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.
So, I’m a vegetarian, and for as long as I can remember, upon finding this out, folks like to volunteer the reasons why they’re not. They’ve thought about it, they get it, but they’ve come to a different conclusion. There’s this base-level of defensiveness around aligning with the status quo when it’s in vogue to be avant garde. And I totally get that. For instance, I want to drive a 1970s Volkswagen camper van, but I do drive a 2010 Honda Civic because I’m not trying to break down all over the damn highway.
And when I meet a fellow Millennial driving a beautiful vintage van, I feel a little envious and assume that their life must be far more accommodating to mechanical inconvenience, so isn’t that nice for them. All of this to say, for feminists who maintained the norm by taking their husbands’ last names, the emotions around this choice are a mixed bag.
Women who are aware of the politicized history of women’s last names often take the last name question quite seriously, putting a lot of thought and consideration into the choice. Stephanie says, “I'm a feminist, and I took my husband's last name. Some people assume that I took his name by default, or out of a lack of awareness on the options—but neither are true in our case.” She explains that they considered a number of factors: the desire to share a common name, as well as what each name represents about the values of their respective families. In the end, they chose his name: “My husband’s family, to me, represents what a family should be. Their version of family is something I wanted to embrace and be a part of.”
After lengthy deliberation with their partners, some women still choose to take their husbands’ names due to the reality that taking his name may feel like the best of imperfect options. Skye says, “It was important to me that we discussed it and tried other things out.” But in the end, they were unable to find an alternative that felt right: “So having tried everything else, I did decide to take his name.” Charmi agrees that there isn’t an ideal option: “It’s logistically complicated.”
Audrey makes the point that patriarchy is the water we swim in, and no last name change was going to remedy that: “The way I looked at it, there was really no one true feminist way to do it," she says. "You either keep your maiden name—which is your father's family name—or take his name. It's still the patriarchy either way.” However, she admits that she never considered creating a new name together: “Perhaps if it was more in vogue when I got married I would have considered it.”
Alison adds that for her, the last name issue was not on the top of her feminist priorities list in her marriage: “I have always been pretty independent and definitely consider myself a feminist. However, to me that means my husband considers me his partner and equal, which he always has. He has put my education and career first and supported me every step of the way.” So, she didn’t hesitate to take her husband’s last name: “Seeing our shared name on my MBA and accounting certificates reminds me that I have a partner who knows I am capable of doing whatever I set my mind to and respects my decision to pursue my dreams.”
Others agree that the last name choice is more cosmetic than substantive. Miranda explains, “My maiden name is Smith, and I always hated that I had such a boring name.” So she eagerly changed her last name upon marrying her husband, but she points out that she “wouldn’t have married anyone who insisted [she] had to.”
For some families, sharing a common last name is a very real legal and social concern. Dawn says, “We travel a lot internationally and did not want any issues at immigration, especially since my partner is a green-card holder.” Furthermore, it was important that their multiracial children share a last name with their father: “I knew our children would have their dad's last name, as we didn't want people to question paternity when we travel, especially with the kids (likely) being much lighter than he is.” In the end, Dawn says being a part of an international, multiracial family really underlined her desire to share a name: “For me it was less about ‘ownership’ and more about unification.”
Hayley’s choice to take her husband’s last name also involved immigration concerns: “I did it because my husband is an immigrant, and we were told by several attorneys that it would be easier for him to get his green card and working permits if I had the same last name as him, as it would look like we were 'really married.'” A number of women also emphasized that sharing a last name was a safeguard in case of medical emergencies. Lisa says, “They don’t question you in the ER when your names match.”
When my husband and I both changed our last name upon marriage, I received a variety of reactions. I definitely encountered a few raises of the eyebrow indicating that this choice was a bit extra, probably from fellow Honda Civic drivers. But I also had several women confide in me that they actually feel regret about taking their husbands’ names. Some felt that the professional setbacks weren’t worth it or resent that their husbands did not face the same challenges. Others simply miss their old names and their former identity, or being connected to family members in that way. Jennifer was surprised at how much she wrestled with the last name issue. She always knew she would keep her name, but when it came time to apply for her marriage certificate, she had a last minute change of heart: “It made me realize what a deeply personal decision it really is. I didn’t expect to feel the way I did about it.”
I had the same desire as all of the women I spoke to for this piece: to share a common last name with my spouse. If your options seem limited to keeping your last name or taking his, it’s a tough choice to make, especially if you feel connected to the history of the fight for women’s rights in marriage. I would recommend discussing all of the options, including hyphenation, combining names, having him take your name, or choosing a new name together. Regardless of the end result, you will likely be happier with the choice if you feel that it was made together through honest communication and mutual respect.