Is changing your name when you get married ever a feminist move?

Melissa McEwan lists some reasons why heterosexual women who identify as feminists or womanists may choose to take on their husband’s last name upon marriage. Some of the reasons:

1. Because she was not a womanist/feminist when she got married.

2. Because it was a huge point of contention with her in-laws, or maybe even her own parents, and she was picking her battles.

6. Because her maiden name was her father’s name and keeping it did not feel like any more a rejection of the patriarchy than taking her husband’s name did, and she liked her husband’s name better.

7. Because her maiden name was her father’s name, and she likes her husband a lot more than her father.

8. Because her family was abusive and her husband’s family is wonderful to her, and she wants actively to become a part of it and feels taking their name is a symbol of that joyful joining.

9. Because she and her husband want the same last name, but the law makes it infinitely easier for her to change her name to his than for him to change his name to hers, or for both of them to choose a new name they share altogether.

And one of my favorites:

10. Because despite knowing it comes from a weird, fucked-up patriarchal tradition, there’s still some weird, fucked-up place inside her that likes the idea of taking her husband’s name—and no feminist/womanist lives a life free of compliance, consciously or not, with weird, fucked-up patriarchal narratives and expectations. But unlike privately calling another woman a bitch or playing the role of Exceptional Feminist with a group of male coworkers or secretly doing all the housework in her own home, the name thing is there for everyone to see and question, every day of her life.

Prior to meeting my now-husband, I was more or less just figuring I’d change my name upon marriage, but had minor reservations. For one thing, I wasn’t thrilled with continuing a patriarchal tradition that has roots in the literal ownership of women by their husbands, and also, my sister and I are the only Streich kids in the family who are likely to have children, making us the last remaining people in our family to be able to “pass down” the name. And we’re both women, so if we were to be traditional and take our husband’s names, this wouldn’t happen.

As Hubby and I started talking about marriage, I was conflicted for the reasons listed above, but still wanted to share a name with my future husband because it felt more “familial” to me. By the time we’d met, my feminist views had gotten more prevalent and influential in many of the decisions I was making, so I no longer considered just taking his name. In fact, I was more interested in both of us hyphenating. I mentioned it to Hubby, thinking he’d be open to the idea but be possibly opposed to the idea. Feminist-friendly as a guy may be, patriarchal traditions and fears of not maintaining a certain “masculine” image can still creep up. I was happily surprised when his reaction was nothing but agreement.

Anyway, aside from confusing a few older members of our families, no one’s really batted an eye at the uncommon name change, although a few people annoyingly insist on calling me Mrs. Hislastname. They are repeatedly corrected.

I used to take the hard-line stance that, given the fact that choosing to take your future husband’s name is still seen as mandatory by a large section of our society, a woman should not make that choice, no matter what, until we’re at a point where the decision is simply a decision, and not promoting or perpetuating the idea that it’s required. I tend toward similar hard-line stances regarding things like makeup, leg-shaving, and other things where the choice to engage in a certain behavior, job, or other action is still choosing to engage in a misogynist tradition, but I’m beginning to come away from that. Each choice that we make within what is still an unequal society is complex and inherently comes with many considerations. People will choose what is best for them, and assuming that people are educated about the choices they’re making, the choice is best left up to the person making it.

So the answer to the question: It’s not necessarily a feminist move, but it’s not necessarily unfeminist, either.

Cross-posted at my blog,

Join the Conversation

  • aLynn

    My (now) husband and I started dating before I identified as feminist and even then I never imagined changing my name. It has just never seemed right. I’ve never yearned to be Mrs. Anybody.

    I mean, I spent so many years of my life as ME…building a professional reputation amongst other things, that to become Ms. Hislastname seemed so…so wrong.

    So I stayed ME. And he stayed HIM. And hypothetical-future-kids will be last named ME-HIM. People ask me what those kids will do someday when they get married or have their own kids. Are they going to have 4 hyphenated last names? And that, I say, is their hypothetical-future decision. Not mine.

    • April Streich

      We talk about the same thing, with our future kids. We’ll give them our hyphenated names, and once/if they get married and have kids, they can decide what works best for them.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    I just hyphenated it. I see the hyphenation as symbolic of union. People who have gotten familiar with my work under my maiden name will still has that for recognition, plus let’s face it, my husband has a really cool last name, why wouldn’t I want to use that? :)

  • nazza

    I wouldn’t have any issue with hyphenated names, except that for me, I find them a bit unwieldy. When my partner and I get married, she will keep her name and I will keep my own. Best to keep it simple. If she, by contrast, decided to take my name, I admit I would have reservations with the gesture, but would grant her the ability to decide for herself.

