Living Surnames: A Manifesto

Sep 28th 2011

This week in the Huffington Post, a biopsychologist named Nigel Barber took on a question that puzzled him: "Can Women Justify Giving Up Their Names When They Marry?" After running through some possible pragmatic and sociobiological explanations for adopting a marital surname, he ultimately proclaims himself baffled: 

"Personally, I cannot understand why any person would voluntarily surrender his, or her, name at marriage. What is wrong with being yourself?!"

As I read Mr. Barber's commentary, I had a little epiphany. (It took the form of Professor Henry Higgins, singing "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?")

What if Mr. Barber has it all backwards? What if, instead of puzzling over why women don't conform to the male standard, we should be asking why men so meekly accept whatever family name they're given? And how did we, as egalitarian Americans, buy into the notion that a surname inherited from one of our countless ancestors is the core of "being ourselves," truer than identities that we choose and make?

In other words, what if the real problem of the old surname regime wasn't that women DID change their surnames on marriage, but that men DIDN'T? Or, more properly, that nobody chose and changed enough. Are two rigid paths -- your father's surname or your husband's -- really the best our 21st-century imaginations can do?

The origins of surnames

Historically in Europe, the appellations we now think of as surnames were about your individual life, in all its many aspects. Some names reflected occupations. Mr. Barber, for instance, is presumably the descendent of a long-ago barber. (Back then, a barber was likely to offer many nifty health and beauty services like bloodletting and tooth extraction along with haircuts.) Other names might indicate where you lived (e.g an Atwater lived at the water). Or perhaps they'd reflect something notable in your personal appearance or character. A Fox, for instance, might have had red hair, or been known for his cunning. Still other surnames indicated relationships personal or professional, like Williamson (William's son) and Harriman (Harry's man, a servant).

Originally, these names were no more heritable than a nickname like "Lefty" or "Tank" would be today. The nobility first started adopting hereditary surnames in the Middle Ages. Gradually, the convention spread to the common folk. Then governments started mandating hereditary surnames to help maintain orderly, taxable, conscriptable populations. Whichever Fox or Barber happened to be around when surnames were standardized found his personal tagline frozen in place for centuries of descendents, its descriptive essence lost.

In some areas with strong patronymic traditions, like Scandinavia and the Netherlands, this freeze didn't happen until the 19th Century. In Iceland, it never happened at all. (Iceland still uses patronymics, changing with each generation based on your own father's given name.) In other words, the immutable surname isn't as obvious a choice as it may seem.

"Maiden vs. Married"

The custom of women changing names at marriage has often been portrayed as a form of subjugation, and reasonably so. Women traditionally ceded many rights to their husbands, and taking the man's surname was both a symbol of that submission and a legal requirement. The marriage itself was essentially a transfer of property from father to husband.

Today, though, most women enter into marriage in a very different spirit, so a surname change can take on new and different meanings. For some modern women, adopting a marital surname has become an active choice, an elective right of passage to mark the creation of a new family. When approached in this way, a marital surname-of-choice can be seen as a link back to surnames that reflected the individual, rather than his or her parents. It makes a person's surname history something of a life history.

Of course, the history of marital surnames has also made keeping your birth surname an active, expressive choice for women. It's often a statement of individuality, because there's still a lingering norm (and sometimes expectation) to do otherwise, and a memory of the requirement to do otherwise. Women fought for the right to retain their birth surnames, so retaining one is exercising a freedom.

But to suggest as Mr. Barber does that EVERYBODY should refuse to "surrender" their name renders this action meaningless. If all women followed his advice, you'd simply have a new societal norm...a male norm of surnames as received totemic objects. Objects that say nothing about you as an individual. Objects that once represented the shared, created identity of a family or community, but are now wholly individual. Objects that are belongings to possess or "give up" rather than signifiers to choose, adopt and mold.

Personally, I was free to opt for whichever surname I wanted when I got married, and I chose my husband's. Mr. Barber sees this as me "surrendering" my name, which is an act of weakness, whereas he presumably "maintained" his name, which is an act of strength. But couldn't you just as naturally say that I "chose" my name, which is active, while he "accepted" his name, which is passive?

Granted, he might have put himself through the soul-searching, the philosophical and practical debate that so many women go through when they choose a name to use after marriage. But how many men really do that? Our society doesn't encourage men to think at all about what their own surnames should be. Usually, they just keep wearing whatever names their parents dressed them in when they were born.

A clash once took place between two old friends of mine. Friend A was married and had kept her birth surname. But now Friend B, a strong-minded and unconventional woman, was engaged and planning to take her husband's name. Friend A was initially aghast at this decision, asking "How could you?" "I worked so hard," A said, "with so much holding me back, to have a strong identity and sense of self. How could you just give that up?" B replied, "I'm creating a new family. And I worked so hard, with so much holding me back, to have that family." The mutual understanding was immediate. They had each made an affirmative choice, reflecting their own lives. They were both right. Or at least, each had made the right decision for herself, within the traditional bounds of dichotomous choice.

It's easy to take sides in the "married vs. maiden debate," but I think the debate itself is leading us astray, or maybe even faking us out. Not only can both choices be right, but the "maiden vs. married" name choice is a false dichotomy. There are many more name options under the sun.

