Thursday, 10 November 2011

Confession: I’m a married feminist… and I share my husband’s surname

* PLEASE NOTE (added 14 Nov, 2011): After some feedback, I'd like to stress (especially to those who know me in real life) that the people referred to in the post below are NOT those whose opinions I actively asked, and whose opinions I therefore valued (regardless of whether they are the same opinions as mine). That would be extremely churlish of me. The people referred to are those (many of whom don't know me in real life,and only know me online) who judged me on a personal issue without being asked for their views.

Taking your husband’s name upon marriage – no other issue incites the same depth of emotion among others when a feminist enters the wedding arena.

When I announced my engagement in January, instead of saying “Congratulations”, several feminist women actually said, while looking disappointed with me for being engaged at all, “I hope you won’t be changing your name.” Like it was their business. I found it hurtful.

For eight long months, I debated ad nauseam the surname dilemma with my fiancé, my friends (feminist and otherwise) and my family. But the decision was mine alone, and my fiancé made it clear that my name was entirely my business.

We immediately ruled out hyphenation because (in our view) it looks clunky, and where does it stop? If double-barreled people marry someone else with a double-barreled name, do they become quardruple-barreled, and then octuple-barreled etc? That’s just daft.

My husband wasn’t averse to taking my surname instead of me taking his – except he’s an only child and I’m one of four (and all my siblings have children who are carrying on our family name).

We briefly entertained adopting a whole new surname. ‘Bowie’ was the top suggestion because David Bowie is a genius. But we knew we’d never have the temerity to actually do it.

Most people assumed I would keep my original surname (I hate the term ‘maiden’ name, as if I’m a helpless damsel), which - for someone as childishly contrary as me – could have been instigation enough to do the opposite. So when I announced in September that I had deliberated for nine months and I would be sharing my husband’s surname, everyone was surprised.

But what business is it of theirs? I’m stunned by how many people have felt entitled to pass judgment on my decision over what I call myself, and the number of times I have had to defend my own name. It’s extraordinary. And rude.

To me, sharing my husband’s surname has nothing to do with losing my identity – quite the opposite. I’m affirming my identity. I recently made a public and lifelong commitment with this man, and it seems bizarre that we would not share a surname. Many believe that marriage itself is an outdated patriarchal institution, and the figures for 2009 (the most recent available) confirm that the UK marriage rate is at its lowest ever. Others say, reasonably, that they won’t marry until marriage is equal for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation. I understand this.

There are a zillion blogs where people have debated this, many musing it as a feminist concern. There’s even the Lucy Stone League devoted to it, which suggests 90% of brides take their husband’s name on marriage, and words it in such a way as to imply these women have been forced into “this tradition of name-abandonment”! I appreciate that when the LSL was set up in the 1920s women had much more of a struggle if they wanted to keep their original surname, but in 2011 this is less of an issue in the western world (except for women like Kate Middleton – I’d have loved to see her try to keep her surname). It’s clear why many think this IS a feminist issue, but in 2011 it is now so common for brides to keep their original surname that I think this is one area where women have made positive strides with our right to a choice.

Far from abandoning my old surname, I have consciously decided to leave it in the past and embrace my future. I love the idea of having a new identity and starting from scratch, it’s extremely liberating.

By changing my name, I’m neither conforming to patriarchy nor holding the feminist cause back. And for anyone to suggest that I am less of a feminist for having changed my name is insulting to me both as an independent woman and as a strident feminist. It’s been a carefully considered choice.


  1. Great post. I got married in July and while I'd always assumed I'd do the feminist thing and keep my name, I did find it emotionally harder to do than I'd expected. After I got married and came back to work I did have a week of two where I was almost sorry I hadn't taken my husband's name.
    A few months on and I am glad I took the decision I did. Keeping my own, original name was right for me. But I do understand better why some choose to change their names. I'm not as strident about it as I used to be that's for sure.
    Most important thing is, it doesn't make you any less of a woman, a wife or a feminist - regardless of which option you take.

  2. It's true that this subject invites a lot of strong feelings on both sides. I don't mean to join those who berate you for your decision, but I would like to answer one point you made.

