What’s in a name? (A lot)

Since getting married, a lot of people have asked me if I feel “different.” I always say no. While my relationship feels a bit different, I am the same person I was before getting hitched. Yes, down to my name.
As I’ve written before, changing my name – even to a hyphenated last name – was never really an option for me. Didn’t want to do it. (So you can imagine my annoyance when I received this in the mail) I feel the same way about the ‘Ms.’ title. I’ve always used it, always will.
I’m thinking about this after reading Judy Berman at Broadsheet, who writes about how Time‘s Nancy Gibbs thinks that the “Miss, Ms. Mrs.” debate isn’t really necessary anymore.

Whether my children’s friends call me Ms. Gibbs or Mrs. May or any combination of the two, I view it as a sign of respect and don’t worry about the particulars. My husband never remotely suggested that he was bothered by my not taking his name; in fact, he’s accustomed to occasionally answering to Mr. Gibbs. My late father, a fine writer, thrilled to see that name in the pages of this magazine. All these identities are me: Ms. when I’m out slaying dragons, Mrs. when I’m in the company of those I love most, Miss when I want to stay home under the covers and daydream. Feminists a generation ago fought for the title and dreamed of Freedom and Choice and Opportunity; maybe the surest sign that they’ve won is not which title we pick, but that we can have them all at once.

But isn’t this the problem? That each title announces something specific about who we are, when the truth is every woman is more than the sum of her married or unmarried parts? Men are always ‘Mr.’, and in that way they’re always themselves. I understand the inclination to embrace all parts of yourself – but language matters, and titles that exist to categorize women by marriage don’t do women – or men! – any favors.

Join the Conversation

  • Therese

    I know exactly what you’re talking about. I got married in August and then received a card that said “Mrs. X” on it. Grrrr….And I feel the same way about my husband as I felt when he was my boyfriend. We had been together 4 years before we married.
    You are right. Language does matter. And I correct people when they call me Mrs. X, because that is not my name.

  • valencia_o

    I’m always amazed at the number of women who think taking a husband’s name isn’t really a big deal (as if it doesn’t come with disturbing historical connotations of possession), or that it’s somehow liberating to choose to use Miss, Ms., or Mrs. in different capacties.
    The fact remains: your title denotes your marital status, and you are defined by whether or not you have a spouse. Your husband is not.
    What reason is there, really, to take someone’s name, especially if they don’t take yours in an equal capacity? It seems incredibly archaic to me.

  • Jennifer

    The credit card reminds me of when I added my husbands name on to the power/electric account. It was always just under my name, but when I added him to the account, they put his name FIRST on the account and BEFORE mine, even though he was an add-on and I was the original person on the account.

  • cattrack2

    Interesting points here. You’re right that language matters, but language comes with history as well. “Ms” was created specifically as the anti-thesis of “Mrs”, and, even, “Miss”. And while I think you’re starting to see it have a somewhat broader meaning at the margins–to function as the female equivalent of “Mr” and not just as the anti-thesis of “Mrs”–it’ll be another 50 years before “Ms” covers the breadth that the term “Mr” does…And, then, of course, we’ll have to search for a whole new word because “Ms” will have lost its meaning…All of language runs on a treadmill.

  • Porter

    That’s a really good point, the importance of language and how the labels impact perception.
    I fall on the other side of this, though. I’m a guy. Male. Man. I thoroughly enjoy the various titles that get used on me and around me, both seriously and, usually, plafully. Mister. Sir. Sirrah. Monsieur. Dude. Hey you. Jerk. Founder. CEO. So-and-so’s boyfriend. Porter. Pooter. Poots. Pootenanny. Uncle. Business guy. Asshole. Developer. Friend. Colleague. Church member (Unitarian at that, confounding the “church” label further!).
    I don’t like any one label, but I do like mixing them, and I particularly like to use a label that I think people make assumptions about, in a context they are not expecting, to see how they incorporate new information about me with their prior views of me, and of the social meaning of the label.
    “Mr. Bayne? You go to church?”
    “I do. But please, call me Asshole, like my business partners do.”

