What’s in a name?
How does changing your name upon marriage affect your identity? The majority of women take their husband’s surname and shift from Miss to Mrs. But this may have more than just practical consequences. “There is a magical quality in names – to change the name is to change the character,” wrote Graham Greene in his 1980 autobiography, “Ways of Escape.”
It’s not obligatory to change your name but most women do. Different reasons are given, such as to honor tradition, as a romantic gesture, or to avoid confusion over children’s names.
In countries such as the U.S., where it is usual for the wife to take on her husband’s surname, children are given their father’s surname, so the mother’s surname is not used by any of her descendants. This system has been criticized on many grounds, because it can be seen as the husband having control and possession over his wife and children.
The American suffragette Lucy Stone refused to be known by her husband’s name and, in 1921, founded the Lucy Stone League. The league made a national issue of this practice as part of the effort for women’s rights. Its motto is “My name is the symbol for my identity and must not be lost.”
But women who keep their own surname after marriage do so for a number of motives apart from feminist ones. Some simply prefer their own surname to that of their husband. Other women want to avoid the time-consuming process of approaching every contact who uses the old name and asking them to use the new.
Some retain their own surname under particular circumstances, and use their husband’s surname in others. This is particularly common among women in a professional career.
Alternatives include hyphenating with the husband’s name or using the maiden name as a middle name. Occasionally the husband takes the wife’s name, or the husband and wife choose an entirely new name.
However, these options can be confusing for strangers, and even wanting to be referred to as “Ms.” can be a challenge, because despite its wide use in some professions, the word still seems to carry feminist overtones.
The final decision will ideally be one that is comfortable for both partners, but it is usually a more pressing dilemma for the woman — by what name shall she be known? Some women feel that their entire history would be wiped out, whereas their own name places them as an individual and not an extension of someone else. This is certainly a very personal, and controversial, matter.
Our name is closely linked to our identity: the appraisal of ourselves made by ourselves and others. So a change of name is a rite of passage — the new name represents the person we want to become. Of course, the impact of a name change on each woman’s identity will depend on her character. The new status represented by “Mrs.” will have different meanings for everyone, more traditional for some women, and more modern for others, depending on factors including upbringing, society, religion, and the strength of the woman’s previous identity.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that women often experience an “identity crisis” from undergoing a surname change. At such times of transition, people can be sensitive, and women may even feel absorbed by the husband’s identity in situations such as formal introductions.
Some women use the name change as an opportunity to bury the past, make a fresh start, and motivate personal development. Others may feel a greater sense of belonging in their “new family,” possibly including more acceptance.
Either way, in our society, we are still “Jane” to those closest to us, so perhaps the effect mainly concerns our relationship with the wider world. It will certainly change the behavior of strangers toward us, and this will then feed back into our own identity.
Clearly, there is more to a name than meets the eye. A quick glance at some online forums dedicated to the subject shows that this is still a hot topic, with emotions running high and women agonizing over the decision. A woman considering the issue would do well to consider what her surname means to her before thinking about what her parents, in-laws or friends want. After all, she will be the one potentially living with it for the rest of her life.