Thursday, June 15, 2006

What's in a (sur)name?

Am I the only one surprised to learn that over 80% of American women still take their husband's surname when they get married? Provided, I've lived in the Bay Area for the last 16 years, which is about as unconventional a region as you can find when it comes to matrimonial practices. However, I always found taking your husband's name to seem like such antiquated practice - sure, it harkens back to "tradition" but so did foot-binding and drowning witches.

It doesn't take a feminist historian to point out the practice is a remnant of both patriarchal societies where women effectively surrender their identities unto their husband and his family as well as an institution of marriage where the act was about consolidating familial power. Ironically, for a practice that once had real material import (however unequal), I can't imagine what the contemporary practical/material value is of the practice except that it might save a little money on stationery and filling out online forms could be a tad faster.

To be sure, I've met some women who just don't care (but their husbands do). Other women see it as a symbolic act (as the NPR story delves into) though it'd be unimaginable to most men to ever consider changing their surname. I have to say, the most rhetorically convincing - though some what cynical - explanation I've heard is that, "who cares? I'm just exchanging one man's surname (my father) for another man's (my husband)."

In the spirit of understanding other cultures, I'm genuinely interested to know:
1) What women out there have or plan to change their surname, and why?
2) What men expect, or at least, desire, for their wives to do the same...and why?
3) What do queer couples do?

30 comments:

EllesMommy said...

I always assumed I would change my name when I got married, and so I never had a problem with the concept. However, I also didn't want to always have to correct people and explain that I was actually "Ms. Maiden Name," not "Mrs. Husband's Last Name," and that I was indeed Elle's Mommy, although I did not have the same last name as Elle.

One of the main problems that I see with NOT changing your name is if you have kids, assuming the kids take on the dad's last name, the mom then appears not to be related to the rest of the family. To assume the kids get the dad's last name is itself sexist, but let's face it--it's pretty common.

I think that sexism can run both ways--if people think a woman MUST change her name, despite what she prefers, that is sexist. At the same time, thinking a woman is wrong for changing her name is sexist too, because she should do what she wants in this regard, and not be open to criticism for her choice.

You mentioned wanting to understand other cultures, and I'm not sure how "other" I am in relation to you. To give you some context, I am a 4th generation Asian American, I've lived in the East Bay my entire life, and I married a 3rd generation Asian American who has lived in Northern Cali his whole life. I guess I was lucky to be able to choose to change my name, because neither my husband nor anyone else expressed and opinion on what I should do.

motherhooduncensored said...

I reluctantly changed mine with my first marriage. I did it because I felt annoyed having to hypenate and I thought it was somewhat symbolic of a new life "together."

However, when I got divorced, I "ran" quickly back to my maiden name and since remarrying have not changed it and have no plans on doing it.

I, too, am quite surprised at the number of women who still change their name (even though I was, at one time, one of them). Even when I changed my name, I loathed being called MRS. MY HUSBAND. And the more I thought about it, the more it just didn't make sense to me.

I know several queer couples that hyphenate each other's last names and then they both take both - I've seen straight couples also do the same. I have friends that kept their own names but their kids have their last names not hypenated but in different order. So one kid has dad and then mom last name - the other has the reverse.

It has never been an issue for me (not changing my name) professionally until I left my job and became a SAHM. I'm married to an AF pilot - and no one knows who I am since our existence is funneled through our spouses. People there don't get why I haven't changed it (like I'm planning on it and I just haven't gotten around to it). And I live in the South. And NO ONE keeps their own name around here unless their academics from out of town (ME).

I love my name - I've had it since I was born - and it's very much who I am and how I identify as a person. And I won't be changing it.

Poppa Large said...

The "other cultures" part was meant to be tongue in cheek though that probably wasn't obvious enough. Just to be clear though, my wife never took my surname and I don't think it would have ever occured to her to actually do so. So I think, for us, we just assumed that most women actually kept their names (among our friends who are married, I only know of a small handful who name-changed). In that sense, we both grew up under a different set of cultural norms from what I would consider more mainstream American conventions.

weigooksaram said...

I kept my own name, partly just out of laziness. I didn't want to change it on all of those official forms. But I kept my last name because I like it, and it symbolizes my connection to my Spanish/ French ancestors. I did consider taking my (Korean) husband's name just to confuse people. ;)

But now that I have a kid, it's kind of a pain. My daughter shares my husband's name, but people always think her name is the same as mine.

daddy in a strange land said...

