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  • Writer's pictureSarah Tyler

Final Essay: Will You Take My Name in Marriage?

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

WS310 for Dr. Holly A. Pearse at Wilfrid Laurier University

Surnames hold meaning and play a role in how one identifies themselves as their own being to the world. In some marriage traditions, such as those popular in Ontario, it is customary for the bride to take on the last name of her husband, but this practice does vary around the world in different cultures, religions, and in different types of relationships. Many people also are opposed to this tradition because of their own adherence to feminism and the patriarchal nature of the practice, their professional and social life, their connection to their own family that they grew up with, and arguably aesthetics as well. Victoria Clarke and her fellow writing colleagues quote Twenge when they say “the practice of women assuming their husbands’ last names is a ‘deeply entrenched cultural norm’” (Clarke et al. 421). Around only 10% of women actually do not take on their husbands name in the United States according to a study by Suter and Oswald (Clarke et al. 421). The decision to take on a partner’s name, to hyphenate, or to keep one’s birth-name, is a crucial decision for an individual to make and the consequences, both positive and negative, can impact the life of the person in a variety of ways.

One of the most important parts of name-making is identity. Due to the patriarchal and colonial traditions of this surname practice, feminist leaders, such as Lucy Stone, “argued that the practice of women changing their names upon marriage reflected... [the] view of women as property and the loss of identity that women experience in marriage (Clarke et al. 442). To some taking on the name of a spouse is a sign of submission. In feminist discourse it can be viewed as a form of inequality in a relationship. Connell and Messerschmidt would agree that this naming as a practice perpetuates male dominance over women (832).When someone decides to keep their name, as Goldin would refer to as a ‘keeper’, they are continuing the identity that they have had since birth. This is the name that other people in both their professional and social circles know them as. As they grow up they have made a name for themselves, as a personal brand (Clarke et al. 433). This personal brand is not only how the world sees them, but how the history, thoughts, and beliefs that go with this brand become ingrained as the way they see themselves. Taking on a new identity or brand, and all the baggage that can come with it, can highly modify their recognizability not only to the outside world, but also to themselves ‘I just don’t recognize who I have become’. If the new identity has many negative influences, such as the new inlaws associate with criminals, this will impact your career and friendships. My mother, as a teacher, was known by her maiden name, and changing her last name when she married caused confusion with the young children for a while. Eventually everyone around her adopted this new name as an extension of her existing identity, but she was no longer just herself. “Identity matters, at a personal level as well as a social one” (Gove and Watt 47). The decision to change her name was “active” though on her part “in the development and construction” of her own identity (53).

There is the example of Johnny Depp who stated, “it would be a shame to ruin her last name” (Clarke et al. 421). He was in a relationship with Vanessa Paradis, a famous singer/actress and against the idea of getting formally married and changing her name. I would like to add that it should not be his choice anyways, but I am pleased to see some open-mindedness. In general there is an expectation on women to change who they are by changing surnames. There is on the other hand a struggle with microaggressions as you answer the phone and someone is looking for a Mrs. Smith just because your husband is Mr. Smith and you might actually go by Ms. Hilton. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis maintained all these surnames as each was individually famously known worldwide at the time, bringing her positive notoriety. This challenges your identity and potentially questions the validity of your name as seen in Choi and Bird (452). If Paris Hilton were to change her last name in marriage, she would lose the connection of association to her family’s hotel business and her own businesses she has in place. “A woman may, therefore, be apprehensive about (re-)establishing her professional reputation under a new name, and possibly foregoing the fame and reputation that had been achieved prior to marriage” (Kopelman).

Last names also give someone a personal identity in their connection to their family in a personal way. As someone who is an only child and a female, I have a fear of letting go of the name Tyler in the sense that I believe it is a type of abandonment because the lineage by name would end with myself. Strong feelings of a positive nature accompany this desire for continuing the lineage to further generations, while others may have negative or traumatic experiences within their family and lessening the desire. While reading and also consulting my parents for their own experience with marriage and naming practices, I noticed that having children can play a role in the decision to keep one’s surname or change it. When getting married, to avoid confusion for their children, a woman might take her husband’s last name, rather than having multiple surnames (Goldin 144).

The practice of changing one's name to that of the spouse is also a way to gain a name that you respect, but also hopefully like. A name change can be done for aesthetic reasons for example if your spouse’s name flows better with your first name. “Pete (M21a) similarly noted that he’d ‘rather not change my surname, basically, it’s an unusual one and there are not that many of us left (laughs) now so I’d rather not sort of give it up’” (Clarke et al. 432). People with unusual names that make them stand out from the crowd, like to often keep them. This may be found especially in the entertainment business and politics. The name can roll off the tongue easily or sound majestic, evoking a certain vision in the minds of the reader.

