One time, I was with a group of people that included a young, engaged couple and an older, married couple. The older woman, an old-school feminist, was talking to the younger woman about getting married. Suddenly she got animated:
“You aren’t going to take his name, are you?!”
The younger woman started, then replied, “Actually, I think I am.”
The older woman was mortified and proceeded to lecture the younger woman about how it was her feminist duty not to take her husband’s name. The younger woman smiled and nodded politely, unfazed, while I exchanged a look with my fiancé.
We tried to explain to the older woman that for our generation, keeping your last name just wasn’t the same feminist statement it once was. Some people change their name; some kept their maiden name. Some couples take each other’s names; some hyphenate; some smoosh their names together to make a new one. Everyone has their own reasons for their choice, and generally, our peers respect one another’s decisions on the matter.
My mom originally wanted to keep her maiden name when she married my dad. Thinking my grandparents would be pleased, they announced this decision, only to be met with the following response: “I thought people who didn’t take their husband’s last name didn’t intend to stay married.”
So my mom took my dad’s name. The compromise was that myself and both my siblings have her maiden name as our middle name. Interestingly enough, my fiancé and his brother both also inherited their mom’s name.
As for me, my fiancé’s last name is Miller. While that is a perfectly lovely surname, if I were to take it, I would become Sarah Miller. As Sarah Howell, I already struggle with acquiring unique usernames (I rarely give my email to store clerks because it’s so friggin’ long). I’m not sure I could have a more common name than Sarah Miller. A friend commented that if I took his name, I might as well move to the midwest and just disappear. “Hey Sarah, what’s new?” “Oh, just house shopping in Iowa…”
We’ve joked about putting our names together and becoming the Howlers. In fact, we decided that Howler is the dogs’ last name—it was just too perfect. Colin has told me from the beginning that it’s my choice whether to change my name or not; he has no opinion and wants me to make that decision. I’ll likely hyphenate, but I won’t give our kids hyphenated names, because what if they marry someone else with two last names?!
Lately, I’ve been thinking about this notion of keeping one’s last name, or hyphenating, or whatever, as being feminist. The thing is, my maiden name isn’t my name—it’s my dad’s. Some Hispanic cultures follow the custom of giving a child two surnames—the paternal surname first and the maternal surname second. But in white American culture, no matter what she does, a woman is always going to have a man’s last name.
So how to smash the patriarchy when it comes to deciding what to do about your name?
I think the best way to defy gender norms in this case is to ignore them completely.
Does your new husband have a cooler last name than you? That’s a good enough reason to take it.
Do you have a cultural or ethnic heritage you fear would be erased by letting go of your maiden name? Then hang onto it.
Do you have a professional identity that you don’t want to confuse by changing your name? Then don’t.
Does your husband want to take your last name? Let him.
Did y’all come up with a combination of your names less laughable than Howler, or some entirely different name that inaugurates this new family you’re forming? Go for it.
Do you want to make your kids’ lives less confusing by giving them parents with the same last name? Works for me.
Whether you keep your name, take his, or some combination or other alternative, you are smashing the patriarchy if you have your own reasons for doing whatever you do.