At one point before marriage, I was gonna add my wife's surname as a second middle name and she was gonna keep her surname but sub out her middle name (her mom's maiden name) for my surname, but you know paperwork... :) My wife uses my surname socially in some cases, but professionally and officially she's Dr. Original-Surname, which of course confuses some folks about my last name, esp. if they know her first.

For The Pumpkin, we followed the Filipino tradition of adding mommy's surname as a second middle name, instead of what we deemed would be an unwieldy hyphenate.

Here's a different look at "culture"--among my wife's co-residents, only a handful of female docs kept their surnames after marriage, and they were all OB/GYNs or family docs, like my wife.

Also, my wife immigrated from the Phils. at age 1 and everyone beyond immediate family is still there--she always thought it was important for her to be Dr. Original-Surname for the family, which might go against expectations.

As for friends, you really couldn't tell who'd do what, and we all hung in lefty/activist circles in college: a first-gen Vietnamese American policy wonk kept her name, as did a first-gen Chinese-American internist, but a hapa South Asian American ethnic studies professor, a first-gen South Asian (Caribbean) American lawyer, and a hapa Pinay public interest lawyer all changed theirs (though I've never asked them about it).

Though P.L.'s "culture" thing was apparrently tongue-in-cheek (over my head!), I think this is an interested question for this blog specifically, in terms of changing expectations of home communities over generations in this country (and the influence of education), and with the question of interracial/interethnic marriages, and different ways people deal with their kids' names.

On a side note, there's the example of LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his wife, who combined Villar and Raigosa into a name not found in Spanish. And I knew a sociology Ph.D. student who put his money where his mouth was (his focus was family formation and work patterns among 20-somethings), and he changed his Jewish last name to that of his Korean American wife—causing so many problems in their West Virginia town that it made the news. Anyway...

Ji-in said...

Wow, 80 percent. Huh.

The surname thing is extra complicated for me, as a Korean-born, American-adopted, married woman who's going through a post-marriage legal name change right now. When hubby & I got married, I opted not to change my name, out of feminist principle. If he wasn't expected (and didn't expect) to change his name, why should I? Also, I sort of reasoned that since Korean women don't traditionally take their husbands' surnames upon marrying, it was a matter of ethnic solidarity with my Korean sisters.

Then I got all flustered. After the marriage certificate thing was all said & done, I changed my mind and wanted to hyphenate. Future children's names came to mind, plus it sucked that people just didn't "get it" that hubby & I had different surnames. It was more frustrating than anything. But then hyphenating became a pain in the keister, so I changed my mind again.

Now the plan is to take hubby's surname -- which he is thuh-RILLED about, by the way ... don't get me started -- and to incorporate my Korean name as a legal part of my name. I figure that way, I'll have one name from each of my family identities: adoptive/American, Korean, and married. I'm bracing myself for impact: Hubby has a really uncommon, uber-Filipino name, which *everyone* seems to butcher. Couple that with my Korean name, and POW. I'm going to have to kick people's asses on a daily basis.

Didi said...

I took Papa2hapa's last name when we got married because I don't get along with most of my family and it upset me to have a visible way to be immediately identified with them. For me, it was an easy and quiet way to sort-of disown them.

Because my husband is a KAD and has a white name, people usually assume that he took my name when we got married. More people guess that than think he's adopted, which surprises me (in a good way).

Ka_Jun said...

It wasn't really a big deal for my wife and I. She kept her name, and we hypenated our son's last name. I didn't really have anything too invested in it and didn't care one way or the other, although it did feel a small big like rejection. M'eh. *shrug* Not a big deal as far as I'm concerned, maybe it will help our son, being that he's mestiso/hapa/biracial/etc.

AmericanFamily said...

I kept my own surname, because it was my name and it seemed odd to have to change who I am just because I married my husband. Also, my first name with my husband's surname is apparently also the name of a famous porn star. I wouldn't know, but since people tell me it all the time, it must be true.

My husband didn't have much of an opinion on my keeping my own name. If he had put up too much of a fuss, I would have made him change some part of his name to incorporate part of mine. We gave our kids his last name, in part because I like the way it sounds better than my last name.

Poppa Large said...

1) "I took Papa2hapa's last name when we got married because I don't get along with most of my family and it upset me to have a visible way to be immediately identified with them. For me, it was an easy and quiet way to sort-of disown them."

As someone with his own family estrangement issues, I think that's kind of hot.

2) "Also, my first name with my husband's surname is apparently also the name of a famous porn star. I wouldn't know, but since people tell me it all the time, it must be true."

This, of course, leads one to wonder if your first name is either "Asia" or "Jenna." LOL.

