Friday, July 1, 2011

Is Taking Your Spouse's Surname Akin to a Loss of Identity?

A topic that often came up while I was at Wellesley, a women's college in Massachusetts, was discussion around women who automatically change their name upon marriage (a tradition 90% of women participate in each year).

On the one hand:
  • She may want her and her spouse (and future children) to be seen as a family
  • It's traditional
  • A name does not define a person, so what does it matter?
  • The spouse won't change his name
  • Why wouldn't a woman change her name?
But then again:
  • A woman's individual identity should not be subsumed under her spouse's
  • She may like and have become accustomed to the name she's had for 20, 30, 40 years
  • If he won't change his name, why should she?
  • She's not property
  • She doesn't believe in or want to perpetuate a tradition rooted in patriarchy
  •  She wants to maintain ties to her own family
  • Changing her name does not make her "more" married
Before Wellesley, these issues never came up as a point of discussion, especially given the dearth of true intellectual debate that I experienced among peers in the Lynn (MA) Public Schools system All of this makes me wonder if this sort of issue is something that people actually discuss in "real life" outside of more academic circles. Does the common person care about these things? Does it really matter what someone else chooses to do with their own life (and name)? Or is this a topic that people with too much time on their hands discuss? But perhaps most importantly, is the tradition of women changing their name something women (and men) should consider more thoughtfully or does it even matter at the end of the day?

What does taking your spouse's surname mean (if anything) for women in the year 2011?


  1. Hi - just found your blog. As someone who's been married for 32 years, and did, after a lot of soul-searching, change my name at that time, I find the discussion interesting. I did it for the reasons you named, especially wanting the whole family to have the same name, and not liking hyphenation. But I recently had a discussion with a colleague - a young, first year teacher - who was raised in southern Virginia. She wondered why several of our students' parents had different names. I said it may be because the wife had chosen not to change her name and this colleague said she'd never heard of such a thing! I almost dropped my teeth. I also have a heck of a time getting folks here (northern Virginia) to refer to me as Ms., and it amazes me how many unmarried teachers go by Miss. It's like fingernails on the chalkboard when I here it! Don't know if I answered your question, by it sure seems to be regional. When I taught in St. Paul, Minnesota I was always "Ms," and while many women did change their names, it wasn't really questioned when they didn't.
    Liked your post on charter schools, too.

  2. Thanks for your response Mary...I agree that it certainly is regional. In Massachusetts (and the Northeast in general), it is not uncommon for women to keep their maiden name and hyphenate; they are also tend to get married at a later age than women in the South or Midwest.

    Attending a women's college made me think about the feminist aspect of the decision to change or not change your name, but at the end of the day I believe that it is a personal choice that everyone has the right to make. Some of my fellow Wellesley alums might disagree, however, as some did questions their classmates' decision to change their name. The "liberal" culture of schools like Wellesley may have definitely played into that.