In my case, I've never regretted saying goodbye to my birth surname, but I've wondered about the paths not taken. Was Wattenberg really the best possible choice to represent my family? Why did we only consider the surnames of our two fathers? Could my husband and I have found another name -- a mashup, perhaps, or a reference to a shared experience or value -- that would have been better for us? Is there another name in our family trees with a rich tradition that might otherwise be forgotten? Maybe we would have ended up choosing Wattenberg regardless, but that mental journey would still have been worth taking.

It seems to me that it's time for family names to become living things again. Take a look at Denmark, where they've decided to re-allow Viking-style patronymics after generations of hereditary surnames. (The modern world allows us that freedom because our real unique identifiers are now numbers.) In a culture of living surnames, whether you end up with the most traditional choice or something radical, it would be a choice, and thus more meaningful than any default.

Sure, a nation of shifting surnames could be confusing. But remember, fixed, immutable family names never really were the societal norm they're made out to be. In reality, half of the population has been changing surnames to reflect life status changes all along. So anybody who's nervous about changing can just do what millions and millions of women have done through the centuries: keep your birth surname as a middle name to help people identify you.

Why the heck not?

Yours Truly,

Laura Babynamer, The One With The Purple Glasses, Who Married That Awesome Guy Named Wattenberg And Had Two Daughters


September 28, 2011 12:07 PM

I was just thinking about this an hour ago as I slogged through a stack of papers. One of my female students has a very unusual first name: H0llister. I assume it is her mother's maiden name, but don't know that for sure. At any rate, other female students I have taught over the years have also had surname-type names: Micker, Neely, and Walker all come to mind. Their parents probably followed a similar thought process to arrive at their daughters' names.

By Wren (not verified)
September 28, 2011 12:21 PM

Thanks for this great article! I like the idea of possibly creating your own last name to reflect your new family. Though I can imagine it would add another layer of agonizing like what people already go through in naming their kids.

I took my husband's last name mostly because he had a much less common last name than my "maiden" name, one of the most common last names in the US. A little more unique and less chance for mix ups in making appointments, etc.

By MLE (not verified)
September 28, 2011 12:22 PM

Before we were even engaged, my husband and I discussed what we might do with our surnames when we married. Neither of us was especially tied to our name (his surname having only been the family name for two generations, mine closely tied to a paternal relative with whom I have a tumultuous relationship), nor were either of us interested in taking the other's. It was his idea to create a new name using letters from our "maiden" names. Luckily for us, the names meshed well together and for three and a half years we've been the Newlastnames. His family had a bit more of an issue than mine did, but ultimately we were supported in our choice. Our kids will be the Newlastnames as well, and it will be their choice once they're grown to keep their birth name or change it.

My original surname is extremely unusual, and everyone in this country with the name is closely related. It ties back to a single ancestor who changed it when he came to the US from Europe. People have been doing THAT for hundreds of years (changing their names during a convenient life change) and I think it's only been since the Social Security office got involved with names that the practice became frowned upon.

By Amanda RW (not verified)
September 28, 2011 12:23 PM

As someone who chose a hyphenated name, I am fascinated by this decision (or, as you indicate, lack of decision). One thing that intrigues me is that there are places (Quebec) where at least in the eyes of the government, you CAN'T change your name (see: To have that choice taken from me, either way, seems horrible. It also seems like social engineering at its worst - by forcing you to keep the name you were born with, your lineage and parentage can be traced (see: It raises interesting questions about who you are, your identity, and who you want to become.

By rebelreb (not verified)
September 28, 2011 12:27 PM

I would agree with you if strong empowered women like yourself were all inventing, together with their partners, new last names that express their new shared identities. A few people do that and that's great. But it's much more commonly, almost always (with very few exceptions) in a heterosexual context, the wife taking the husband's last name. The fact that a man never feels "empowered" to take on the mantle of his wife's last name or to even hyphenate, or to change his last name to a new last name that they both share, that it always falls along these gender lines, should tell you that the power of the patriarchy still rests in this practice, and we are really fooling ourselves to think otherwise. When men start arguing en masse for their right to change their last names upon marriage, we might be talking egalitarianism. Otherwise I fear you are bending over backwards to justify a clearly patriarchal practice. It is women (yes!) ACTIVELY, consciously, changing the names they were born with, the names they've had all their lives, that are THEIRS, to match their husband's, while the husband (you're right) passively accepts this patriarchal order because he realizes on a conscious or subconscious level that it serves him and preserves his power in the world to do so. Which is not the worst thing in the world, we all do things out of patriarchal impulses all the time. You can't fight it all the time, at least I can't. But I think it's best we make these compromises with eyes open.

NB: There are always exceptions obviously, like women who hate their family names for one reason or another, but the funny thing is, I never hear men use these reasons to justify taking their wives' names...funny thing that.

By Guest - Another Laura (not verified)
September 28, 2011 12:35 PM

Great post! I would even take a step further and say why assume that keeping my father's surname is an act of independence? Part of my decision to take my husband's surname was influenced by the fact that my father left my family. As long as children are still given their father's surname, I don't see how it's any more equal for a woman keep her surname and refuse her husband's. Even the Scandinavians still base their surnames on their father's name, not their mother's.

