Letters

Responding to "Mrs. Feminist," women and men weigh in on the merits of wives taking their husbands' last names.


Salon Staff
October 18, 2003 12:42AM (UTC)

[Read "Mrs. Feminist," by Lynn Harris.]

Thanks for Lynn Harris' timely article about women changing their names when they marry. As a lifetime feminist, it's an issue I thought a lot about before changing my name from Janoff to Baron when I married last June. My husband and I discussed some combination of the two (Baron von Janoff was a popular and amusing choice), but finally I opted for simplicity's sake to change. This is the only family group that I have ever chosen to be a part of, and I like the idea that we have a "family label." Part of feminism, as I see it, includes the power to make hard choices for personal reasons, so if asinine researchers choose to attribute my motivation to some neocon nesting instinct, so be it.

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A more pressing issue, to me, is the sudden abandonment of the term "Ms." I choose to be called Ms. Baron. No matter how long I explain that the term "Ms." was invented, not as an alternative to "Miss," but to replace both "Miss" and "Mrs." so that women don't have to be identified by their marital status, I am still called Mrs. Baron. I find it incredibly frustrating, and have been wondering a lot lately whatever happened to the 'Ms. Movement.'

So, I found the title of your article somewhat off the mark. Changing your name doesn't make you a Mrs. any more than keeping it does.

-- Marya Baron

In your story about changing names, I would have liked to have heard about men who changed their names upon marriage, or considered it. When my wife and I got married, we seriously considered our both hyphenating our names. Given our shared career choice, however, we anticipated the following phone call to our house a few years in the future. "Hello, may I speak with Rabbi Hyman-Fessler?" "Um -- which one?"

-- Michael Fessler

My parents divorced when I was 3 and my mother changed her name back to her maiden name. The fact that my sister and I have a different last name from our mother's never affected us in any negative way. There was nothing confusing about it. So when I was married two years ago, my decision to keep my name did not seem like a big deal. But when I came back to work after being married, a male co-worker said to me, "Aren't you being really mean to your husband by not taking his name?" It was then that I understood how "not normal" some people think it is and was really shocked. Your article shocked me as well when I learned that 90 percent of women change their name. There is nothing mean or confusing or strange about keeping your name. It really is not a big deal. My husband likes my name and does not feel mistreated at all.

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-- Krista Genovese

Thank you for this excellent piece.

When I marry in three and a half months, I'll take my new husband's name. I love my last name -- I love that it's unique and recognizable and that strangers often ask if I'm related to someone they know (usually my grandfather, or maybe my cousin).

But I also love the unity implicit in taking my future husband's name. Where once we were two, now we are one. It's not about giving up my maiden name (which will move to middle) or about taking on his name -- it's about advertising to the world that we are married.

I admit it's not chic among some of my friends to take the husband's name. But I've looked around and seen that, of the wives I know who've kept their names, two are on the way to divorce after less than three years. Young brides, just out of college, full of idealism, keeping their names. It's almost a premonition. (The older brides I know who've kept their names seem to have longer-lasting marriages. Perhaps their decision was more informed? Or simply more mature?)

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At any rate, I am pleased with my decision. I felt a twinge of uncertainty when he asked if I'd take his name, but I've never regretted saying I would.

-- Kristine Laudadio

When my wife and I arrived at the name-change issue, we agreed on a solution that works so well for us I wanted to share it. My wife was torn between the fear of losing her identity and the desire to create a partnership with a shared name. Also, as a teacher, she didn't want to deal with a hyphenated name. She was starting to sway toward taking my name, but she couldn't justify it to herself because it wasn't really a true partnership if she had to give something up and I did not. So, the solution we came up with was she took my last name and changed her middle name to her maiden, and I also changed my middle name to her maiden name. This allowed her to maintain some of her original name, have the shared partnership name, and also feel like I participated in the process. And as a bonus for me, it makes me really proud to tell people I was willing to change my name for her.

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-- Kyle Dillon Feliks

I am getting married soon (44 days -- thanks for that countdown, Wedding Channel!). I'm also moving into a new house, writing a play, and running a church group. And oh, yes, working a full-time job.

