When I got married, I changed my name, and it surprised a lot of people. I live in Northern California and am a pretty vocal feminist, and I don’t think people expected me to take my husband’s name. In fact, I had the opposite problem as a reader a few weeks ago: we got (and still get) checks and correspondence with my unmarried name on it. It’s rare, though, that I talk about why that’s the choice I made.
My parents gave me a hyphenated last name when I was born; when my parents married in 1974, they both changed their names to the same hyphenated name, and we were known as “the Massey-Todds” throughout my childhood. We knew plenty of families with mismatched names for all kinds of reasons, but the four of us always had the same name. Interestingly, though, from the time I was about ten, people would ask me what my plan was when I married.
“What will you do? Will you have three last names?”
“It’s not very progressive to change your name when you marry, but I guess you’ll have to. Your parents didn’t think of THAT, now did they?”
“Wait, how many names will you have when you get married? What if you marry a guy with a hyphenated last name?”
Putting aside the incredibly messed up fact that people thought it was cool to ask a ten year old these questions, I also noticed that no one ever asked my brother…well, anything. It was a problem I was expected to confront and solve, while my brother got a pass because, well, he’s a boy. Anyway, my standard answer was the classic combo of arty-nerdy-pragmatic I used for most things: “Oh, I’ll just pick whatever sounds coolest, and take it from there. It’s all about aesthetics! Did you know that in Venezuela they actually passed a law forbidding giving babies surnames that are too long or ‘unusual’?”
When it came to my own marriage, though, I actually did have to make a decision. My husband is a firefighter, and when we got married he had multiple certifications from state and federal authorities in his name, as well as about $4,000 worth of gear with his last name on it. So he basically said “I don’t expect you to take my name, but it’s too complicated for me to change my name and I’m just not going to, sorry.” It was interesting that he got permission (yes, from me, but also from everyone around us) to just… not care. At work, he knows female firefighters who have had their gear replaced or re-labeled at their employer’s expense if they choose to change their name, but a male firefighter making that same request is usually met with derision and, well, to be honest it probably just won’t happen. It’s also an interesting example of the complicated way historically male-dominated professions have been forced (through years of lawsuits and struggle, mind you) to behave more equitably towards their female employees, but often end up reinforcing patriarchal structures for their male employees and their families.
I also didn’t care much but frankly, somebody had to care enough to solve the problem. And no surprise, that responsibility settled on me, the woman. And when I thought it through, I liked the idea of my nuclear family having the same last name, whatever it was. And since my husband wasn’t going to budge, well, I would just have to make that happen myself. (How many womxn has this happened to throughout the ages? Almost… all of them?)
On a personal level, my parents were divorcing, thereby dissolving the family narrative that had made my name feel special to me. My middle name is matrilineal and I care about it very much, and plan to pass it along to my children someday, but the hyphenation of my two patrilineal last names didn’t mean all that much to me. I had gone through some rough stuff as a Massey-Todd, and in some ways, taking a new name entirely felt like a fresh start after some hard times. Sticking with my previous strategy, I thought, aesthetically, that Dana Eastland sounded cool, and—perhaps most importantly—the Gmail address was still available. So I went for it.
If I’d known how much work it would take to actually change it, and that my husband would basically say “I never asked you to do it, so I’m not helping” about it, causing multiple fights? If I’d known that fellow feminist friends would side-eye my choice and I’d feel like it was a stand I had failed to take? Maybe I wouldn’t have. (Who did all the emotional and physical labor here? Me.)
But I like my new name. A lot, actually, and ultimately I’m glad I changed it. And womxn getting things they like is important too.
Like so many things in our lives, the burden of thinking about the problem, caring about it, and then solving it seems to lie squarely with womxn. Mostly, I wish I could have been as indifferent as everyone else around me about it. And that seems to me a larger issue than whatever we have on our drivers’ licenses.
That’s just me, though. What about you? What did you do with your name? Did your partner change theirs? Did you work together towards a creative solution? Do you regret any of the choices you made?