By rebelreb (not verified)
September 28, 2011 12:40 PM

Another Laura, there is something to be said about the patriarchy inherent in our birth names likely being our fathers'. However, the name I was given at birth is still the name with which I have always been identified. It seems sexist to call it "my father's name" instead of MY name. That kind of view seems to presuppose that we exchange one man's name for another's throughout our life, instead of having our own last name. (I feel this especially keenly with divorced friends who changed their names to their husband's, then had to decide either to keep the ex's name, to change it back to their birthname, or what).

By rebelreb (not verified)
September 28, 2011 12:41 PM

But the question of how we name our children is key. It kills me to see women keep their birthnames and then allow the children to take their father's name alone. I agree that is as big a problem for us.

By Joni
September 28, 2011 12:54 PM

When a friend got married years ago her husband changed his name. He had been raised by a stepfather whom he really loved but was always known by a biological father who was not so much a part of his life. So when he married, he hyphenated his last name to Ch@arters-McLe@n, the second being his stepfather's LN. However, rather than choosing to be known by the hyphenated name, he went by FN McLe@n.

My friend took his hyphenated last name and went by FemaleFN McLe@n. This was a fine arrangement except when she delivered her baby and I went to visit her. The hospital didn't have a "McLe@an" registered. But they did have a "Ch@artersMc" in their computer. :D

By yomikoma (not verified)
September 28, 2011 12:59 PM

rebelreb, I have met a few men who have taken their wife's last name on marriage. I admit it isn't common but it does happen.

By Kristen R. (not verified)
September 28, 2011 1:06 PM

Oh, man, the thing about "What's wrong with being yourself?!" is making a teakettle-whistle sound in my head. Is his presumption that changing a name means changes me to an entirely different person---perhaps into a duplicate of my husband? Icky.

September 28, 2011 1:11 PM

There is still something so romantic to me about the prospect of taking a spouse's last name. That's why girls doodle their names with their crush's last name in class. It's probably more the idea of being a "Mrs" at all instead of "Mrs. HisLastName" in particular, except that it's the last name that ties the girl to the crush. Same with children - they will most likely be biologically the mother's, and the last name helps tie them to the father.

And allowing the name change to be a choice makes the choice all the stronger, whichever choice is made.

September 28, 2011 1:29 PM

Excellent post, Laura. As others have alluded to, it is patriarchal whether one keeps one's father's name, or take's one's husband's, or gives one's children their father's name. I kept my (father's) last name at marriage (because it comes early in alphabetical lists), but the reasoning in giving my children my husband's last name was that there were so, so many people on my side of the family with my/father's last name, and he comes from a small family. So we tried to work around the patriarchy inherent within the system simply through numbers. Nevertheless I remain uncomfortable with that choice, as a feminist and as someone of Icelandic ancestry (I heard on a visit that one can choose either father's or mother's last name, but usually fathers--in my case a grandmother Gudmondsdottir).

If I were in charge, we'd adopt the idea supported by Miss Manners, that every child receive her or his mother's last name. I quote from p. 54 of her Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior: "Miss Manners suggests sticking to the original family surname--but in the female line. The basic family unit has now become the mother and the children of whom she has been awarded custody, and it is simpler if they all have the same name and keep it no matter who happens to join them later. The system of the matriarchal line worked fairly well in ancient societies, before women made the mistake of telling men that they had any connection with the production of children."

By Melissa D (not verified)
September 28, 2011 1:32 PM

"...keep your birth surname as a middle name to help people identify you."

Laura, the entire time I was reading your article, this was the thought running through my head. My husband has a very unique last name--and it's 13 letters long. But I never considered NOT becoming Mrs. D------------ when we got married. I wanted my entire family (husband & children) to have the same last name.

On the other hand, my maiden name is dying out (in our branch, at least) with my generation and that's always been sad to me. My dad is one of three boys and they all had girls. His dad had three sisters and a childless brother, so anyone with that last name is a FAR distant relative.

So after the wedding, when I filled out my paperwork with Social Security, I dropped the middle name my parents picked out for me (which I never liked anyway) and kept my maiden name as my official middle name. This was the perfect decision for me.

BTW, my mom's maiden name (Henry) also died out (her brother is childless and her father had only sisters) and it would have been our son's first name, had we had a boy.

My maiden name is not an easy first name (it's the color black in Czech), so middle name was the best option.

By Birgitte (not verified)
September 28, 2011 1:38 PM

My husband wanted to take my last name when we got married. He has never had a good relationship with his family. But having lived with the most common, super boring last name in my country, I didn't want to do that. I prefer his very, very rare last name, despite neither of us having any contact with his family.

But I kept my mom's maiden name as my middle name. :)

By rebelreb (not verified)
September 28, 2011 1:42 PM

yomikoma, I know there are some, and that's great. The more men who change their names (either to their wife's, a combination, or a new name entirely), the more free our choices will become. Someday if and only if a critical mass of men begin changing their names, I would be able to sign on to the author's sentiment and totally get behind women's choices to change their names to their husband's upon marriage.

That's why I think we should all really talk with our partners and try to convince them to take our last names or to mutually change names, or to BOTH hyphenate. I'm already plotting conversations with my future sons about it. I am still a little annoyed that my husband wouldn't consider hyphenating or taking my last name. They all seem so progressive till it comes to this, right? At least he didn't balk at me keeping my birth name and using both last names for our kids.

