What's In A Married Name?

January 06, 1991|By Susanne Trowbridge

When I got married and it came time to decide what to do about my surname, I'll admit I took the easy way out. I kept my own last name for business purposes, but legally, I changed my name to my husband's. It seemed like a good idea at the time, as if having the same last name would make us feel more united.

Still, sometimes I can't help but feel a little dissatisfied with my decision (and not just because I'm the third Sue in his family). Riding up in an elevator at a convention, a man looked at my badge and asked about the name. "Oh, I don't know," I replied. "It's just my husband's name."

I had hoped that eventually, I would feel connected to his name, but after two years, it hasn't really happened. The truth is, I really like my "old" name. But why should it matter so much, anyway? What's so important about a name?

"One of Shakespeare's plays says, 'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,' " says Baltimore psychotherapist Barbara Turk. "Maybe it would smell as sweet, but it wouldn't be my own. Names are very important representations of ourselves, and wanting to hold onto that, carry it forward, is an understandable thing."

European women began taking their husbands' names around the 13th century, writes Sharon Lebell in her book, "Naming Ourselves, Naming Our Children." Among aristocratic families, women did so for prestige. Only in the past 25 years or so have some married women dared to buck centuries of tradition and keep their maiden names. (Of course, there are exceptions; imagine the confusion if Elizabeth Taylor had changed her name every time she'd gone to the altar.)

These days, however, women are choosing to do all kinds of things -- keeping their own names, hyphenating and, in some cases, even creating a new name.

Esther Giller says that when she married her husband, Craig Hankin, 13 years ago, she kept her maiden name because "it just was what I was comfortable with. It wasn't a big political statement or anything. I just didn't feel any real need to change it, and I have never regretted making that decision."

Ms. Giller admits that Mr. Hankin's parents were very disapproving when they heard of her decision. "They're very old-fashioned," she says. "I had one conversation with Craig's mother soon after we were married, and she let me know that she was distressed by my decision. I said, 'I'm sorry you're distressed, but this is the way it is,' and I told her I would never embarrass her by not answering if somebody called me Mrs. Hankin."

When it came to naming their children, however, Ms. Giller and Mr. Hankin went the traditional route and gave them their father's last name. "His parents felt very strongly about it," she says. "We didn't make our decision based on their input and desires, but we considered it, I think."

Generational conflicts of this type over the name issue seem to be much more common than spats between husband and wife. "I think that many times, women who are going to keep their own names will probably find themselves a man who is agreeable to that in the first place," says Dr. Turk.

If you want to keep your name and your fiance says no way, you'd better find a way to settle the issue, warns Dr. Turk. "There are going to have to be lots of things to be settled throughout a marriage, and if everything's made into a power struggle, there can be war for years to come," she says.

"If a man has difficulties with the concept that a woman has identity in her name, and that issue is not a rejection of him in any way but is self-identification, if he cannot understand that, then he could be a controlling type of person. That could result in a very diminished marriage situation for a woman."

Mary Ellen Porter chose to change her name when she got married, simply because she was fed up with her unwieldy maiden name of Beckelheimer. "Nobody could spell it, and nobody could remember it," she says. "It was just sort of all around tough to deal with, and it seemed so much easier to

change it to Porter. If I had had an easier name myself, then I probably wouldn't have changed it."

Kurt and Nancy Hammond created a new identity by changing their surname shortly after they got married. Kurt's family name, Stumpf, is "a very common name in certain parts of Bavaria," he says, but it was just too awkward for most Americans. So they dropped it, and his middle name became their new last name.

The Hammonds changed their name out of convenience, but for a married couple who desires to make a statement against our patriarchal culture, selecting a brand new surname makes a lot of sense.

zTC After all, says Dr. Turk, "the woman's family name is her father's name, the male family line. And if she thought, 'I'll take my mother's name,' that would have been her father's name. Maybe the whole thing needs a rethink."

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