  • SamBarge

    I’ve used my spouse’s last name ever since we got married 20 yrs ago. It wasn’t a pre-feminist decision but rather a case of expediency.

    My parents are Italian immigrants and my birth name (which is still my legal name, by the way) was long and difficult for English speakers to pronounce. Before I got married, I was thinking of legally changing my name to my mother’s name. No hang ups with my father or anything, it’s just that my mother’s name was just easy to pronounce and spell – even for Anglos. I was young (ie. not out of university yet) and therefore hadn’t built up a professional reputation under my birth name. I hesitated on the legal name change thing though because it would have resulted in a new birth certificate and Social Insurance Number. Essentially, it would have been like I was never born with my name. I didn’t like that – plus, there was a not inconsequential expense attached to the legal name change process.

    Then, I got married. My spouse’s name was German in origin but had been Anglicized a long time ago. I made the switch without a second thought because:

    1. It’s an easy name for others to spell and pronounce – guaranteeing that my resume won’t be passed over because they can’t start to pronounce my name and,
    2. It’s not actually a legal name change; I get to keep my birth certificate and Social Insurance Card, identity and
    3. It cost me nothing.

    I never thought about it as a feminist or patriarchal statement. It was expedient and ultimately what I wanted – an easy name to use without actually changing my name.

    Ofcourse, I have since met people who thought that my decision was a statement that I support the patriarchal tradition of changing your name on marriage. I don’t – I also know that in really patriarchal cultures, women never lose their father’s name hence the patriarchy – and I hate that it comes across like that.

  • Lacy

    I’m in a pickle with the whole name change thing right now myself. I’m not getting married anytime soon, but I have been considering changing my last name to my Mother’s for a while (my Father hasn’t been involved with my life for years). My problem is, I’m still quite close to my family on my Father’s and I don’t want to drop it entirely. Also, my last name is a McName and it makes for awesome McNicknames (silly but I like it). I’m leaning towards just hyphenating it, but if I ever do decide to get married that would give me three last names, and I’m just not sure I want to deal with all that. If the time comes I’ll probably just take the husband’s last name.

    Thanks for the post, I quite enjoyed it. Definitely made me think more about personal choices and what is right for one person is not always what is right for the next. :-)

  • natasha

    I’m not married, but when I get older I think I would change my last name when I got married, because of reason number 8, I don’t want to carry my family name around. That’s a personal choice, and for me, it’s neither feminist nor anti-feminist. Unless it’s feminist in the fact that I’m making an independent choice for what’s best for me.

  • Matt

    To the post title in particular:

    “Definitely yes”

    There are means of name changes that are (more) egalitarian by nature. There are a few methods that have been discussed or can be found on the Internet. There is one method of my own that I have developed, and the more I think about it, the more I love it:

    Let’s say you’ve got two people:

    [A] [B]
    [C] [D]

    These two people then make up a new last name [E], and they will henceforth be known as, until divorce, as:

    [A] [E]
    [C] [E]

    Alternatively, if the two decide they would rather not lose their given last name, they can instead use the names:

    [A] [B] [E]
    [C] [D] [E]

    Optionally, they may use hyphens to make [B]-[E] and [D]-[E].

    If the parents have children will first names [F] and [G], their children will be named

    [F] [E]
    [G] [E]

    If the parents divorce, they may elect to drop [E] from their names, but it is not explicitly required. The children will retain their original names.

    The scheme is gender neutral. If couples hyphenate to a last name of [C]-[D], how do you decide which name comes first (or would you have your respective names in reverse order)? This feature also allows same-sex couples a straightforward scheme.

    Children won’t have to deal with a last name with one, three, or seven hyphens in it. Making the kids choose which parts stay or get passed on isn’t fair to them (as feeling can get hurt). Also, providing kids a simple name will give other kids one less reason to pick on them.

    The scheme supports larger unions of adults.

    We can get new last names in circulation, and we give ourselves a means of curtailing the copies of Johnson, Rodriguez, and Smith.

    People who marry get to choose a name of their own! They deserve an opportunity to have some say over who they are — and it may encourage parents to exert their more exotic creativity on a name they have to carry (the new last name) rather than one the child alone has to bear (the kid’s first name).