By rebelreb (not verified)
September 28, 2011 1:43 PM

Birgitte, I have friends who both dropped their birth names and used their grandmother's maiden names, hyphenated, when they married. I swooned.

By AlisonWithOne (not verified)
September 28, 2011 1:58 PM

This is such an interesting post. Thank you, Laura.

To the poster rebelreb who said, "It seems sexist to call it "my father's name" instead of MY name." I'd like to counter that it seems sexist to call it my husband's name instead of MY name". Both are derived from the men, both then belong to the user of the name.

I always hated my birth surname and was very glad to change it upon marriage (luckily, I married into a name I liked). When I was little I used to say that if I weren't married to a man with a decent name by 30 I'd pick one out of the phone book and as a precondition to marrying someone who had an ugly last name we'd have to agree to both change it.

To me, it is important to have a "team" name for the immediate family growing up. I wouldn't have wanted to explain why my name was different from my mom or dad or siblings to random friend's moms, teachers, etc.

I thought Wren's comment was interesting - that she chose to go with the unusual name. I hated my unusual name growing up and was mightily glad to get a very generic last name. It makes cyberstalking me pretty difficult and being anonymous easier. I'm unusual enough to not want any extra attention from my name.

By Kallie (not verified)
September 28, 2011 2:35 PM

"That's why I think we should all really talk with our partners and try to convince them to take our last names or to mutually change names, or to BOTH hyphenate."

Yes, but not everyone wants to do that. I had no problem taking my husband's name when we married - I got used to it soon enough and I like having the same name as my husband and children. I understand that others make different choices, and certainly in other cultures it's more normal for different family members to have different surnames, but in our culture, I like what it signifies. Just because the choice to change or not change names comes with some social pressure in one particular direction (for women to change upon marriage) doesn't mean the choice isn't there. Not trying to be political here, but not every woman is 'progressive' on this matter - some of us like 'traditional' (even if it's, yes, Anglo/Western tradition).

I do admit sometimes I think about what surname I'd choose if I could pick a completely random new name - a fun mental exercise for sure.

September 28, 2011 2:45 PM

This has always been a sorespot for us, it's hard to find a solution. Hyphenated, it would be 6 syllables/ 17 letters, which is too much. I'm the daughter with no brothers of an only son born of an only son born of an only son, there are no known relatives with my relatively rare last name. It dies with my generation. He's an only son from a long line of Juniors and has a name that is important to his ethnic and cultural heritage.

Right now, we're planning to both take my maiden name as a second middle name, as well as give it to our children in that form. Mostly as a second middle because my name enthusiast side couldn't give up a WHOLE name slot. My sister plans to give our surname as a first name to a child, male or female.

The decision to keep his rather than mine is mostly for tradition's sake, since both are fine last names. He's very resistant to "losing" his name, whereas I was raised with the expectation that it would be a likely possibility, which is undoubtedly a decent from patriarchy. Combining them feels like a faux-compromise, since neither of us feel like we'd be honoring our families that way. For us, of course. (I have a stereotypical Irish surname, his name is a compound noun- every variation sounds either like a dirty word or something sold at McDonalds. The "obvious" choice sounds like a smoothie. UGH.)

By Wren (not verified)
September 28, 2011 2:51 PM

Birgitte, totally there with ya!

AlisonWithOne, I never thought of it that way. I guess my husband's last name is unique but not to the point of being difficult (and it's a palindrome, so that's just plain awesome). I can see the frustration with having to pronounce and spell your name over and over for people. Maybe we should have traded names?

I think another consideration that can also influence a person's decision of whether to change their name is whether they're already professionally known as a certain name. I've seen an uptick in women who have one name legally but use another professionally.

September 28, 2011 3:06 PM

I have friends who did a mash-up of their 'maiden' names when they got married, and it turned out beautifully. I would've loved to do the same, but our two last names didn't smash together in any reasonable fashion.

It was important to me that we have the same last name, so that our kids would have the same name as both of us, so I took his name. It had the added side benefit of being much less common than my maiden name!

By les (not verified)
September 28, 2011 3:08 PM

I agree w/ Kallie. I never felt the need to have a conversation with my husband about what we would do about a surname because I was totally comfortable with taking his surname and am totally comfortable with our children having this name as well. I'm curious, rebelreb, why it seems that you care so much about what other people do and the decisions they make regarding this issue.

By EVie
September 28, 2011 3:26 PM

I took my husband's name when I got married, mostly for the reason that others have said above—I liked the idea of our whole family sharing a name. I dropped my maiden to a second middle, so I didn't feel like I was completely "surrendering" it. I have to say, also, that I never felt any special attachment to my surname growing up (though it was a pretty good surname from a practical standpoint—it's quite unusual, but it doesn't *sound* unusual). I never really identified with my father's side of the family, as my dad was kind of the black sheep and had rejected much of the lifestyle and environment that he was raised in. My mother's family, on the other hand, was very close, and I grew up completely immersed in their culture and traditions. But I'm very glad I didn't get my mother's surname. It's an Italian behemoth of a name with lots of a double consonants and a spelling/pronunciation that is totally counterintuitive to English speakers... and it sounds unfortunately similar to the name of a certain long-nosed wooden puppet. My mom was teased for it growing up, so I don't think she had any interest in passing it on, either.