  • nadiaa

    I am so happy to see like-minded
    women write about this. I did
    not change my name to most
    people’s surprise. When I
    orginally said this, people
    assumed that I meant that my
    name was hyphenated now. I
    spend A LOT of time correcting
    people, including well-meaning,
    young friends. People who know
    often call me by my husband’s name
    or in the hyphenated version, not
    sure why though? I think it may
    be a mix of trying to annoy me
    because they know it bothers me
    and also trying to make a point
    that afterall, no matter what I
    chose (with my husband’s full
    support) cannot get in the way
    of tradition. I may a really
    big point of getting people’s
    names right because I think it
    is disrespectful not to. A lot
    of people who mean well (and
    sometimes who maybe do not mean
    well), cannotapparently do the
    same. I always feel like I am
    part of such a minority with
    so many things that have anything
    to do with feminism and gender,
    that reading entries like this
    makes me really happy.

  • sushi

    How will you handle it when/if you have children?
    Which name will the children have?

  • kat

    Heck, I did change my name to my husband’s, and I still don’t like to be called Mrs. My choice of my name is personal, but the title is a public interaction.

  • kat

    Heck, I did change my name to my husband’s, and I still don’t like to be called Mrs. My choice of my name is personal, but the title is a public interaction.

  • alixana

    I think Miss vs. Ms. is more of an age issue than a marriage issue.
    There are many reasons women have to change their last name when her husband doesn’t; none of them seem relevant to my situation, but it doesn’t mean they’re not valid for those women who have them.

  • DeafBrownTrash

    “The fact remains: your title denotes your marital status, and you are defined by whether or not you have a spouse. Your husband is not.”

  • nadiaa

    Sorry to everyone for multiple
    posts of the same comment…the
    computer freaked out on me. I plan
    on giving our child my name as
    a second middle name. I don’t like
    it when people have their mom’s
    name as their middle name
    because I think it is limiting. So
    we decided that there will be a
    first, middle, second middle (my
    last name) and then my husband’s
    name. I may have insisted on a
    hyphenated one maybe for the kid,
    if my last name was not super
    foreign and gender specific.
    Outside of my home country it
    does not make sense to people that
    some lastnames (same name) have
    different endings depending on
    whether you are a man or woman.

  • raq

    The one point that I can sympathize with in Ms. Gibb’s article is the issue concerning her children’s friends. The address of “Mrs. Husband’s name” from them is the symptom of her children having her husband’s name, and the assumption that she has the same last name as her children. It’s one of the few cases where that kind of assumption is less offensive, since a child probably already feels quite self-conscious on how to address her friend’s parent. (I used to stress so much about this because I never knew what last name my friend’s parents had, and I felt uncomfortable bringing it up with my friends).
    However, I still think that her children’s social groups would learn at lot more if she smiled and said, “Please, call me Ms. Gibbs”, instead of allowing the Mrs. to slide… the sooner we can stop assuming that families all have the same last name, the sooner we can move on.

  • BrandiM

    I started using Ms. after I had my daughter twelve years ago. I never liked Miss before, and it definitely didn’t feel right to be a Miss as a mother (don’t know why, just didn’t). I’ve never been married, and have no plans to be changing any names or titles if that ever occurs regardless.

  • kahri

    In my dream world the child question would be moot. Because children could have:
    1) Entirely separate last name from any parent
    2) Some amalgamation of parents’ last names
    3) The last name of one
    4) The last name/s of both
    5) A last name that has no basis in tradition
    6) No last name, but as many “first” names as needed by a government to specify an individual
    7) Other
    We don’t need to locate each other in complex genealogies or family histories to navigate this world. In my view, it just doesn’t matter what a last name is or isn’t.

