Six years ago, Melissa Smith, then 25, had just happily accepted a marriage proposal from her boyfriend. They had only been together for eight months but she figured it was true what they said, “When you know, you know.” So, her and her new fiancé headed down to The Office of the City Clerk in downtown Manhattan to apply for a marriage license.
After waiting in line for what seemed like forever, Smith and her hubby-to-be were finally called to the clerk’s desk. “She asked a series of questions and then she said, ‘What do you want your last name to be?’”
It was a question Smith had never asked herself before. Still, it seemed like an important enough decision to think about. “I kind of stammered a bit,” she recalled. “The clerk said, ‘Girl, you better decide now because it’s really hard to do later.’” Her fiancé sat there perplexed not realizing the issue. “Of course you’ll take my name,” he pressed.
Despite the clerk’s sister-girl advice and her lover’s side eye, Smith didn’t change her name that day.
Smith is one of five percent of women who are keeping their maiden names after marriage. According to a study from Indiana University, 95 percent of women are changing their names and 70 percent of women feel that they should ditch their last name for their husband’s.
“I didn’t feel comfortable saying yes, so I didn’t,” explained Smith after she dissected what happened that day. “It was more of a visceral reaction. It feels weird to all of sudden be called a different person and change my identity.”
The loss of identity is what causes many women to question whether legally changing their name after marriage is necessary, especially when keeping one’s name has no bearing on their commitment to their future mate.
Society has come a long way from early colonial days where it was a legal requirement for women to change their names after marriage. Now, women have the option of taking her husband’s last name, making her last name her middle name, hyphenating the two last names or picking an entirely new name, which is exactly what Mary Seymour, 27, considered.
Before Seymour and her fiancé Justin Haas were officially engaged, they had already started negotiating naming. “I brought up that I didn’t just want to change my name and lose my identity. I didn’t like the way that felt,” Seymour said when she first discussed the issue with her boyfriend. The couple had just returned from a friend’s wedding.
With her then-boyfriend trying to be as supportive as possible, Haas found an online anagram generator in hopes to combine their two last names, Seymour and Hass, and create a new family name. “We got a lot of weird things back,” said Seymour. “Plus, it felt weird that we would both change our names.” Her fiancé eventually decided that he really didn’t want to change his name, especially being that he is one of two sons and he feared losing his family name altogether. Still, when Seymour fears losing her identity and her fiancé fears losing his name, who decides what’s more important?
The two plan to marry in Colorado on July 30 and Seymour still hasn’t made up her mind about the name game. She’s leaning towards hyphenating her last name for practicality. “I don’t like the idea of having a different name from him and my future kids,” said Seymour. “It’s a lot more practical to have the same last name especially with school and doctor’s appointments.”
Whatever choice Seymour chooses, the important thing is that women are actually making a choice in regards to their last names more so than ever before. “Many women are choosing to take their husband’s name but they are making a real choice,” explains Women’s Studies professor and lecturer Chanel Craft, who is also recently engaged.
Craft, most likely represents the other end of the naming spectrum, as her fiancé is taking her name after marriage. “If it’s two people becoming one, then what’s the big deal,” she asked. So, ‘Craft’ will become the couple’s middle name and they will both take his last name.
“Of course he was upset. He’s not a feminist, I am,” said Craft of her fiancé’s resistance. Still, she remains firm in her decision and respects women who make the traditional choice. “I can critique the institution and still be apart of it,” she reasons. “I watch the wedding shows, I notice when my friends change their names on Facebook and put up photos from their weddings.” Still, she encourages women to have the name conversation with their partners before walking down the aisle.
When a woman decides to keep her name, it doesn’t automatically mean that it’s as an act of resistance or independence. If anything, it’s an act of claiming your identity or a fear of losing an identity you’ve come to know and love. If you are getting married, you should feel as if you’re adding to your life. You shouldn’t feel like you’re losing yourself in order to follow society’s traditions.
Even Tina Turner told Ike Turner at their divorce hearing in 1978, “All I want is my name. He can have the rest. But I want my name. I earned it.” And that’s just it. Women are becoming married later in life, after their careers have been established and after they have made a name for themselves. Preserving your individuality is important in any relationship, especially marriage.
When women get married and change their name it’s a lot of work. Not only do you have to sign legal documents, you have to worry about changing your driver’s license, health insurance card, passport, bank account, credit cards and insurance documents. And while many have argued that you can create a new identity after marriage, many professional women feel like honoring the person who they have already established. Whatever your decision, just be sure to have the conversation not only with yourself but with your future husband.