My husband's name (now mine) is fine, a bland, common Anglo-Saxon name that is totally inauthentic—his grandfather changed in when he was a young man applying to medical school, because apparently back in the day they had quotas for Jews and he wanted to get rid of his Jewish last name. I think he picked the new name precisely for its bland Anglo-Saxon-ness. I find myself wishing that we could take back the old name, which I think is beautiful (it was R@paport). But my husband likes the simplicity of the adopted name, plus his career is such that a name change would be disruptive (very few women in his line of work change their names either, for that matter). And the impression I've gotten is that his grandfather would be upset by any reversion to the old name. So that's just wishful thinking on my part.

Elizabeth T. - Hollister! That name has the most unfortunate meaning I've come across in my research on surname origins. It's an occupational name meaning "a female brothel-keeper," from the Old French word holier, "adulterer, lecher."

By hyz
September 28, 2011 3:28 PM

Very interesting post, and I have a lot of thoughts on it, but not a lot of time to write now. I just wanted to chime in with what TKB said, that combining names in a mash-up, while superficially appealing, just didn't feel right to DH or I. I really like the information surnames give about one's heritage and history, and combining my German LN with his Korean LN felt like it would leave us both as cultural orphans. And hyphenating just feels clunky to me (maybe particularly so with our LNs). So I kept my name, and he kept his. Before the kids came along, we had grand egalitarian plans to give girls my surname and boys his, but when we found we were having a girl shortly after his father passed away, it seemed like too raw a time to buck tradition and abandon his father's name--I think he realized passing on the LN was more important to him than he originally thought. I just decided to compromise on the point (it's not like he doesn't do his fair share of compromising for me), and compromises aren't always entirely comfortable, but it just seems like less of a big deal to me now than it did when it was all theoretical and high-minded and future-tense.

One thing I could not imagine doing, though, was taking his surname. It's a fine surname, but it's not me. My surname isn't the most amazing one ever, but it IS me. As much as I like the idea of being "The ______ Family" on Christmas cards and such, it really would've felt like giving up my identity, and I couldn't stomach that. I get the whole passive/active, choice/no choice argument, and it's compelling in a way, but I tend to side more with rebelreb. Whatever one's individual reasons are for an action, if that action has a more broadly accepted cultural significance, then the public statement you *appear* to make may overshadow the private one you *intend* to make. I think it goes right along with the perennial commentary, reiterated by Miriam in the last post, about the reasons that people will give male names to girls, but not female names to boys. Or any of the other choices that are culturally acceptable for women to make, but so much less so for a man (like going into traditionally female-dominated jobs, or being a stay-at-home parent, or even taking substantial parental leave or going part-time at work when a baby is born). The "choice" sort of rings a little hollow to me when it only goes one way.

September 28, 2011 4:07 PM

Thanks for the article, Amanda RW! I have a French Canadian friend and always assumed that her keeping her maiden name while her 3 children were given her husband's last name was a personal choice. Now that I know she wasn't given a choice, I wonder what she might have done if given the opportunity to decide on a different last name (whether her husband's, a mashup, or something else).

In my case, I took my husband's last name. My maiden name is extremely common (Wi11i@ms) in the US, while his (K0lev), being Eastern European is much less so. However, my DH comes from a country that only started to pass last names down (in the last 3 generations or so) instead of using the traditional patronymics. There is also a tradition of gendered last names, so while my FIL, DH and sons are all K0lev, I'm K0leva. I chose to use his ln b/c I wanted something less common than my maiden name, and went with the feminine of his ln instead of just K0lev (like what might be expected in the US) b/c it would look odd on my passport when we go to visit family across the pond. However, it tends to flag our applications when we do a loan or a new bank account b/c people in the US expect either the same ln or a totally different last name in a husband/wife application.

My only real beef with my decision is that I've spend my whole life saying "C@trin@ with a 'C'" when people ask my name, and now I have to correct people's pronunciation b/c many people say the -eva in my ln as -EEvah instead of -EHvah. But such is life. And I did keep my maiden name, just moved it to the 2nd middle position b/c, despite it being somewhat boring imo, I still like the way it all flows.

September 28, 2011 4:07 PM

I get the idea of choice and also the argument "against" it by Mr. Barber. I would like to see people keep family surnames of either the male OR female as part of a standardized "family" tradition for the ease of genealogical record keeping. In the past Mr A married Miss B and then she became Mrs A and hopefully they had a boy and passed the name down. Nowadays, I can't imagine finding your family in records after Miss B keeps the B upon marriage and then has children and they are John and Mary C because they create a new name. Then Mary decides to go back to her roots and become Mary D (her grandmothers name) after she gets divorced. Uggg!

Also, I am a bit sad by my line dying out. My dad was an only child. My brother had no children. I took husbands LN so my maiden name is not to be continued. I will pass on my records to my children but I hope they are able to pass on their LN and share as well because my husband is the only one to have children out of his family. My son and daughter are it-they will carry on (genealogically speaking) all the names on the books.

By AlisonWithOne (not verified)
September 28, 2011 4:22 PM

Wren, how funny. My birth surname was also a palindrome, however it was difficult. In fact, it had two letters added on by an eccentric ancestor to make it a palindrome. Unfortunately, it was a very difficult palindrome to pronounce. Oh, and it was of German origin. What fun!