Lumpyheadsmom said...

The 80% figure includes those women who add their husband's name onto their own, yes? It just indicates how many women change their names - either jettisoning their father's name and taking their husband's name or creating a hybrid - it's not just those who become Mrs. Husband.

Which lines up with my experience. I would say only about 20% of my female friends kept their original names, while about 80% either took their husband's name or added it in some way to theirs. A very small number of my male friends adopted a family hybrid.

My friend whose name at birth was Miss [Mother]-[Father] got married recently and kept her name, so now new acquaintances think her husband's name is [Father].

I like that there's no convention any more. Some people feel strongly about what they prefer, and it's great that they can do whatever the heck they want.

I didn't change my name when I got married and neither did my husband. My son has only my husband's last name. I honestly do not worry for one minute that people will think I'm "not part of the family." (Part? I'm the effing lynchpin - ha!) He's obviously my son, and if someone assumes otherwise, I'll simply correct them. Maybe this is a bigger deal in transracial adoptions - where people worry that if they don't all share the same last name, other people won't get that they're related.

Some may think I'm not married to my husband, I guess, with our surname situation, but I don't find that assumption particularly troubling.

I'm also not offended when people call me Mrs. Husband. Technically, it's socially correct, even though it's not my name. I don't feel it subjugates my identity or insults me as a woman, it just means the person doesn't know me very well. (My cousin once sent something to Mrs. [shortened version of my first name that I HATE] [Husband's Last Name]. My husband took one look at the envelope and said sarcastically, "Boy, you two must be close.")

Jae Ran said...

I'm throwing my own 2cents along with Ji-in as another kad. my a-parents changed my name completely when they adopted me. then, when I got married I hyphenated even though it was kind of a pain and so most of the time I continued to go by my "maiden" name anyway.

Then after the kids came, we incorporated my "maiden" name into their middle names so they could choose if they wanted to go by their dad's surname or use both.

But - then 2 years ago i legally changed my name back to my korean name. Now I don't share any part of my name with either my husband or the kids. My oldest is now 12 and she wants to change her last name and hyphenate both mine and her dad's names.

looking back, i do get a little twinge of regret that i didn't choose to legally change my name when i had the chance, standing at the counter filling out my marriage application. oh well.

la dra said...

I agree with Lumpyhead's Mom. If if they don't know the name situation at our house, then they don't really know me anyway. And I like that there are no conventions anymore, too. There is no label/name/bloggerid/race/ethnicity that explains everything about you. You HAVE to go beyond your assumptions if you really want to get to know someone. And that's a good thing.

linda said...

i'm with lumpyheadsmom and la dra, i.e., i kept my maiden name and my daughter has my husband's surname. people who don't know us may make all sorts of assumptions but we all know how wrong assumptions can be, especially in this day and age with respect to family dynamics.

personally, my decision not to change my last name was the result of a number of factors mentioned by previous commenters: laziness, personal identity with my maiden name, professional status, red tape, and no (explicit) pressure from the hubs. however, it's an interesting point that a woman takes on her father's surname only to change it to her husband's surname, suggesting that she never truly has an identity of her own. two points in rebuttal though:

1. sons also take on their fathers' surnames but why do they have a stronger sense of personal identity than daughters (or do they)?

2. daughters (and sons) presumably have already identified themselves with their fathers' surnames (i.e., accepting it as their own) before realizing, years or decades later, that their maiden names are actually their fathers' surnames. in other words, we've already accepted that which was given to us (at birth) as our own, and that's easier to identify with than changing it (willingly or otherwise) according to social convention or what-not.

just more food for thought... :)

Gia-Gina said...

In Italy the majority of women keep their own names for paperwork and traditions sake.

I am Gia Parsons conjuge D'ambrosi. Which means married to D'Ambrosi aka Signora D'Ambrosi. I am no one without the DH.

This place loves paper and to change you name would throw you into a neverending whirlwind of bureaucracy, who wants that? You'd have to change you passport, identity card, drivers lic. and much, much more. Effectively wasting months even years of your life.

changguang said...

My wife didn't change her name and I think it would have been terribly sexist to ask her to. I'm Korean Hapa, so I have a very Anglo last name. My wife is Chinese, but her stepfather adopted her and consequently, she also has a Western last name (actually Irish, so can't call it Anglo.) It was always assumed she would keep her name -- the way I put it, I was marrying her, not acquiring title to her.

