What’s in a name? For married women, a lifetime of effort.

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A woman who decides to marry a man sets herself up for a lot of time spent thinking and talking about her name.  If she decides to change her name, she opts in to a lengthy bureaucratic name-changing process so complex that various “name change kits” have emerged–available for only $29.95!–to help her navigate the transition (a transition that, according to some of my friends, is a massive hassle and never truly complete).  If she decides not to change her name, she opts in to a lifetime of explaining to friends, relatives, coworkers, customer service representatives, financial planners, real estate agents, and so forth that her name is not “Mrs. His Name.”

We’re now well past the days when women were legally required to take their husbands’ names to do things like vote and drive.  But although nominally women are free to do as they please with their names, their decision–regardless what the decision is–remains fraught.  Professor Elizabeth Emens has documented the odd disparity between the legal default (by doing nothing, women keep their names) and the social default (most women do in fact change their names, although studies have shown quite a bit of variation among different demographics).

And the absence of legal mandate has not foreclosed social judgment:  one recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Indiana and the University of Utah found that 70% of participants agreed that women should take their husband’s names, with up to half of those participants advocating that the government require women to adopt their husband’s names.

Naming conventions are complex.  But perhaps one of the many reasons the naming decision has remained fraught for women is the way that the naming decision is treated not by the law but by the media.  Consider the New York Times wedding announcements.  Whether one thinks of the announcements as an elitist blight or a harmless tradition, they undoubtedly function to produce social knowledge about matrimony.  We may cringe when Carrie Bradshaw refers to them as the “single woman’s sport pages,” but part of the reason we cringe is that her words contain a kernel of truth.

A quick perusal of the Times wedding announcements reveals a clear set of default rules.  The default is that the announcement refers to the bride as Mrs. His Name throughout the announcement–for recent examples, see here and here.  When the bride keeps her name, however, that information is typically included in the first sentence about her:  “The bride, 31, is keeping her name.”  Often, the bride is a distinguished professional.  In this highly public rendition of her biography, what is the purpose–or the implication–of placing the information about her naming decision front and center?  Does that decision overshadow her educational background, her professional accomplishments, and her family relationships?  The answer, I think, must be no.  But by lavishing attention on a woman’s decision to keep her name, the announcements signal that such a decision is uncommon, peculiar, newsworthy.  Meanwhile, of course, the announcements simply refer to the man–who is also keeping his name–as Mr. His Name, without further comment.

The Times is just an example.  But it is far from an isolated one.  And the disproportionate attention devoted to the description of women’s names reinforces a social default under which women who marry men–all women who marry men–are conscripted into defending their naming decisions in perpetuity.

– Nancy Leong

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4 Responses to What’s in a name? For married women, a lifetime of effort.

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  2. Astrid says:

    Tat is very sad that the social reality doesn’t follow suit with legal reality. Women should be able to choose whether to keep their own names or not, and should not be scrutinized over it. I can relate to this from a personal perspective. I will marry my boyfriend this September, and already everyone is assuming I’ll change my name.

  3. Pingback: What’s in a name? via Feminist Law Professors

  4. IaMnOtAmRs. says:

    The only part of my name that’s my identity is my first name. ‘My’ last name is my father’s name, a patriarchal name. I have been autonomous as a woman who’s been married, for a long time. The red tape of changing my family name, is enormous and can be expensive.
    When my spouse and I got married in the early 80’s, he and I applied for a Sears card and because both our names appeared on the application form, someone from Sears, phoned and insisted we weren’t married.
    I have pretty much faced an uphill battle since then. Only a handful, if that, know who I am. I get fed up, beyond belief, of trying to explain that I’m not a Mrs. The most recent example….I was in an ER and a nurse came along and on the form she held up on a clipboard, it was either my first and last name or “wife of”. She referred to me as Mrs. My Last Name. I told her, I’m married and I’m not a Mrs.
    I have never been questioned about why I chose to keep the family name. After marriage though, my late IL, despite how my spouse and I wrote our wedding annnouncement, she had changed it to Mr. and Mrs. John Doe, clipped the announcement out of the local paper and handed it to her son. Needless to say, he had a thing or two to say to her and I was considered invisible to her, from that point on.
    Initially, not long after marriage, I decided to hyphenate our last names. During that time, I had a doctor and she told me that she told her spouse, “I’ll take your name when you take mine.” At that point, I dropped my spouse’s surname.
    The one thing that almost EVERYONE forgets, is that taking one’s spouse’s last name….is only tradition, the customary thing to do. It’s not against any law in North America, to keep one’s single name.
    My sister, when she gets married, is taking her fiancee’s name because she hates her previous spouse’s name. And…like me, she doesn’t like our family name.
    I’ve never experienced criticism, just confusion. While in ER, the little plastic ID bracelet, just says my first and last name, so why….do people in the medical industry, just assume when looking at my first/last names, that I’m automatically a Mrs.?? Because, it’s ingrained in women from the moment they’re old enough to be taught by Mum and/or Dad, that you take your spouse’s name, when married. Keeping one’s family or single name, once married, is almost unthinkable and a foreign concept.
    I sent an e-mail to my local hospital informing the administration to teach their staff that not all married woman are….Mrs.
    With the type of work my spouse does, if a woman’s name appears on a form, he doesn’t assume anything – marital status – when talking by phone, to that woman. He refers to her by her first and last name.
    I’ve had to explain to relatives-by-marriage and customer service personnel and doctor’s offices and specialist’s offices and so it goes….ad nauseum. It seems the majority of women who are married, have never encountered a couple with different surnames.
    They can’t get their brains around someone who’s chosen to keep her single/family name.
    Even in the national newspaper in Ontario, Canada, women are described in terms of gender and marital status rather than their professions, which never happens to men.

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