The Married Name Game: What’s in a Name?

By Ashley Robinson

I’m getting married in April.  As of April 24th, I will be “Mrs. Jeffrey Barker.”

The idea of being the future wife of the “love of my life” is truly amazing, but the idea of changing my name … uh, not so much.

Let’s be honest here, upfront, right away:  I really like my last name and I don’t plan on changing it. My identity is so associated with my last name, and to just drop it would feel like betraying this nearly 26-year old identity of mine.

Here’s a little background. The Robinsons came over to the New World in the early 17th century and set up shop in the South. I had families live and die by that name, in every sense of the meaning.  My parents played the Simon & Garfunkel classic “Mrs. Robinson” (Coo-coo-ca-choo!) as their first dance at their wedding.  My nickname in college, amidst a mob of 80’s-born Ashleys, ala “The Heathers”, was Robbie.  I refer to myself as Robinson when I am trying to pull myself together, or telling myself to drive slower (often).

My guy’s last name, well, he doesn’t really know that much about his father’s Anglo-Saxon-Midwest side of the Barker family and actually identifies more with his mother’s very bliski Polish roots.  And don’t get me wrong – I love his last name. I actually call him “Barker” almost exclusively as a first name.

But it’s not my name, and I am not ready to take it up.

I am not opposed to those who do take their husband’s name.  It would be hypocritical and ahem, rude to judge other’s decisions.  It’s an old, valued tradition and maybe some don’t have a close tie to their maiden name … or maybe some brides are ready to take on a new married identity.  Everyone’s reason is different.

But what matters these days is that there is a choice.

This name issue is not new. The Lucy Stone League, an organization named after a suffragette who refused to change her last name in 1855, has been advocating with the motto:  “My name is the symbol of my identity which must not be lost.”  The League started up in the 1920’s as a pre-cursor to the National Organization of Women – fighting for the rights for married women to obtain passports, check out library books, receive paychecks, etc. using their non-married names.

Muslim women are not required by Islamic Law to change their name when married.  Up until the 20th century, Scottish women kept their maiden names after they married – uncommon in the history of English-speaking countries.  Russian couples decide what name they will declare together, and if the woman chooses her husband’s name, she can use a feminine form – like Putin’s wife as “Putina.”  Scandinavian women take their husband’s name as a middle name. Southern Indian Hindu women take their husband’s FIRST names.  In Chile, most Asian countries and Italy, people keep their father’s name for life. The examples go on and on …

While back in the states, approximately 3 million American women change their name every year, about 90% of all marriages, according to the Lucy Stone League.

(As a side note: I was interested to find out how many women within the last decade have NOT taken their hubby’s name, especially here in the Sacramento region.  Alas, in 2009, marriage records were transferred from Social Security to the County of Sacramento making it virtually impossible to get that number without digging through a mountain of papers.)

Now most ask: why not take his name?  It’s a hard, complicated, tedious thing to always be the one who doesn’t have the family name.  The outsider.  The wife seems to not want to let her singlehood go.  What’s wrong with me to not want to share his identity?  Even my own mother is affronted by my “apparent” middle finger to tradition.

However, she’s not alone in this emotion.  According to a study out of Indiana University, and cited in a recent Elle Magazine article, 70% of polltakers agreed or strongly agreed that a woman should take her husband’s name when she marries.  About 25% of survey respondents said a woman should change her name to have a marital identity connected to her husband.

The age of a bride, the level of her education, her political views and where she lives all play roles in the decision to change a name.  Women with post-graduate degrees are less likely to change their name than women with “just” bachelor degrees (I know, I was offended, too. “Just”?!).   However, there are conflicting studies showing that younger women are more apt to change their name than older women.

And before we start the debate, I didn’t say I wouldn’t take the name EVER.  I’m sure when I have precious little monsters running around, I will change it or call myself “Mrs. Barker” just to keep things simple for their sake or insurance records, or something pragmatic like that.

In the meantime, you may ask: what does Barker think about me not taking his name?  Well, he’s not ecstatic, truth be told.  He was primarily more upset that I had made this decision separate of him.  I suppose you could say I made up my mind as a teenager after reading books like The Feminine Mystique or Reviving Ophelia … at the time there seemed to be this conspiracy to quash us women, young and old, into submission. I have met men who don’t seem to be “in on it” … but that notion of keeping true to who I am and what I stand for as a person – separate of my gender, has not left. Nor will it.

So, maybe he and I should compromise?

The Knot (my favorite wedding website) offers these name change options:

  • “He takes yours: Chris Smith marries Laura Walker and becomes Chris Walker.” I think this is way too much a role reversal for me.  I wouldn’t be able to hang.  But did you know that in only CA, GA, HI, IA, MA, NY and ND “explicitly allow a man to change his name through marriage with the same ease as a woman”?  “A man living in any other state will have to apply for a name change through the court system and pay the required fees,” according to Wikipedia, as opposed to women.
  • “Hyphenate: Laura Walker becomes Laura Walker-Smith.” I think this is fine for some, and an option I have actually considered. I see this a whole bunch on Facebook with recently married friends. But then I think that for everyone BUT the bride, it’s kind of annoying. Three names?! You want us all to write out your three freaking names?! Just choose one already!
  • “Maiden name to middle: Laura Anne Walker becomes Laura Walker Smith.”  I don’t understand how this is any different than a name change or hyphenating …  And the question of really wanting to drop a middle name is confusing to me.
  • “Professionally known as: Laura Walker legally becomes Laura Smith but keeps her birth name at work.”  I like this idea a lot.  It sounds kind of complicated though.  Has anyone done this?
  • “New names for everyone: either a combo or something new altogether — the pinnacle of fairness and compromise.  Laura Walker and Chris Smith become Laura and Chris Smalker.”  O.M.G, I can’t get past that ridiculous last name!!  The Smalker daughters will go running to the hills to find a husband with a normal last name.