As for my son, he has my last name. There was never any discussion on that either. Things get a little trickier with his Chinese and Korean surname. I've always used my mother's surname, but I didn't think that was appropriate for my son. If he was going to use an existing Sinic surname, I figured it should be his mother's original Chinese surname. My mother-in-law would interpret that as a great insult, though, and my wife really had no interest in that. So, I chose a character that sounds roughly like the first syllable of my surname. It's not really a name, but finding one that would work in Korean and Chinese was difficult. So, if he ever goes to China or Korea, his surname will mark him as different, but hey, he is different.

eliaday said...

I'm one of *those* wives that didn't change their names. I never wanted to, and my husband didn't push me - especially after I asked him if he'd change his name to mine, and he said "Heck no, I"m an [his last name]."

My mom didn't change her last name when she got married either. When I was a kid, this was kind of rare - in the church directory, she was listed separately from me, my sister and my dad. I like her last name because it was the paper name that her dad got when he emigrated to the US in the 1910s. Her last name is my middle name.

My daughter has my husband's last name as a last name, and my mom's last name (and my middle name) is her middle name. I like this continuity - my daughter has the same middle name as me, and as my sister. It's a name that symbolizes what my family went through to become "American."

When we first found out we were pregnant, I wanted to give my sons my husband's last name, and my daughters my last name. But, the idea of having siblings with different last names didn't sit right with us. It is hard having a different last name than my daughter (especially because our last names only differ by 2 letters). But, I've had my name mangled my entire life, both first and last name. I like that my daughter's name is a story of who she is, and that maybe in telling people her name, they'll also learn about her story.

I do think though, that society as a whole is woefully behind the changes in marriage-name-taking practices. For one, the whole credit card password - mother's maiden name bugs me to no end - my mother's last name is no big secret. I've though about giving "heterosexist patriarchy" as my mother's maiden name, but that seems to be going a little too far. One of my friends who recently got married wanted to legally change her name to incorporate her maiden name as her second middle name. Women can change their last name to their husband's for free, but if you want to change your middle name, you have to go through the entire legal name change process which costs $500-$600. That sucks.

Just my 0.02 or more.

thisislarry said...

My brother's wife changed her name. She's caucasian, with a southern accent, and now a chinese last name.

We all get a kick from her stories about meeting in person with colleages she's met over the phone.

My wife took (there's a sexist statement for you) my last name. But really her last name was already a subset of mine, so she only took a few letters.

Violet said...

My partner and I are not married, but we had to really think about what our daughter's surname was going to be. I thought that maybe she should have mine, because he and I aren't married. Than I thought she should have his, to support the fact that he's her father. We ended up double-barrelling our surnames, to get hers.

The upshot of this is that all three of us have completely different surnames from each other.

Shirazi said...

Happy Fathers' Day

Puka said...

I changed my Korean surname to my husband's Japanese surname. I didn't view my action as not standing up for female rights. I didn't have any attachment to my name because it's not only one of the most common Korean surnames, it's also the one which is an American first name. I got really sick of people calling me Kim instead of by my first name. Second of all, I am adopted, though by Koreans. Kim wasn't "my" name. Well, I suppose there's a good chance that I really am a Kim, but I don't know that for sure. LOL Third, my husband wanted me to take his name. His family has been in the US for over 100 years now. They all do it the American way. Of course now people think I'm Japanese instead of Korean, but I guess everything can't be perfect. Sure, Korean woman do not change their last name, but I personally don't see a lot of significance in that. Her name may not change, but her names goes from her father's hojeok to her husband's. It's just a different kind of "ownership." And should she get divorced, then she's really screwed. :p Glad to hear the hoju-je system is going to be changed. But I digress.

graceful said...

I'm filipino and come from a family with 4 daughters. No sons. Before I married my husband I was already established in my career. So when I married? I ended up hyphenating my maiden & my husband's name. When people to refer to us as a couple, we are Mr. & Mrs. husband's last name. When I'm by myself, I got with the hyphen. It's pretty simple really.

Poppa Large said...

Based on a very unscientific study, I can say that of Rice Daddy readers/commentators, 80% do NOT take their husband names.

"My wife took (there's a sexist statement for you) my last name. But really her last name was already a subset of mine, so she only took a few letters."

*laugh* Sounds like a game of Scrabble.

Jake said...

Traditionally Asian women never changed their last name when they got married--so perhaps we are more progressive eh! :)

However here in the US, I think we as AAs tend to follow the cultural norm. So just like how most of us have American-ized first names, because the majority of women here do adopt their husbands last name, that’s what we do as well.

Nina said...

