What’s in a name?

It is June, and wedding season is upon us. As I do every year at this time, I find myself pondering why so many heterosexual women take their new spouse’s surname when they get married.

I got married when I was in my late teens. I was pregnant, and everyone in my life seemed to think this was the right thing to do, even though getting married had not been part of my life plan. It was 1973, and it never occurred to me that I could keep the last name I had had since I was born. I had my driver’s licence and social insurance number changed and began my life as a wife and, very soon, a mother, with a new last name.

But it never fit for me. It wasn’t the name itself; it was perfectly fine. It wasn’t because I did not like my husband; although we later split up, at the time I liked him just fine. It wasn’t because I was a feminist; I did not identify myself as that for another 10 years.

It was much simpler than any of those things. It just wasn’t my name.

I want my name back!

So, I changed it back. And, let me tell you, in 1974 that was not an easy thing to do. The journey to getting my name back eventually led me to allow my driver’s licence to expire so I could reapply using only my birth certificate as identification. Even this wasn’t easy. Apparently, a directive was sent to the Ministry of Transportation and Communication offices in my part of Ontario advising the staff that I was attempting to change my name illicitly, and I was not to be allowed to do so.

With no driver’s licence, I had to rely on my mother, my now 18-month-old daughter safely strapped into her car seat, to drive me to another city where my notorious attempts to reclaim my birth name were unknown. I successfully completed the driving test (although my parallel parking skills had deteriorated since the first time I took my test and I barely passed that component) and, voila!, I had a driver’s licence in my name.

Who’s doing it?

While to me and countless other women in Canada, changing our names upon marriage was automatic, Canada, the United States and England are actually in the minority on this issue. Many European countries, including Greece, France, Italy and the Netherlands do not permit a woman to change her name when she gets married. In many other parts of the world, including most of Latin America and parts of Asia, while there may not be laws prohibiting such a name change, cultural tradition does not permit or encourage it.

Even within Canada, Quebec stands apart from the rest of the country. Since 1981, there has been an official government policy preventing women from taking their husband’s surname legally.

According to a June 2015 New York Times article, “in recent years” about 20% of American women have been keeping their own name when they got married, up slightly from the 1980s and 1990s.

Women with higher levels of education, women with greater class privilege, urban women, women who are well-established professionals when they marry are all somewhat more likely to keep their own name.

A survey published in the journal Gender Issues in January of this year found that more than 70% of Americans believe that women should take their husband’s last name when they get married, and about half of those think this should be a legal requirement.

Half of those in favour of women changing their names believe women should prioritize their marriage and family ahead of themselves.

I suspect that, if these people were being really honest, they would have said that a good wife is no longer her own person.

Hmmm, and all this time I thought the Persons case, the right to vote, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a few other legislative and court victories had determined that, at least formally, women had become our own persons in Canada.

What does feminism have to do with it?

When I danced with my surname in the early 1970s, I was not inspired by a conscious feminist politics. However, in the 40+ years since, I have acquired that feminist politics, and it is from that perspective that I wonder, and more often rage, at women still abandoning their own name in favour of someone else’s, like I rage at anything patriarchy foists on us as a means to making us invisible.

Of course, any time women claim space for ourselves, we are told we are making life difficult for others. Just one of these complications for those of us who keep our own names and have children is what last name the children should have. My children have hyphenated last names; something both of them have told me many times they resented as children and still don’t like now that they are adults. I am sorry to have created this unhappiness for them and wish I could have thought of something less inconvenient for them, but I have never regretted for one minute claiming back my own name.

Yes, I know that the name I carry is my father’s, but for me that is not the point. It is my name, the one I was first told by my parents, the one I took with me when I entered the small and then gradually larger world outside my family, the one that came to my lips whenever I introduced myself, even when I, briefly, used another person’s last name.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi says in her Feminist Manifesto:

“Whether it came from my father or from the moon, it is the name that I have had since I was born, the name with which I traveled my life`s milestones, the name I have answered to since that first day I went to kindergarten.”

4 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Pam, I too am surprised by how many young women a) think everyone in the family needs the same last name and b) assume they’re the ones who need to adopt a new name. For us it was never an issue. Neither Chris nor I were particularly keen on hyphenation but Chris would have been happy to have all the kids have my last name. In the end our son has my name and our daughter has his. We’ve had no complaints so far. There are so many blended families out there that I find the notion that everyone needs the same name to be laughable. My last name is not the same as my mother’s, step-father’s, one of my brother’s or my maternal grandparents’. Yet somehow we all know we are part of the same family. And for those who really feel that a common last name is important, then why not have the man change his last name? If this idea makes you hesitate, then it’s patriarchy at work, not notions about family.

  2. Great post Pamela, and something that I have struggled with, over time. Of course, I was married in the early 60’s, and just accepted losing my name. This has come up so many times over the years in so many different ways. I once saw a woman when I was working as a psychologist who told me that she had chosen me because she thought I was Jewish. I told her my truth at that time which was that I had thought of going back to my Maiden name but at that point felt guilty about doing that because I had experienced anti-Semitism and felt guilty about changing back. Of course, a little bit of it was that it was an effort and I was a single parent raising 2 children on my own while working on a PhD. Her response to me was that I was Jewish and didn’t know it! Interesting interchange. What I didn’t say was that my husband was a much better father to me than my own father was. Women’s lives are so freaking complicated and fraught with dilemmas. I am not sorry that I didn’t take my name back and might have done if I had had a supportive father. He worked hard and fed and clothed us but he was quite negative and refused to provide support for attending university. He would have thought that it was a waste of money to send a woman to University. When I responded that I would send myself, his response to that was, “that will be the foggy Friday”! I was very fortunate in that I had an indomitable spirit and was determined to attend university, something my brother and 3 sisters never did. I knew that In order to achieve this goal I would have to find a way to earn money. A friend was going into nursing, and I learned that the only cost at that time was the cost of uniforms. Bingo! I managed to get work in some questionable restaurants and made enough money to pursue my dream. I did start attending university in Montreal while I was working as a night nurse a few days a week! I felt exhilarated and seriously didn’t mind the lack of sleep! I did manage to achieve my goal, a great feeling!

  3. I told my fiance back in 1977 that I would rather she kept her own name. She said she hated her last name and wanted to take mine. Years later,we divorced,she didn’t want to take her new husband’s name,still has mine and would rather not,and isn’t sure what to do!

  4. People in Ontario can change their name, as long as they are not doing it for any fraudulent purpose, by paying a fee of $137 and submitting an application form. Maybe this is an opportunity for your former spouse to get really creative and make up a new last name for herself!

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