However, I think the best collaboration I have seen is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.  The Mayor was born “Villar” and his wife (uh, ex-wife) was “Raigosa.”  It’s a pretty bomb name combo but could be extremely awkward if you say … get yourself into an icky public divorce. Barker and I could do that … Barkinson or Robker?  Which do you prefer?

I will close on the famous Shakespeare line, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

In the end, it’s all about sharing my life and love with him, and that is something I am not conflicted about.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  What do you think?  What would you do?  If you’re married, did you wrestle with the same thing?  How did you resolve?  Share your feedback and experiences (anonymously if you wish) by submitting comments to girlsonthegrid AT gmail DOT com.

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  1. the BLAH BLAH BLAHger says

    I’m a single 30-something who was working in the same industry for my whole career. I’ll likely hyphenate some day professionally. Plus, I like my last name – it shows off my heritage. BUT, I recently found out that when some friends got married years ago, he took her name! They’re my first people to know who went for it. As teenagers, her family became like family to him. They mentored him and nurtured him in a way his family couldn’t, so he chose to honor them. I just think that’s so beautiful and thought I’d share!

  2. Laura Mahoney says

    Ashley, with 12 years of experience on this issue, I can say there is no right answer to this question. You have to do what feels right for you.

    Like you, I decided long before I met my husband that I would not change my name. When he told me he would be upset if I DID change my name, he sealed the deal.

    Be prepared for the fact that everyone will assume you are not changing your name, and it will be your job to gently inform them, sometimes over and over again, that you kept your name. Most people don’t bat an eyelash over it. But you will always have a few stubborn relatives or friends who either “forget” or refuse to acknowledge that you kept your name. I’m still working on a few people.

    I have a friend who uses her maiden name professionally and took her husband’s name legally, and that has worked for her. I have a friend who kept her name and her in-laws almost did not come to her wedding because of it. Until the day they died, they addressed every piece of mail and wrote every check out to her with her husband’s name. She sent every one of them back. Ouch. I think they were an extreme exception.

    We gave our kids my husband’s last name, and my last name as a second middle name. So they have four names, but for everyday they just use their first and last names. Cumbersome sometimes, but that’s what we chose. At nine and five years old, they are fine with it so far. When dealing with teachers and friends’ parents, I must identify myself as “Laura Mahoney, Ben Schwartz’s mom,” but it’s not a big deal. Most people don’t have an issue with it.

    Most of our friends and family call us the Schwahoneys. It’s catchy.

  3. Laura Mahoney says

    I meant to say people will assume you ARE changing your name.

  4. Ashley Robinson says

    haha, i probably should have told barker this article was running beforehand! the poor guy got lots of random questions about my name on the 11th! oops.

  5. laura says

    I heart this article. I totally understand all sides of the debate, but I feel the same way that Ashley does. All my life, my nicknames, pet names, have been affiliated with my name (LEB, LB, Brades, or just Braden), and to give that up feels…weird. 🙂 I also think that as a PR person, I’ve worked hard to establish my name and to take a new one would be confusing and feel like I was starting all over again. I think maybe the best solution is to take his name for personal matters, but keep yours for legal and professional ones. That being said, I also really like Mr. and Mrs. Barkinson. 🙂

  6. bombaygirl says

    I did not change my name and I don’t regret it one bit! We’ve been married over 13 years now, and have two kids. They have no problem with the fact that their mom has a different last name from them and their dad, and neither does the school, the teachers, the kids’ friends, their parents, you get the picture.

  7. Riley Cooper says

    hinduism is a very interesting religion in my opinion;.-

  8. chaidrinkingfool says

    I didn’t change my name. Socially it was a hassle at first because I live in a conservative state, but paperwork-wise, I hear it’s much easier than changing it would have been. I’m glad I kept my name, although, funny thing: Some people understood “I kept my name” to mean, “I hyphenated our last names”.

    We don’t have children, but in today’s society, I don’t think it’s a big deal for parents to have different last names. Just look at how diverse the U.S. is these days, and compare that to the varied traditions you talked about in your article. I’ve asked only one woman who kept her name whether it was a problem when her kids were in school, and she said it was no problem at all.

    Your husband should be prepared to occasionally be prepared to be called by *your* last name. 🙂 And I think it’s natural for a woman to make the decision about her name without her husband: After all, she’s had the name her whole life, and usually has been aware of the tradition in U.S. culture for a long time. It’s not unreasonable that a woman would have an opinion on such a thing long before she meets the man she will marry.

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