    "To me, sharing my husband’s surname has nothing to do with losing my identity – quite the opposite. I’m affirming my identity. I recently made a public and lifelong commitment with this man, and it seems bizarre that we would not share a surname. "

    I agree that sharing a name can be a powerful symbol for what marriage is supposed to be: two people joining together. But it seems to me the argument of "affirming your identity" only really works if both parties change their names (for example, to your excellent suggestion of Bowie). If changing your name is a positive way of affirming your new identity as a married person, why does it make sense that only one person - still overwhelmingly the woman - should do it, while the other retains the same identity they have always had? I think we need to see much greater parity between men and women changing their names upon marriage before we can argue that the patriarchal shadow of brides losing their surnames has really passed us by.

    Having said that, it was heartening to read that your husband would have been happy to change his name to yours. Men often seem more conservative in this respect than women - for example leaving their name as it is when their wife double-barrels.

  3. Lovely post. The decision, quite rightly, is entirely yours.

  4. Interesting post. I've always assumed I would keep my own name (yep, I hate the term 'maiden name' too) when/ if I get married. But I can completely understand the desire for you both to have the same surname, to create a unit together as one. I guess my only gripe would be, as Helen says above, how it usually falls to the woman to change her name.

    In addition, I really hate the whole 'proper feminist' and 'more feminist than thou' thing too. It's massively patronising and insulting for other people to dictate to you whether you can call yourself a feminist or not.

  5. of my colleagues recently married, the women in the partnership 2 have changed to husbands surnames, 1 husband has changed to her name, 2 have kept their name

  6. Hi Helen, and thanks for your comment. Your point about the inequalities of it typically being the woman who adopts the man’s name, rather than vice versa, has been raised by several people, so I thought I should write an answer…

    I agree it is only truly equal if both people change their name, and then both people are starting off on equal footing, with equal weight carried to the name. But short of amalgamating the two previous surnames, or adopting a new name, there doesn’t seem a way around this. For my husband and I, this wasn’t something we wanted to do. But I appreciate other people may have a stronger view.

    Of course, you’re right in saying: “If changing your name is a positive way of affirming your new identity as a married person, why does it make sense that only one person - still overwhelmingly the woman - should do it, while the other retains the same identity they have always had?”

    If I was going to find a feminist argument in this, then this angle is what I’d go for. One problem I had was that it is typically the woman who is expected to change not only her surname BUT ALSO her title (I’ve written before about what an outdated concept I think titles are, full stop), while the man changes nothing. It would be wonderful to see more parity between men taking their wife’s name and vice versa, but although I’ve heard some anecdotes of this, it is sadly very unusual.

    I don’t think that we’ve lost the patriarchal shadow associated to bride’s changing their names. Unfortunately, it’s still very much there. But then, my original surname was my father’s surname, and my new surname is my husband’s father’s surname. It was briefly tempting to revert to my mother’s pre-marriage surname as I have a very close relationship with her. Yet this would be meaningless to my husband, who is similarly close to his parents. And so on.

    In essence, a surname is a ‘family name’, and the name my husband and I have decided to share is now the name of our small family.

  7. Thanks for writing this. I'm a recently married feminist & I took my partners name. I'd been starring the deedpoll to change my surname (didn't like it, was trying to escape abusive ex, felt like my fathers name not mine any way etc..) before I got engaged. When we did it seemed like a sensible idea to take his. A week before the wedding we started to think about choosing a new joint surname but it seemed to late. I've never felt that my surname has ever been more than a patriarchal consruct which left me remarkably blase about it at the time. We're toying with choosing a new name in the future now, that's our choice though no one elses.
    For me it's the Mrs pre-fix I feel strongly about. I've been a Ms for years and I do not want to change it. For me personally that smacks of ownership more. I get that others will see it differently though.

  8. I'm one of three sisters, all brought up to be what my mum calls "individuals", probably all feminists in one way or another. I kept my name, sister 2 changed hers, sister 3 kept hers for business use and changed it for home use. Then... quite a few years later we adopted an "older child", aged 7 at the time. He was going to have to change
    his name (and a whole lot else besides) so I decided to change mine too in solidarity. It was hard for both of us, a kind of little bereavement.

    But what I'm trying to say is it is an individual's choice. There are more options, and you've covered some. I also know people who have merged their names. The important thing is for people to know they do have a choice and to make that choice mindfully, not just sleepwalk into it.