I'm too busy to keep my name. Stationery with my new name has already been ordered on my behalf. Monogrammed bathmats with my new initials have already arrived, with the caveat that they cannot be used until we are married but that we should start using them the moment we are married. Hyphenating my name and then having to explain the reasons why would take even more time, and more importantly, precious brain cells I want to save for other projects.

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I don't have time to change my name yet either. That takes too many phone calls and too many forms to fill out. The Wedding Channel actually sells a kit for this, complete with CD. I've heard it's very helpful, though I haven't had time to look at it. I plan on doing the name change after the honeymoon, when I can spend long winter nights getting drunk and writing my HMO to tell them I've become someone else.

I decided I'll change my name and take on his, but I'll use my own for artistic works. Inside, I'll always be me. I'll always be me with the name I was given at birth, but also the names I secretly gave myself, or was given over the years. Some I was fond of, and some not so much, but they all belong to me. Now a new one will, too.

-- For 44 more days, Hilary Franklin Rogers

Your article misses the male perspective:

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Many men would prefer to marry a woman with enough self-respect to keep her own name!

-- John

I am not convinced that what Ms. Harris describes is anything other than making excuses. My contemporaries may feel like they have more choices about their names and other public signifiers than our grandmothers had. However, I can't help but feel that all the earnest soul searching done by a woman who changes her name is lost on Joe Kansan when he calls her Mrs. and she responds.

I recently married and did not change my name. Until I was engaged, I spent 28 years confident that I would never change my name, no matter how hard it is to pronounce. Suddenly, I was faced with desires to both keep my identity and feel like I was part of a family. I realized that I did not have to give up one to have the other.

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The truth is that keeping one's name is still not an easy choice for a woman to make. Yes, I took all kinds of flak from confused and/or perturbed relatives on both sides of the family, some of whom interpreted my decision as evidencing a lack of commitment to my marriage. Their reactions confirmed for me that I made the right decision, and I haven't regretted it yet.

-- Kristen Lehner

I am so tired of hearing that a woman's birth name is "her father's name" when the same argument is never applied to men. Yes, my surname came from my father. I can't change the fact that I was born into a patriarchal society. But the name became mine when it was given to me at birth, and I have spent my whole life defining it. It's my name and it's staying put. And if I really didn't want it, I'd choose a brand-new name for myself, something meaningful to me, instead of opting for Harris' milquetoast "revisionism," where I would obligingly take my husband's surname and then invent a sanitized story about the "feminist" choice I made.

-- Elizabeth Jones

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When my wife and I married we both changed our names. We discussed this at length and struggled some. We considered choosing an altogether new name but finally settled on hyphenating our mothers' maiden names. I know that it's patriarchal two generations back, but you have to start someplace.

While Ms. Harris' article did mention the possibility of a man changing his name instead of, or in addition to, his wife changing hers, she gave it short shrift and more or less dismissed it (via an anecdote) as too much trouble for the man.

Having done it, I can attest that it wasn't so much trouble. We both had to order new credit cards and get new licenses. Is that somehow harder for a man? Or did she mean that there would be some social stigma attached to a man changing his name? I would think anyone mature enough to get married could handle explaining his name choice to his family, friends and colleagues. He might even educate a few people along the way.

-- Adam Conner-Sax

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I have been married now for almost three years and after much debate, finally decided to change my name and add my husband's family name after my own. I have long been a politically active feminist and was surprised by the reaction I got from colleagues and friends who thought I was giving in to tradition.

My rationale was this: 1) a name does not a feminist make, and 2) while I feel that my own name might be somehow tied to my identity now, I hope that at the end of my life, I will have been partnered with my husband for most of my life and my identity would be based on our life together, as a family unit. This logic would also have allowed for us to create and use a new name, but we decided it was easier to go with one already in existence by one of us.

I think the assertion that one's name is somehow indicative of their independence and power in a relationship is not at all accurate and is certainly not the case for us. I appreciated Lynn Harris' piece on this and am fascinated to learn I am not the only one, because by the initial reaction of my peers, I would have thought differently.

-- Ann Elisabeth Stuart Samson

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This will be a feminist issue for me until men start changing their names at marriage in appreciable numbers. Why isn't it viewed as a choice for them?