  • EGS

    It’s interesting to me that so many women go with tradition and change their name to their husbands’. Every young woman of my acquaitance who has married (and it’s been quite a few, considering that I’m only 21) has changed their last name, including my sister. My friends tease me for my “crazy, feminist ways” for choosing not to change my name when/if the time comes, but I’d much rather have a specific reason for changing my name (or in this case, not changing) as opposed to just doing it for tradition’s sake.

  • susanstohelit

    I’m with you – it bothers me to no end that women are still defined by their marital status in a way men are not. I won’t stop being one person and change into another just because I’m married. And it still surprises me to see so many women of my generation or a little older change their names – my fiance’s sister and sister-in-law both did, most of my married facebook friends did, and I’m just left with a “really? why?” I understand personal reasons (for example, one of my friends is estranged from her father, so she’s happy to get rid of his name when she marries), but I do not get the insistence upon changing your identity just because you got married.

  • Flowers

    I prefer to go by “Miss First I. Last.” I don’t see how having honorifics that separate people by sex (Mr. v. Ms.) are any better than honorifics that separate women by marital status (Miss v. Mrs.). Besides, Mr. v. Ms. divides people along a power-structure that feminism is trying to eliminate. Why would I decide that a purely-gender honorific is a “better” honorific than one based on marital status? Instead, I embrace my Southern heritage and go by “Miss” because I like it. I’m single, and I don’t care who knows it.

  • winniemcgovens

    Ugh I am getting married and I am really torn on what to do with my name. Mainly because I like how my last name sounds and feel it’s part of me, but I don’t like the past that goes along with it. The only people who have my last name in my family are my parents and my sister. My paternal grandfather bailed out of my dad’s life pretty much (the last time I saw/heard from my grandfather I was 6, I am pushing 22 at the moment). My my grandmother (my dad’s grandmother) was very close to me growing up, and eventually she regretted encouraging her daughter to give my dad my grandfather’s last name.
    So now I feel like I’m clinging to an empty name from someone I have no connection with, instead of taking my husband’s name who is a huge part of my life. Seems like I’m giving into patriarchy either way.

  • rowena_eureka

    Jessica, I feel exactly the same way.
    I’ve been married for 18 years now and never changed my name. I still go by my own birth name “Ms. Jones” and hate when people use Mrs. or my husband’s name “Mrs. Smith”.
    I have teenage children now so I know all about my kids’ friends calling me Mrs. Smith. I just smile and politely tell them I’m Ms. Jones. I gave my son my last name as his middle name but my daughter is Jones-Smith.
    If I were to do it over again I’d either: hyphenate (with my name first), give them my name (with his as a middle name), or give my son his dad’s last name and my daughter my last name. Since I was the main caretaker, it’s just so much easier if my last name is either their only last name or the first name in a hyphenated name.
    Personally, in an ideal world, all kids would go by two last names, one from each parent. That would elimate going on Facebook and finding 40 Angela Bataglia’s and make everyone’s name more unique and useful. My husband is a doctor and I’m a teacher and we see lots of hospital and school errors because of strangers who have the same name as another patient or student. Two last names would go a long way to simplifiing those confusions as well as give a child ties to both parents.

  • Comrade Kevin

    Whomever I marry will keep her name and if it happens to be my current partner someday down the line, then that will be that. That is something I always expected and I’d feel uncomfortable if my wife wished to take my name, to be frank.
    I have, however, known some women who took their husband’s name because their own was easily misspelled by others, hard to pronounce, or otherwise unwieldy by society’s standards. Count me as having mixed feelings about that.

  • quarker

    I often just fantasize about going by Mr. I love that line by Ani Difranco in In or Out – “it’s MR Difranco to you.” Mr just carries this authority that Ms (and certainly Miss and Mrs) does not.
    Huh. I think I’m going to start circling Mr. on all forms from now on.