I'm very curious to see if either of my brother's future wives end up taking on that awful name or if they can convince the boys to change it. My sister also ditched the name gladly at marriage, and I think we'd both support the guys if they changed it to something nicer.

By Yet Another Guest (not verified)
September 28, 2011 4:23 PM

Ever since my grade seven teacher asked the class if we would change our names when we got married and why, I knew that I would keep mine. It is very rare in North America and there are no male cousins to pass it on either here or in Germany.

My husband has a short, Irish/Scottish last name and he knew he would keep his. I told him I'd take on his if he took on mine, but he was already established in his field and used that as a good reason not to. We did decide that we'd give our children both our last names, no hyphen, one space. It's a strange mashup, but we think it flows well.

People have asked "but what will the children do when they marry?!?" and I shrug and say it's up to them. I'm fully anticipating that some of them will drop one of the names as they become adults and chances are it will be mine, but that's fine with me (I say now!).

It does feel loaded only having a couple of options and that the options are mostly placed on the women's shoulders. I just wish that everyone, men and women, put a lot of thought into it and not just assume it will be one way.

(My husband has a cousin whose husband took her last name. It does happen, but it is rare!)

By Different Last Names (not verified)
September 28, 2011 4:31 PM

My mother kept her maiden name, which was given to me as a surname and my sister as a middle name. My sister got my father's surname for her surname and I got it as my middle. They flipped a coin on the name to give me and then decided to rotate names until they finished having children. This means that I am fn father's name mother's name and she is fn mother's name father's name. This has never caused any problems for us and it is not that big a deal to be called the A/B family instead of just the A family. People often initially think it is odd but end up liking it. My sister, who is younger, loves having a different last name from me because teachers never realized that we were related and therefore had no preconceptions about what kind of person/what kind of a student she would be. We aren't compared immediately when people meet us because we are not strung together by a name, which is very important to her. Having never had siblings with the same last name, I don't know what that would be like, but we both like being identified as siblings only after people know us well enough to find out.

September 28, 2011 4:55 PM

I kept my maiden name through my first marriage, because my then husband felt burdened by his Slovakian surname and had no interesting passing down the name.

For my current marriage, I kept my maiden name for five years until then we adopted a child... and I changed my mind. My husband, step-daughters and daughter shared a surname and it just felt odd to have a name separating me from the rest of my family.

(It didn't hurt that I went from a unusual surname that is difficult to spell/pronounce, to a name that is more widespread.)

By cnoocy (not verified)
September 28, 2011 5:02 PM

Same-sex couples are having this discussion by necessity and coming up with some interesting solutions. Two female friends of mine, when they married, found a name they liked that occurred in both family trees and changed both of their surnames to it.

By amz25 (not verified)
September 28, 2011 5:29 PM

This is really interesting.

I'm Hispanic, and in my family (as well as many other families of Spanish and Latin American descent) our last names are a combination of both parents' surnames. For example, if a man named C Rodriguez and a woman named L Sanchez have a child, that child will most likely be called D Rodriguez-Sanchez. The mother's last name usually follows the father's.

September 28, 2011 5:36 PM

I've got lots of different thoughts about this one.

First, I've always thought it sad that we're supposed to be stuck with our birth names, with a possible uninspiring change at marriage. No one really knows who we are at birth, and when the chance to change occurs, it's with another choice that doesn't have to do with the people involved, either. I'd love it if we took on new names throughout our lives. If our names could somehow evolve as we developed, that would be terrific.

In fact, we can and do, with every username.

Second, I have a friend who has had an interesting surname situation. She got married, and changed her name. However, she and her husband worked together to come up with the new surname--he was looking to avoid his family name for business reasons, and they worked together to decide upon a surname from his mother's side. The name happened to work beautifully with my friend's first name. So, since she sat down with him to work on this, and discovered a great name for herself, she gladly adopted it. They eventually divorced, and she remarried. She is still keeping her first husband's name as her own, though--not her maiden name, not her new husband's name. She does this because she likes it, she helped choose it, and she's professionally known by it. And yes, her name's great, with comic-book levels of cool, and I think it's wonderful. The first husband continues to go by the new surname.

I also have another friend who had a daughter out of wedlock and raised her, herself. The daughter's surname is her mother's name, and the father didn't have anything to do with her for about the first fifteen years of her life. But then, the father took interest in the daughter's welfare, and she decided she wanted to live with her father. She now lives with him, and as you can guess, there's interparental tension. The father did ask to change the daughter's surname to his, and the daughter refused.

So, if you want to keep your surname, go for it. If you want to change your surname, go for it. Do it without shame. Do it with gusto. Other people, whether your parents, your spouse, whoever, really don't have a say--it's your name, you have to wear it every day.

(As for myself, I'm keeping my name. I like how well it hides. I like how well I can show off with it. My brother might think differently for his, and that's his right. My sister might have done a few different things over the years, and that's her right. But I'm keeping mine. And that's my right.)

By Amy3
September 28, 2011 6:40 PM

When I got married this felt like a really big deal. I agonized over what to do, but opted to change to his LN. I did it for several reasons, although as hyz points out, no one can *see* them so it probably looks like I just lined up for the name change like a good girl should. Whatever.

I have friends who have done all manner of name choices - he takes hers, she takes his, she takes hers, they all hyphenate, parents keep their names and the kids get a mash-up, some kids get one parent's name and some get the other's name. It all works. As with so many choices in life, what works for you may not work for others.

