What's in a Name? A Feminist Issue

I remember the first conversation Ross & I ever had about me taking his last name. It was before we were even engaged, and I had just woken up.

"I just had the weirdest dream. We were getting married and I didn't want to change my name, and you were really really angry with me."

He pulled me in for a cuddle and reassured me that he wasn't, in fact, angry with me. Then he said, "You are going to take my last name though, right?" I was taken aback - partly because I hadn't really thought about it, partly because it was too early in the morning for serious conversations but mostly because I hadn't expected him to have a preference.

"I don't know. Does it matter that much to you if I do?"

He thought for a bit and explained that yes, he would like it if I changed my name, but that he also understood that it was ultimately my decision. The conversation quickly moved on to other things but now the seed was firmly planted in my head - did I actually want to change my name?

I started to seriously consider my options once we got engaged. The obvious one was double barrelling but, whatever way you spun it, our names just did not work as a pair. Then there was the slightly less conventional option of combining the two names into some sort of portmanteau hybrid (eg. Kim + Kanye = Kimye) but again, our names were just not designed to be mushed together. We could even pick a new name entirely, but that just reminded me of the time we had forgotten that we'd left washing in the machine so, instead of someone volunteering or even playing rock-paper-scissors, we BOTH got out of bed to hang it up - we both lost, but at least it was equal! 

Once those options were eliminated, I was left with three choices (ordered by likelihood):

  1. I change my name, Ross keeps his

  2. I keep my name, Ross keeps his

  3. I keep my name, Ross changes his

I'm not a doctor or a musician or an artist. I'm not famous. Outwith my social circle, it is of no importance what I choose to call myself. There is no utilitarian argument for or against changing my name (other than the small amount of paperwork) and, as someone who tends to value cold hard facts over anything else, I found that a little bit disturbing.

I thought about my connection to my family, my Scottish heritage, my values. I looked to my feminist icons - Maya Angelou, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Joan Jett, Leslie Knope. I talked to my gran (who has been married since 1964) and she reminded me that women never used to have the choice. Changing your name when you got married was just what you did, and any deviance from that was considered a radical act.

We've come a long way in the last 50 years, on a lot of things, but we have still clung on to a great deal of hetero-normative societal expectations - including those expectations about name changes in a marriage. According to a YouGov survey in 2016, 59% of women aged 18-29 plan to take their partner's name when they get married (compared to just 1% of men in the same age bracket). You can see the full results here.  Another study suggests that men whose wives do not change their name are more likely to be viewed as having traits which are typically associated with femininity, such as being "submissive”, “caring”, “understanding” and “timid”. Likewise, women who do not change their names are perceived as having more power within their relationship and being more self-focused, ambitious and assertive. It's pretty clear we've still got a long way to go when it comes to challenging these traditional and patriarchal views, but does that mean I should keep my name on principle?

I love my maiden name. I love that I share it with my parents and my grandparents and my brother and his wife and so many of my loved ones. I love that it reminds me of my family's history and of our Hebridean roots. Okay, there's a lot of loops in it which makes writing my signature a bit of a pain in the arse, but ultimately it's my name and it is special to me. I'm also all for railing against the status quo. Nobody is forcing me to change my name, so why should I?

Your name forms part of your identity - every time you are introduced to someone, it is the first thing that person learns about you. But it's usually not the last. Your name forms part of your identity, but it is also not intrinsically linked to the other parts. 

Changing my name doesn't make me less family-oriented, it doesn't make me less Scottish and it certainly doesn't make me less of a feminist.

I love Ross. I love our life together, I love my in-laws. I love that, by sharing one name, we are saying to the world that we are a team, without any scope for interpretation. I love the idea that one day we will have our own family and that our children might think of their name the same way I think of mine. 

For me, changing my name is a sign of commitment and pride in my relationship, like wearing a wedding ring on paper. It is a privilege that not everyone is afforded, and a choice which I am grateful to have had the chance to make. It's also worth noting that I intend to continue to be self-focused, ambitious and assertive, married name and all.

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Looking for something to read next?
Try Stylist's How keeping your own surname changes the way people perceive your marriage by Moya Crockett

Thumbnail photo by Jon Asato on Unsplash