  • Comrade Kevin

    Whomever I marry will keep her name and if it happens to be my current partner someday down the line, then that will be that. That is something I always expected and I’d feel uncomfortable if my wife wished to take my name, to be frank.
    I have, however, known some women who took their husband’s name because their own was easily misspelled by others, hard to pronounce, or otherwise unwieldy by society’s standards. Count me as having mixed feelings about that.

  • Jenbayne

    Well, there’s no easy answer in name-taking. A girl might choose not to take a husband’s name – but the one she has is her father’s, so last names are male-centered, but if you start hyphenating names then your children have problems, and they end up with four hyphenated male last names anyway. And now that I’m getting divorced, I don’t want my husbands name, but I will be sad not to have my son’s.
    I agree that women’s titles are more defined by their relationship to men with the Mrs./Ms/Miss thing, and it’s not the same for men, they are not defined by who they are married to. And language matters, but we’re already enmeshed in it – which is why I like the idea of using multiple titles – so we can start taking the power away from one being defining, and maybe a hundred years from now the language scene will be different.

  • Lilith Luffles

    Usually to let people know which pronoun you prefer to be referred to as. I’m a cis gendered woman, so I go by ‘Ms.’ If I were a trans gendered man, I would go by ‘Mr.’ That’s how I view it at least.

  • Sloppy Sandwich

    My wife kept her name. Funny thing was, MY mom wanted her to keep her name and HER dad wanted her to take my name.

  • rowena_eureka

    The girl’s name have may have come from her father, but now it’s hers and has been hers all her life. And when she gives that name to her children, it comes from their mother and it starts something new.
    Hyphenating isn’t the big problem it’s made out to be. If your name is Jones-Smith and you marry Johnson-Kehoe, then you each choose a name to pass on and make a new hyphenated name for your kids: Jones-Kehoe. Very easy and more unique with a richer history for your child (both male and female names).

  • JesiDangerously

    You could possibly get a new last name. Maybe a name that means a lot to you, some sort of homage to someone in your life who you really care about.

  • Athenia

    I used to call my 9th grade English teacher “Mrs. XX” even though she wasn’t married.
    She wasn’t young enough to be a Miss and Ms. just didn’t roll off the tongue easily. Ms. seems slightly impersonal as well.

  • Wonderwall

    I’m trying to get my dude to make a new last name with me. Take half of my last name, half of his, put it together and its a brand new name! Neither my dad’s nor his dad’s!
    He isn’t buying that idea yet….I still have time to let him warm up to it, though.

  • Jessica

    Deleted your multiple posts – sorry about that, there was a site error that caused that to happen for a bunch of folks!

  • Athenia

    I used to call my 9th grade English teacher “Mrs. XX” even though she wasn’t married.
    She wasn’t young enough to be a Miss and Ms. just didn’t roll off the tongue easily. Ms. seems slightly impersonal as well.

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  • sarahntastic

    I never understood women changing their name after marriage, but I understand this even less: all of my married friends and sisters-in-law kept their own names, but when they had children, the child’s last name is the husband’s last name. Not hyphenated, not anything to do with the mother’s last name. How can this be? And when I bring it up, they just shrug and have no answer.

  • Lissla Lissar

    I will probably change my name, but it is simply because I have no emotional attachment to my last name. I’m just indifferent and I know that my boyfriend DOES have an attachment to his. It’s just a compromise.

  • its_me

    I was engaged a few years back, and this was a huge issue. His reaction was actually what started me questioning the whole relationship, since a) he was shocked I wanted to keep my name while everyone else in my life (except extended family) assumed I’d keep it based on my frequently espoused feminism and belief in the personal as the political AND b)he tried to change my mind by arguing it was proof of love and “what was done.”
    He eventually, and resentfully, came to agree with me, but it just showed me how much resistance there still is the notion that a women’s identity is not defined by by her but by her status as married or not. For the record, the deal I insisted on was that I would change to the extent he did. We could both hyphenate, both choose a new name, or both keep our own. And since he would stay Mr., I would stay Ms. If I ever do go through with getting married, it will be to a man who understands and supports this reasoning.