Now that I'm 17 years down this road and have a 10-yr-old daughter, I'm glad I changed my name and feel that the family we've made together is indescribably more important than the name we use to identify ourselves as such. Although I actually love the name and that doesn't hurt!

By Juli (not verified)
September 28, 2011 6:10 PM

In Hungary, you could sort of say that a woman doesn't so much change her name on marriage, but acquires new ones. "Sort of" because you do have to choose: only one version can go on official forms and IDs. The choices range from the ultra-conservative and patriarchal "Mrs. John Smith", to the completist "Mrs. John Smith Jane Doe", to the modern feminist unchanged maiden name, to a bunch of variations in between. The English-language custom of taking your husband's surname for your own is the newest choice; I'm not sure when the law changed to allow it, but people of my mother's generation (born mid-20th century) still consider it unexpected and strange. To their way of thinking, if Jane Doe marries John Smith, Jane becomes Mrs. Smith, but not Jane Smith -- that's a different person, maybe their daughter or something.

By hyz
September 28, 2011 6:28 PM

Just wanted to clarify, after re-reading my post--although Barber's quote is a fairly accurate description of how *I* felt about changing *my* name, I definitely depart from him in "not understanding" why people would change their name at marriage. There may have been a time when I felt that way, in my more opinionated and self-righteous teens, but at this point I don't find at all hard to fathom the appeal of creating a unified family name in one way or another, or that some people may feel less attached to their original surname than I do, etc. And because I can understand that, I now do NOT assume that an independent and thoughtful woman who took her husband's name just lined up like a good girl for the change, but rather that there was probably some serious thought and conscious weighing of issues put into it, whatever the reasons were. So I guess it kind of goes back to the boy-names-for-girls analogy for me again. It's something I would not choose, and I admit that when I see it there are some tentative/rebuttable presumptions I make about the person (or their parents) if meeting them for the first time, but I also see some very solid reasons to do it and I think it can be a perfect choice for others.

By Amy3
September 28, 2011 7:03 PM

@hyz, I wasn't trying to come down on you like a ton of bricks. I was frustrated by the sense in your argument that because the "choice" is not made equally by men, it's not really a choice at all. In an age when women can select any number of names (unless they live in Quebec, I guess), seeming to suggest that "choosing" the traditional path isn't a choice diminishes the women who select it.

I've always felt that one of the important goals of feminism ought to be empowering women to choose what *they* want and celebrating those differences rather than deciding there's a new "right" choice. That boxes women in as surely as men did for centuries.

September 28, 2011 7:03 PM

If a wife doesn't take her husband's last name then what last name do the children get? It doesn't seem fair to choose either/or and the alternative is hypenating which in a few generations could lead to some pretty lengthy surnames!

September 28, 2011 7:59 PM

Based on Juli's comment, I have to say that even though I changed my LN I am NOT Mrs. K Lastname. I am most definitely Me Lastname but actually more commonly Child's Mom!

September 30, 2011 1:51 PM

I know a few women who took their husbands' surnames, had kids, then got divorced but kept their husbands' names because it was important to them that they have the same surname as their kids.

I find it a bit unsettling that "Maiden vs. Married" is still an issue in 2011.

By Cesca (not verified)
September 28, 2011 8:09 PM

I didn't change my surname on marriage as it's MY surname and I'm very attached to it. I love how rare it is but well known in my country at the same time. I love having people say "Hey, are you related to so-and-so?" and I always am. :) I would hate to miss out on those wonderfully serendipitous encounters.

The idea of using your maiden name as a new middle name must be a North American thing - not common at all here in NZ.

By Laura V (not verified)
September 28, 2011 8:29 PM

Heh, Yet Another Guest. We did the same thing -- I kept my name, he kept his, and offspring have a double surname, no hyphen. People do get very distressed and demand to know what our kids will do when they get married. "whatever they want, because it's their name" does not seem to satisfy a lot of folks, but it's the only answer I ever give.

Most of our family, on both sides, get the name wrong. But then, half of them call me by my husband's surname, even after 10 years of me pointing out I don't use it and it's not my name. Whatever, family. The government gets it right, and so does the insurance company, and I guess that's what really matters in modern society.....

September 28, 2011 8:31 PM

This is a really interesting discussion. I agree with rebelreb and hyz that, until men begin to take their wives' last names more often, it's a mistake to ignore the patriarchal history behind the tradition. The analogy of how it's ok for girls to dress up like boys but problematic for boys to dress up like girls is appropriate, I think.

I understand that many women choose to take their husband's names regardless of the history, often for very personal reasons. Of course, having the choice to find the right fit for yourself is the most important thing. It's hard to ignore the fact, however, that many women will be changing the name they've used professionally for many years. In that sense, they are making a professional sacrifice that few, if any, men make when they marry.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately. I recently wrote on here that I was thinking for the first time of taking my husband's name. I didn't take it when we married. I always knew I would keep my last name (and I can't imagine EVER having doodled my adolescent crush's last name with my first name). But the thought of Mrs. James Smith makes me cringe, and I also see myself as a Ms. not a Mrs., so I guess that explains my POV.