Naming practices, being so heavily rooted in heteronormative and patriarchal discourse, can cause complicated conversations between those who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community. As gender norms are challenged and sexuality also potentially contrasts North American expectations, there is not necessarily even a ‘bride’ and ‘groom’. Does the more characteristically manly partner be the name keeper? No, because that is non-sense and it depends on the individuals within the partnership. Within Clarke’s work, she notes that an individual named Steph was “shocked” that her partner Andi would want to take on her last name (429). “She did not want Andi’s name change to be interpreted as a sign of inequality in their relationship” (429). A name has an incredible impact on how the world sees you and how you view and understand yourself. This strong sense of self through their name, and feeling that others should have an equally passionate sense of self identifying through their name can bring on conflict. This conflict can be from disapproving family members and other people that interact with partners of any combination that are judgemental of relationships themselves or the decision on which names are included, excluded, and/or ordered.

“Ettelbrick (1989) has stated, ‘I do not want to be known as ‘Mrs-Attached-To-Somebody Else’” (Choi and Bird 449). Someone else may say its disruptive and not proper to not have your name attached while they believe in tradition.

With the coming together of many nationalities in marriage these days, many new norms are being set, including those dealing with surnames. Goldin argues that while the pressure from society has lessened, there are still strong concerns within our mainstream North American society surrounding name changing (146). Kopelman claims that the practice itself is not conformed to internationally. There are different naming practices in different countries and geographical areas.

Quebec is a province that stands out within Canada, itself. Quebec provincial law does not allow a woman from taking her husband’s surname after they are married (Koffler). The law was created in 1981 as part of the new Quebec Charter of Rights, in relation to gender equality (Koffler). It’s important to note that this law takes away the choice of the women, so even if they desire to take on the name of their husband they are forbidden to do so (Koffler). Outside of Canada though there are similar laws and regulations comparable to those of Quebec. In Greece, for instance, feminist initiatives made it a requirement, as of 1983, for “all women to keep their maiden name” (Koffler). It appears that this again gives women an in-equal opportunity for their own identity-making because it limits choice. France, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Malaysia, Korea, Spain, Chile, ranked from more rigid to less strict legislation on naming, all have practices that support a woman to keep her own name (Koffler). As people travel and relocate in the Diaspora there can be struggles to find a partner who practices or agrees to the same naming system, get government-issued documents, and other things. On the contrary, Japan requires family names to be kept and so “96% of married Japanese women assume their husband’s last name” (Koffler). Again, when people change their geographical placement it can cause confusion when people do not follow the same traditions (Clarke et al. 429).

Due to tradition, when a woman does not take on the name of her husband it can also have an impact on the man too. This naming practice is affiliated with hegemonic masculinity in terms of power, control, strength and so on. Connell and Messerschmidt argue that hegemony meant “ascendancy achieved through culture, institutions, and persuasion” (832). Masculinities across the globe are made as they reinforce what they are not. What it means to be a man, is different here than it is in China, for example. There are intense expectations for paternal lineage to continue on. Whereas in spanish countries, there is expectation to follow both the father’s and mother’s paternal family lineage of a child (Kopelman). Therefore a child keeps both the family names of their mother and father.

It is also important to consider the implications that colonialism had on marital naming-practices. With colonization there is a loss of tribal laws because of the overwhelming power and control of those colonizing an area, usually Western countries (Mohanty 60). Mohanty claims that in some areas “European colonization has changed the whole marital system (60). This argument is not necessarily about naming per-se, but overall control over oneself within a marital relationship. Mohanty also uses Levi-Strauss's theory of kinship when arguing that the mode of exchange is equal in crucialness of understanding power relations or even more important than the fact of exchange (60).

“The practice of a woman assuming her husband’s last name upon marriage is a deeply embedded norm in some countries” (Clarke et al. 420). Although surnaming has many rules, social & religious rules, and even provincial and federal laws guiding it, the decisions must be left to the individual and their sense of what is best for them and their circumstances. The meaning-making of surnames is impeccably important to an individual’s valuable identity and their place in society. The research into accepted as well as non-accepted practices across borders and what is best for each person’s circumstances must continue for the betterment of the global community. This is a changing framework that has yet to be realized as we become more and more globalized.

Works Cited

Choi, Precilla, and Steve Bird. “Feminism and Marriage: To be or not to be Mrs. B.” Feminism & Psychology, Vol. 13, No. 4, 2003. Accessed 9 Nov. 2017.

Clarke, Victoria et al. “‘Who would take whose name?’ Accounts of Naming Practices in Same‐ Sex Relationships.” Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 5, Sept. 2008. Accessed 9 Nov. 2017.

Connell, R.W., and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender & Society, 1 Dec. 2005. Accessed 10 Nov. 2017.

Goldin, Claudia and Maria Shim. “Making a Name: Women’s Surnames at Marriage and Beyond.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 18, No. 2, 2004. Accessed 9 Nov. 2017.

Gove, Jennifer, and Stuart Watt. “Chapter 2: Gender Identity and Self-Categorization.” Questioning Identity. df. Accessed 9 Nov. 2017.

Koffler, Jacob. "Here Are Places Women Can't Take Their Husband's Name When They Get Married." Time, 29 June 2015, countries/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2017.

Kopelman, Richard. “The Bride is Keeping her Name: A 35-Year Retrospective Analysis of Trends and Correlates.” Social Behavior and Personality, Vol. 37, No. 5, 2009. Accessed 9 Nov. 2017.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes.” Feminist Review, No. 30, 1988. Accessed 10 Nov. 2017.


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