  • nzspark

    I am recently married New Zealander and have changed my name and feel irritated sometimes that people take my desicion to mean that I am less indepedent than they previously thought me to be.
    I’m faced a fair bit of surprise from people who know me which I never quite understood. A male acquitance said to me not long after my wedding that “he hadn’t pegged me as the sort of girl to change my name” which was met with the fairly cheesed off comment “So then, what sort of girl did you ‘peg’ me as?”. I felt fairly annoyed that a male who regarded himself as fairly liberal would choose to question my desicion and infer it wasn’t the “feminist” one to make.
    My mother-in-law has kept her maiden name and said to me to me that she was surprised that all her daughters-in-law had taken her sons names.
    A name is nothing but an identification, to me, it’s not WHO I am – I am more widely known by a nickname that my proper first name!. I am part of a very large, tight-knit extended family who all have my mother’s maiden name as my mother has 5 brothers so my sister and I were the sole cousins in a pool of around 35 to have a different name. So I never felt the connection to my father’s name and my own surname as a way to identify me – I was part of the “W” clan even though my surname was “S”. So when I chose to drop the “S” and take become a “Mrs O” I didn’t view it as losing any of my personal and familial heritage or identity – it was just me moving into a different phase of my life and celebrating a relationship that was very important to me.
    Marriage itself is an archaic institution and has become more and more symbolic rather than practical, couples don’t need to get married anymore for each person to have certain rights and protections under the law.
    While some see me changing my name as an archaic thing to do, I think the important thing is that I had the choice to do it. It was purely up to me and I felt no pressure either way to make the desicion. I find it highly ironic that now I feel a strange social pressure to prove that I still regard myself as somewhat of a feminist. It was a personal choice and one that other women make on what suits them best. Identity and how we concieve of it is such an individual process that is different for everyone.

  • saraeanderson

    I kept my last name when I married, and was at an event with my husband that a reporter was covering, so Andy ended up being Andy Anderson in the article. The reporter knew my name and assumed it was the same for my spouse. Whoops.

  • raoulJraoul

    It’s not just your deadbeat grandpa’s name. It is your name. And it has value because you have value.

  • sushi

    No “last names”? Even if you call all of them first names, you’ll only be saying one of them first, and one of them last…

  • i_muse

    EW I despise the sound of Mrs.
    I kept my full name as I was given at birth and though of changing it to a combo of my mother and fathers name when I was younger.

  • ck

    I only think it’s a big deal if someone feels pressured to do so. I took one of my husbands last names (he has two) because I liked it. It sounds nice with my name. Anyways, if you keep your name it is still (probably) your fathers name. So the whole “possession” issue is there whether you are possessed by your father’s name or your husband’s. I don’t believe this is the way it should be, but it is. I don’t want to be any more “possessed” by my husband than I do my father, but the fact is I either have my father’s name or my husbands…and I chose to take one of his (hubby’s). Does that make me less of a feminist?
    And I do go by Ms. And technically we don’t share the exact same last name since he has two and I just took the one I liked with my name. (talk about selfish…but whatever…it’s my name!)

  • Cate

    I was so tormented over this decision when my husband and I first got engaged. I didn’t want his name, but I also didn’t want to keep my name and then have our kids end up with his. In the end, we both changed our names to something we’d mutually agreed upon. Before we changed our names I was SOOOOO frustrated with all the “Mr. and Mrs. (His first name/last name” mail, especially from family–even my family!
    I hate the whole situation.
    But I love our new name.

