving men out. And for children of the hyphenation generation, hyphenation may feel like a “one-generation solution.” Not every couple is blessed like we were with divorced parents and seven family names to choose from (haha...). Today’s young newlyweds are trying to resolve the last name conundrum by meshing last names to create a new one, symbolizing the couple’s egalitarian values.
For couples who choose to blend names, like Cassandra and Rowan of Ohio, it felt “more representative of us as a whole to not take one or the other's last name, but to create a name that embraces every part of us and recognizes each line of history.” Many same-sex couples are leading the way on name meshing, as it feels more representative of their approach to marriage. Patti and Melinda of Ohio explain: “For us, changing our names was also a way of announcing our desire to intentionally share a life together and keep some of those marital traditions going while putting our own spin on things.”
Ultimately, the choice to blend last names is still quite rare. According to a Google Consumer Survey, about 10% of women choose to hyphenate, create a new name, or use both their original and married names in different contexts. And not everyone is a fan of the name-blending trend. Katie Roiphe, acclaimed author and New York University professor of journalism, writes: “In most cases the new, fake-sounding name obliterates all ethnic resonance: When O'Connor and Rosenblatt turn into Rosecons, the verbal cadences of two cultures are lost.” If you’re new to this game, let me catch you up. Everyone has an opinion about the choices you make for your wedding.
Responding to Negative Reactions
I’m not saying it will be easy—going against the grain always requires a little extra chutzpah. My husband has been given side-eye at many a job interview, the interviewer commenting, “I bet your dad loved that one.” As a matter of fact, sir, he did not. My friend Tim’s dad wasn’t happy either: “I knew that my dad would be upset about me changing my name, since his family is important to him. I worked up the courage to talk to my dad about it, and as predicted, he was upset by it. We talked about it a bit over the next year, but it was sort of a sore subject, and we both avoided it.”
To this day, I sometimes receive mail from my husband’s family addressing me with my husband’s original last name. Unfortunately, when we are willing to challenge patriarchal traditions and expectations, dads can take our choices personally and end up feeling hurt.
Oftentimes, parents may not understand the reasoning behind the name change. Kevin from Texas was also taken aback by “the backlash and negativity from those who saw the name change as disrespectful.” He explains: “It was done out of equanimity and solidarity with my wife, not as a rejection of my heritage.” Tim says: “It became clear that my dad didn't really understand why we wanted to blend our names (it wasn't because we ‘thought it was cool’).”
Ultimately, Tim and Annie of California decided to explain their choice in a formal FAQ, which you can find here. “The explanation and reasons clicked for him, and he finally understood why we wanted to do it and came on board,” he says. “It was a huge weight off my shoulders, and made me really happy and feel very loved to have his support.”
How to Make the Name Blending Decision—Officially
If you, too, are thinking about changing your last name, carry on my wayward son. But let me warn you that the DMV is, like, totally not cool and the Passport Office is the proverbial “Man” whom you must stick it to. California passed the Name Equality Act of 2007 that recognizes a couple’s right to blend names upon marriage without going through the court system as if you were changing your name to “Captain Fantastic.” But that’s California, and not all of us can be so lucky.
After a year of raging against the machine in the old District of Columbia and spending literally weeks on the phone with various bureaucrats who actually said to my husband, “If you were a woman, this would be different,” we conceded and petitioned the court for a legal name change. While I don’t regret fighting the system tooth and nail, I wish someone had told us to go to court first. If only we had known, I wouldn’t have found myself in the DMV hearing the clerk tell me that I had “two options: keep your name or take his,” and once she conceded, she refused to accept my credit card for payment because it had a “different name” on it. This is our government, people.
Just remember: when choosing a last name—there is no perfect option. But, if you both decide to change your names, I can guarantee that after fighting both social norms and the legal system, you will feel so much pride and ownership around your new last name. This is something that all of us name-merging mavericks have in common. While Liz Lemons will always be with me, nothing makes me happier than being one of the Susongs.