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What's in a Name?

Tracey Emin, Love is what you want II (2011). Image via Pinterest
"Rather than being taught to ask ourselves who we are, we are schooled to ask others. We are, in effect, trained to listen to others' versions of ourselves. We are brought up in our life as told to us by someone else.” - Julia Cameron

A few months back, I managed to travel home to the UK for the first time in over three years. It was a short trip owing to a few factors (namely; post-COVID travel anxiety - it's real, folks) but I wanted to see my family IRL.

And one of my best friends was getting married. I really wanted to celebrate with her.

Catching up with her pre-wedding we were chatting generally about life when the decision as to whether she was going to change her name came up. She scoffed and told me, "Not a chance! My Ho phase is over!" Her now-husbands surname is Ho and it's been a running joke for the duration of their relationship (and his entire life I suspect).

But she got more serious too, advising that her surname feels sentimental. She likes that she shares her name with her parents and brother, and feels attached to it. It has meaning and history for her, and in the small town she's from, people 'know' the name because they know her parents. She likes being asked, "Oh, are you related to such and such?"

My own wedding being imminent the question is inevitably bounced back to me. And it's funny because there isn't a shadow of doubt in my mind. I will be changing my name.

I was never the little girl who daydreamed about her wedding day. I never played dress-up or lined my stuffed toys up for a ceremony. Getting married was never on my agenda, and it stayed that way for a long time. Throughout my twenties, boyfriends would ask if I saw myself getting married someday, and the answer was always an emphatic no (though, the no was, it seems, more of a 'no, I'm not marrying you'). There would be some inevitable comment about my being a feminist, shirking the narrative of the ‘good woman’ who settles down.

The truth is, it was never about feminism, nor am I anti-marriage; it just hasn’t been something on my ‘must do’ life list. I've never been to a wedding and thought "wow, I can't wait for this to be me" - it just never crossed my mind.

Until I met my current partner, who has changed many narratives in my life, not least convincing me marriage could actually be a fun thing for us to do. I accepted his proposal when it came, and we’re now in the thick of wedding planning.

Along the way, there have been many questions about how we intend for our nuptials to go down. A friend asked if I’ll be changing my surname to my soon-to-be-husband’s, and without hesitation, I told her I would be. Her response of, "Oh, I thought you were more feminist than that" kicked me in the proverbial gut.

It’s easy to see why the idea of changing surname’s when getting married is wrapped up in feminist notions. One of the very first women to keep her name after marrying was Lucy Stone in 1855. Described in the journal article Making a Name: Women’s Surnames at Marriage and Beyond (2004) as a “tireless antislavery and female suffrage crusader”, it wasn’t until the 1920s that her campaigning was acknowledged.

The Lucy Stone League was created by other prominent feminists and served to help women preserve their surnames upon marrying. They even had a slogan: "My name is my identity and must not be lost." They successfully secured real estate deeds, passports, bank accounts and voter registrations issued in the names they chose for themselves.

It's worth noting that the keeping of her name was just a small part of a larger protest Stone aimed to achieve (with the support of her husband). At their wedding, they asked for their full protest to be read aloud that called for the end of laws that stated a woman was a man's property upon marriage, and that the man gained exclusive control and guardianship of the children, amongst other things.

The archaic tradition that a woman changed her name on marriage to indicate she now belonged to her husband would linger for much longer. Right up until the 19th century, women in Australia ceded all property and parental rights to their husbands. Women have long been seen as property - in one form or another - and the unquestioned changing of our names has been a subtle but additional way to stake claim and control over us.

With everything that women before me have fought to change, for me to even be sitting here writing an article about changing my name does make me feel a little unfeminist. And if not unfeminist, then ungrateful, to say the least. Like it or not, our names are part of our identity; they form a part of how we define ourselves and how we establish that definition across multiple spheres in our lives.

Researchers Goldin and Shim (2004) found that one of the most important characteristics in keeping or changing her surname on marriage is whether or not the bride has already "made a name" for herself. In the world of celebrities, this is most prominently the case, where women build multi-billion-dollar brands on their namesakes. Not to say I have ‘made a name’ for myself, but as a writer and in my other professional circles, my work is known under my surname. If I change my name, I lose some immediately identifiable connection to that body of work. If I change my name, am I giving up a part of my own history?

Our collective feelings around women changing their surnames run high, and criticism is rife, even for celebrities, but it’s not always consistent. Amal Clooney faced flack when she changed her surname, whereas Beyonce has been celebrated for further building her brand under the moniker of “Mrs Carter”. Dr Sophie Coulombeau, in an article for the BBC, questions women who change their names and the message it sends to younger generations:

“Some feminists point out that women suffer serious detriment to their careers when they change their names - that they signal their submission to their husbands, and reinforce to their own children the idea that women are inferior to men.”

Dr Coulombeau goes onto discuss how, on getting married and taking her husband's surname, she will no longer be her complete self. The changing of her surname, she suggests, fundamentally changes the question of "Who am I?", putting "Wife" at the forefront of any answer she might seek.

I can't say I agree with this entirely, as it does feel a little too totalitarian, and there is a lot of nuance here.

Some people I've had this discussion with like to flap a hand over the issue, saying it doesn't matter - the fight is over. In many countries, women are considered, at least in law, as equal to their husbands. We can make a free choice about what to do with our names, whether we keep them, change them, double-barrel them or opt for more creative choices.

For others, though, the debate still brings up strong feelings, and there are divided opinions. When we talk about changing surnames, we are of course talking about a gender-normative tradition that in the wake of more recent wins in the world of LGBTQIA+ feels more outdated than ever before.

Which leaves me with the questions, who cares and does it even really matter?!

In England, surnames historically grew out of titles for occupations and ranks within societies - they’ve long been connected to a sense of professional identity. But in some cultures, surnames have a deeper sense of meaning and belonging; to place, tribes and home. The more I’ve sat and thought on this and puzzled with the reasons behind my attachment to changing my name, the more I’ve kept coming back to one core thought: I want to belong.

The surname I have is not attached to anything I find genuinely meaningful. It is my father’s surname, someone I have always had a fractured relationship with and from whom I am now estranged. This name that is supposed to be worth holding on to holds no value for me. My mother remarried and changed her surname when I was in my early teens. When my mother signed school permission slips, I was repeatedly asked who had signed the slip, as the surname was different to mine. Even in the 1990s, divorced and remarried parents still caused a raised eyebrow or two. I didn’t have any friends with divorced parents, let alone ones who had subsequently remarried - it just wasn’t that common.

My partner and I have been working to shape our family in ways that work uniquely for us. He provides me with the strongest sense of belonging I’ve experienced yet. Perhaps my desire to change my surname is tied to a deeper desire for wanting to build some tradition in my life, where it has been relatively devoid of any while growing up.

Our surnames are important, but it’s about so much more than being feminist or unfeminist. There are other measures of feminism I want to quantify my values, relationships and domestic life against - my surname is not one of them.

A black-and-white view on changing our surnames in this manner also dismisses the grey areas for those who haven’t come from a unified family upbringing with a surname worth staying attached to. It doesn’t account for all the reasons why we might seek to change our names and also why we might seek to keep them. I can’t deny or ignore the histories that govern my life, but those histories mean nothing if we remove the core right at their heart: my right to choose for myself.

When I fill in the box titled ‘Family Name’ on all those erroneous forms, I want to write a name that makes me feel attached to my newly established ideas of family and belonging.

Taking my partner’s surname is a small but significant part of that.


This is an expanded essay on my piece included in Issue 9 of WILD Wellbeing.


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