  • Phenicks

    I changed my last name for several reasons but most of all because *I* wanted to and choose to as an individual woman who is not the alpha, omega and end all to be all of every female in the world. I am NOT my husband’s property I am part of his fmaily as he is part of mine. Neither was I my father’s property before I got married and neither was my mother her father’s property. If it’s THAT serious to you I’d suggest creating your own last name since the one GIVEN and FORCED on you at birth has NOTHING to do with choice. I CHOOSE my husband when I said yes to our first date. I CHOOSE my husband when I said yes to his marriage proposal. I CHOOSE his last name when I went to the social security office, the DMV, my bank and the HR department to change my last name. How could all of that be done frivolously? My parents had no say in that. The patriarchy had NO say in that and I’ll be damned if anyone belittles the authenticity of that choice by blaming it on an illusion of me somehow being forced into it. BY WHO?!
    A woman’s choices do not end and begin with whether or not she’s fertile and may need an abortion. Her choices in life include amongst other things in this country the right to take, create or refuse a last name.

  • jrav81

    I am not married, but if I ever marry, I will retain my last name. It may be my father’s name as well as my grandfather. But, to me, it is also the name that encompasses the women in my family. It is fully, 100% me. It’s unique, and I would never look at myself in the same way if I had another name.
    This isn’t a criticism of anyone else. I do understand that everyone has individual reasoning. However, I have to say that no, we cannot rehistoricize our collective past as females, but we can certainly move forward and make a change.
    Good for you, Jessica. I was wondering how the change was progressing because it did seem you endured much criticism here. (Not saying you should be above criticism, but in this instance you certainly seemed to be thoughtful and open about your decision).

  • jrav81

    Ah, also – I teach at a state university, and when students turn anything in with my name on it, I tell them I prefer ‘Ms.’ I am not married, but I also correlate the title with marriage. Also, I do not like Miss because again it is a delineation. I feel as though ‘Ms.’ has come to connote a title similar to ‘Mr.’

  • jm

    I don’t like the argument that your last name is your dad’s name and so keeping it is no different than changing your name to your husband’s.
    YOU grew up with that name. It is yours, and has been your whole life (in most circumstances). That is how people have known you up until now. In my mind, being born and having your parents name you (whether after your father or not) is totally different than actively choosing, as an adult, to participate in a relatively patriarchal practice by adopting your husband’s name.
    And sure, there have been lots of women named “Jane” before me, but that doesn’t make it any less MY name, just as my last name is no less mine simply because I got it from my father.

  • ScienceAndTheCity

    Right now I am a Ms., and if I get married (and this is looking more and more likely) I will keep my last name for professional and personal reasons.
    Hopefully by then, though, I can ask (at least people I don’t know and when in professional situations) that people call me Dr. Maybe it sounds elitist, but mostly I really love that it’s gender neutral.
    I wish there was a pronoun like that for people that haven’t gotten a degree. Maybe we should invent one?

  • SillyCat

    I completely agree with you that choice is really at the heart of the issue. I’m really looking forward to changing my name to my boyfriend’s eventually. It’s a choice that I get to make, just like I’ll have chosen to marry him. I’m choosing to form a new identity, to be one half of a couple for the rest of my life, in the eyes of G-d and the government. It may seem anticlimatic after having lived together for probably five years, but I do believe that marriage is a promise and a vow, with greater solemnity in my eyes than us just signing a lease together each year (although I know not everyone feels that way). I feel sorry that my boyfriend doesn’t get to change his name to mark his new identity (though I suppose ultimately that is his choice too) and I feel incredibly committed to working towards a reality in which gays and lesbians get to consider making the exact same choice with their names after a marriage ceremony that I will.
    Making that choice for myself is a feminist act; keeping my name because that’s what’s expected of me by other feminists, is not.

  • SillyCat

    To some extent, you’re taking away free choice from your future wife. My boyfriend also expected that I would want to keep my own name, but on the contrary, I feel incredibly passionate about taking his. Not from any concern about misspelling, but simply from the desire to live my married life with his last name. If you respect her as an adult and an individual, then you should respect her decisions.