-- Lisa Hirsch

Feminism has been made smaller by the idea that its essence is nothing but personal choice. I've heard many women say that they stayed home with the children not because they thought women are better homemakers but for the supposedly neutral idea that "he makes more money than I do, so it made more sense." But why are men almost always better paid than women, even those with the same level of work experience and education? Why do more men not volunteer to be homemakers, if both parents consider it an important job? Why are women more willing to sacrifice their careers, as though money were the only thing that mattered about doing a job? These larger issues are never addressed because they're covered up under the snuggly quilt of "personal choices."

My husband and I both consider ourselves feminists. When we married, we wanted to take a brand-new last name that we would use and pass on to our children. However, my husband's mother was very upset. She felt that as the only male child it was up to him to carry on their surname. He kept his last name and I kept mine. Now that we have twins, we combined elements of our last names into a single, new, unhyphenated surname that both kids share. Ferrar + Lipowitz = Ferrowitz. We like the new name because it indicates both of us and also carries some of our respective ethnic heritage along with it. His name doesn't come first because he's the dad, but because "Lipar" sounds like something from "Star Trek." Nor do I think, in this age of stepfamilies, that other people are going to be confused by the fact that there are three different surnames in our household.

-- Sara Lipowitz

I also "tacked on" my husband's name, for similar reasons cited by many of the women in this article. I chose my husband; I couldn't choose my dad. I have no interest in chucking cultural traditions just because they are traditional. And I have met far too many "feminists" who were great sticklers for theory and symbolism, but invariably seemed to choose relationships with men that limited and degraded them. The fanatic shouts to convince herself.

I also think it is a grand illusion that keeping one's "maiden" name confers actual independence for women. I lived for two years in a backwater of West Africa, where all women keep their names when they marry. They also enter their new household blindfolded and crawling on all fours.

-- Sara Miller Catterall

Yes, it is 2003, not 1953, in America. But I live in Missouri, and I recently married my college sweetheart and I did not take his name. What a scandal this caused! My husband's family assumed that I was trying to hurt them, and some have chosen to ignore my decision by addressing mail to "Mr. and Mrs. Hisname." One of my relatives asked me why we even got married, as if changing my name was the only reason to do so. And some "friends" have been downright snotty, with comments like "I was proud to take my husband's name and be a part of his family, why aren't you?" Others are merely clueless and ask why I don't like his name. Some have even told me that "the name issue" was a deal breaker for the man.

Interestingly, all the people I have described above are women. (And I omitted the most insulting of these remarks, which assumed that I wanted to make an inevitable divorce easier or that my husband was less than manly.) Men do not seem to care one way or the other -- I think my dad was proud that I wanted to keep the last name that he gave me. Several have said that they wouldn't be willing to change their last name, so why would they expect anyone else to?

I have no idea why so many women are so rabid about this issue, but I suspect that it might be because they gave this important decision considerably less thought than I have and now feel helpless to change. Maybe not. But I am dismayed to see the trend changing because your name is who you are, and I wish women wouldn't throw it away so easily.

-- Angela Stanley

Your holier-than-thou, elitist attitude in this article really pissed me off. My perspective is just as real as yours and yet your article made it sound as if yours were the only reality. You may be from the Northeast, have an Ivy League education, and read the New York Times wedding listings, but I grew up in the South, went to a state school, and never read any paper's wedding announcements. I live in lower-middle-class Maryland and I did not change my last name when I got married.

The prissy tone you use to talk about how all this name-changing stuff is really not a big deal now is insulting. You are wrong when you say that changing one's name is passé and silly to worry about and really it is anti-feminist to even give it a second thought. You leave out a hugesection of the population -- those of us who are still in the trenches defending the decision you make so flippantly and write about so dismissively. I am the only one among everyone I know to keep my last name after marriage. I am proud of it -- both my decision and my name.

Your article completely ignores the option that men have to change their last names. It bothers me that my husband won't change his last name to mine. (We decided to each take the other's last name as a middle name but then never got around to it.) You talk a lot about women wanting to change their names away from their fathers' names to their husbands' names, but you never even bring up the possibility that a woman might have her mother's last name, as I do. You leave out the option to change your name to something other than your husband's. You fail to acknowlege experiences of this issue other than your own. You have done us all (including Lucy Stone) a disservice.

-- T. Apol


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