I toyed with the idea of taking dh's LN when I found out we were having to use an egg donor to have a baby. For the first time, it seemed more important to have one unified name for our family. Ultimately, I don't think I'm going to do it, though. I'm almost 40; I'm not going to change my name now. I wondered if doing that would make me feel more comfortable, but I don't think it feels right, or that it will help with the donor situation enough to be worth the odd feeling, the hassle, and the confusion.

Then I was thinking of giving my last name as a MN for the kids. The problem is, I don't LOVE my LN. I like it for me, just because it's MY name. Do I want to "take up" a name slot with that name, though? And our last names are too long and cumbersome to hyphenate . I don't want to saddle them with THAT mouthful of multicultural potpourri.

I wouldn't have asked my husband to change his LN because it - and his culture - is very, very important to him. So that's ruled out. He's not a very traditional guy, so I don't know that he'd have minded, otherwise.

What do you think? Would you ever think of using a name like Kaufmann as a middle name? Not so nice, right? There are names in my family - Walker, Nolan - that are better for that - but of course less meaningful. They aren't connected to me, really.

For a moment, I was ok with the idea. The rhythms work out fine, I think:

Xavi3r Kauffm@n F0nt3n0t
Ur$ula Kauffm@n F0nt3n0t

On the one hand, I'm a little sad to lose a middle name, especially with a girl. On the other hand, I couldn't care less about - and rarely even think about - my own middle name.


By Xio (not verified)
September 28, 2011 9:14 PM

In the Latin tradition I was raised in, everyone has a double last name. Not hyphenated- there are just two of them. When a couple marries, no one changes their name. When you have kids, they get a maternal linage name, and a paternal linage name.

So, my parents - Berta Mxxx Dxxx and Paulo Jxxx Gxxx had me- Xio Mxxx Gxxx.

My kids will get the matralinal name Mxxx, and their father's patrilinal name.

By jenjenjen (not verified)
September 28, 2011 9:20 PM

I didn't hesitate for a second before taking my husband's (very common) last name. I was looking forward to having a last name I didn't have to spell every time I met someone, a last name that people could pronounce! And yeah, having our family share a name was a nice perk.

You know what? I've loved it. I get a little frisson of happiness every time I can just say my name and have the person I'm talking to understand it. I chose the name I wanted.

The only problem is there are so many people with the same name as me that I get 1-2 misdirected emails per week. But even that is frequently amusing. :)

By Yet Another Laura (not verified)
September 28, 2011 9:39 PM

Very interesting perspective, Laura.

I changed my name to my husband’s when I got married more than two years ago. I never liked my last name and was happy to have the opportunity to change it. My original last name was kind of ugly, and hard for people to spell and pronounce, and had no family connection that had any importance to me. I had thought about changing it years ago, but I had no idea how to make that happen. Also, it didn’t feel right to me to just pick my own name. Marriage gave me a couple options to choose from.

I guess the grass is always greener when it comes to the rare versus common name issue! My new surname is in the top 100 in the United States and probably every other English-speaking country. I love being more anonymous now and not having to deal with people struggling with my name.

One thing no one has brought up is that you don’t have to just choose one name. Whatever is on your social security card is your one legal name, but many people use different names in various areas of their lives. People call you by whatever name you identify yourself with, and there is rarely any requirement that you give your legal name. I got married fairly late in life, after establishing a career, and it seemed like a bad idea to give up the reputation I had built. So I still use my maiden name professionally. I get this impression this is very common, at least here in the U.S.

It’s funny because now I feel like I have two identities. Every time I have to provide my name or sign something I have to pause briefly to remember name I am using. It is pretty embarrassing when I screw up and have to correct myself! I still don’t feel like my new name is really my name – it feels like an alias. I guess that is normal, considering I had my old name for 35 years and my new name for only 2.

September 28, 2011 9:40 PM

EVie, eek on the meaning of Hollister! I don't care much about meanings, but that one would have given me pause.

By Jane 6 (not verified)
September 28, 2011 10:25 PM

You know, I always liked my maiden name: Wallace. It's easy to pronounce, spell, and identify without being in the top 10 most common names. It has a cool history that I was always taken with.

But I also agree with the lone person above who said that taking your husband's name is romantic. It is. I like the idea - I'm sure the most un-feminist idea in the world - of belonging to someone, being his, and the whole world knowing that. It'd kind of like wearing a wedding ring. Maybe that means more to me because my parents weren't around much for me as a child, so that having any kind of family identity is very important to me now. It would feel less real if our family identity were just made up - like some mashup of our names or some word from a hobby or something. Just as I wouldn't use a made-up name for a child, I wouldn't use one for myself.

Finally, has anyone considered how hard it would be to come up with a last name for yourself? Say you wanted to use a word. Would it be a adjective? That doesn't work. If it was flattering that would be SO uncool. If it weren't, then that's weird, too. Verbs don't make very good last names in our culture. Jane Run, Jane Jump - no one would no what to do with that. And nouns? Well, I challenge you to pick any single object in the world that sums you up so completely that you'd want it to be your name.

By AngelaAiea (not verified)
September 28, 2011 10:50 PM

I know a couple who decided to make up a new last name when they got married, and they both switched to that. I can't think of anything more active or stronger.

I also know a couple in which the groom took the bride's last name. (She had an attractive surname and he didn't, and I believe he also had issues with his family.)