    I also look forward to having a splendid conversation with the people in HR if/when I scratch out “Maiden,” scribble in “Bachelor,” and fill in the name box above.

    I’m telling you, you’re going to have a hard time talking me out of this idea. I’m (way too) damned proud of it.

    • Matt

      Minor correction: “If couples hyphenate to a last name of [B]-[D], how do you decide which name comes first (or would you have your respective names in reverse order)?”

      To that point, two-part last names that are in the reverse order of each other does not provide a clear name for the children.

      • April Streich

        I understand the tradition to be that the woman’s name comes first, then the man’s last name. My husband and I did it the opposite way, though. My last name is pronounced “strike,” which just sounds awkward before just about anything else…

        One other interesting point about that is that I always hear people drop the first part of the hyphenated name and refer to both people as Mr. and Mrs. second-part-of-hyphenation. I couldn’t say for sure, but it smells like an annoying way to ensure that women who choose to hyphenate are still going to be called by her husband’s original name when people don’t feel like pronouncing all those pesky syllables.

    • April Streich

      I like your idea! A lot!

  • vexing

    11. Because she’s a trans woman and it’s an extremely convenient and easily explainable way of escaping associations with her previous last name – a name which could potentially out her.

    • April Streich

      That’s an excellent point. Thanks for bringing it up.

      The county I live in allows people to change their entire names when getting married, if the couple wants. One couple I know, in which one of the women is trans, used the opportunity to legally change her first name as well, and they both decided on a completely new last name. Worked out really well, and conveniently, without the added hassle of paying for a newspaper announcement and all that hoopla.

  • Yekaterina

    I will not change my name if I get married – I do kind of like the idea of a “family name,” so may be I would be willing to take his last name as my middle name if he does the same with mine.
    The only situation in which I can foresee taking a husband’s last name is if I’m marrying someone by the last name of Scorpion. I think it would be awesome to be a Mrs. Scorpion.

    I would hyphenate kids names: HIS-MINE. Because whenever it’s hyphenated HER-HIS, hers is usually the one that eventually gets dropped (like an awkward middle name of sorts). Though the hypothetical ‘he’ may have a MINE-HIS preference, for much of the same reasons, I believe as the parent who’d bear the burden of reproduction I’d be entitled to the last word on that one.

    • April Streich

      I would hyphenate kids names: HIS-MINE. Because whenever it’s hyphenated HER-HIS, hers is usually the one that eventually gets dropped (like an awkward middle name of sorts). Though the hypothetical ‘he’ may have a MINE-HIS preference, for much of the same reasons, I believe as the parent who’d bear the burden of reproduction I’d be entitled to the last word on that one.

      Totally agree. I mentioned it upthread, but I’ve also noticed the tendency to drop the first aprt of a hyphenated name, which is traditionally the woman’s in this situation. I’m pleased that we chose the opposite without having really thought about what that meant, for this very reason.

      And LOL about your Scorpion comment. I would totally change my name in that case, too.

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  • Cosoa

    Story time!

    My father was giving me a lecture on not taking my fiance’s last name, because, as he said, he thought I was too modern and independent for that. I happily informed him that my partner and I had come to the decision, when we eventually marry (cohabiting for 5 years and counting), to take on a new last name, one that has personal meaning and that we both like.

    He flipped out. As it happens, he was only really concerned with prolonging his legacy, as he has no sons. =P

    Anyway, I feel about taking your husband’s name as I feel about wearing makeup. It may not be a feminist act, but it’s no one’s business but yours. No one should have to justify their decision regarding their own name. It is worth thinking critically about, but political motivations don’t always need to outweigh personal motivations.

  • Amelia

    The argument of carrying down names, in my opinion, falls kind of flat when you think about ALL the different people who’ve given you genes who’s names are not represented. You have two parents, who each got one or the other name from two of their four parents, those people got their names from 16 different people who each would have had their own names which they got from other people.
    Each ancestor had a name that was passed down from only ONE of their parents. so you’ve cut out many many many many many more names than name you’ve kept in the family line. The person who the name originally came from is responsible for only the tiniest fraction of your genetic make-up, there are many many thousands of other names that could equally represent where you came from.

    I, personally would never change my name for someone who wouldn’t change their name for me. So for me, it would have to be that we BOTH change our names or neither of us do. Naming children becomes a different problem then – I think it’s extremely confusing that some women keep their own name only to give their children their husbands name. why would you do that? double-barrel names are often objected to, but surely not worse (not that it’s the only other option, either) than automatically giving children the father’s name.