I think only Jake mentioned this, but I know for a fact that Korean women in Korea traditionally did not take their husband's name. In a way, I always saw it, rather than being progressive, as another way to devalue women. The children took their father's name, and in case of a divorce or seperation, the father was almost always given custody.

I took Charlie's name for 3 reasons:

First because I wanted to share my children's surname and I couldn't see giving my children a hyphenated name.

I couldn't see giving my kids a hyphenated name because, for Charlie's family, their surname is a big deal. I know it's all traditional and patriarcial and maybe I should fight it but

Like you mentioned, my maiden name is my dad's surname anyway. Even my middle name is my mom's maiden name, which was her dad's surname. So what can you do? There's really no escaping it unless you come up with a whole new name which gets really confusing.

I ended up hyphenating my middle and maiden name. I did this because I didn't want to get rid of the "white" part of my name and because I just plain liked the name. Or maybe I just like confusing people.

I think it would have been kind of cool to have Charlie hyphenate his name too, but I think his parents would have been really sad about this and no need to make me the enemy right off the bat, right?

Anonymous said...

For his first marriage, my husband took his wife's name. I know it to be true because I've seen the paperwork like passport etc with the other name on it. His philosophy was that a family should have a single name but whose name was rather irrelevant to him. So he changed. Of course, when he divorced, he had to go through the changing back.....

When we got married, I wanted to change my name. I also like the idea of a single name for the family and frankly, the name I had was my dads, and he was something of a salmon as far as parenting went so I saw no need to carry on the name. I didnot, however, change my name for work purposes.

Now, as an adoptive parent, I find having everyone with the same name creates a nice sense of unity for the kids. It might not be an issue in families with younger kids but our kids were older when adopted. They like knowing that we share a name.

Poppa Large said...

Reading through the range of responses, I think one potential "solution" (and I am being tongue-in-cheek here...sort of) is that couples with kids should mash-up their surnames into a new name that nods at both. I'm sure the in-laws on all sides would likely fucking hate it, but it'd remove some of the gender politics involved and instead treat names as representative of families rather than specific members (or halves I suppose) of those families.

That way, the children's names would be a unique reflection of the conjoining of those families and would even sustain itself past divorce/death/etc.

The parents themselves could opt to keep their name, change names, whatever - the relevant issue here is actually about what name to give the children since the passing down of the father's name onto the child is probably even MORE common than women taking their husband's names and again. If people wanted to break the chain of patriarchy then this would actually be a more significant symbolic gesture than whatever the parents choose to do.

Sara said...

Ever since I was a little girl imagining my wedding, I have looked forward to changing my name... always with wonder of what this "new name" would end up being. For me, it was a no brainer. However, I did have one family member (my husband's brother, actually) who encouraged me to at the very least hyphenate.

I live in the midwest, come from an evangelical Christian family, and believe strongly in the "traditional" gender roles. I work now, but once we have kids I will stay at home with them- just like my mother did with me. I have heard people look at me with pity when I tell them that- but becoming "Mrs. My Husband" is something I CHOSE to do- not something that was forced upon me. I am proud to be his wife, and consider it (and future mothering) my priority in life. I do also understand that not everyone chooses this way, and that is fine.

Where I live, I know TWO women who hyphenate, and NONE who have kept their maiden name. It's not a question of what you're going to do- it's just what is done. I'm sure there are plenty of women around; I just don't know them. I would dare say, though, that in this area the statistic is opposite of what it is elsewhere, in your communities for example.

I do have a question, though- I noticed that throughout these comments there have been different opinions on what is traditionally done in Asian countries- does this vary from country to country? How does that impact what Asian-Americans tend to do? I am intruiged by the cultural differences (I come from, sadly, an all-white community; I have known only a handful of ethnic minorities in my entire life) and would appreciate any insight.

Carl Walker said...

I'm far from married myself, but as for my parents, my mom also took the route of taking my dad's last name and then making her maiden name her second middle name. Some magazine subscriptions she's had for a long time reflect her initial intention to always present herself as Firstname Maidenname Lastname, but she got tired of writing all that out, presumably.

I myself got her maiden name as my only middle name. In the dorms, mom's maiden name was our password if we lost our keys. I'm the type of guy that will tell you what my middle name is and where it came from, so I suddenly found myself thinking that maybe I shouldn't explain it anymore for security purposes!!

My friend is a fellow whitey American who is marrying an Englishwoman, and he has been strongly considering taking on her last name. There's something of a history behind her name which has made her adamant that she won't change it, and he felt strongly that mom, dad, and kids should all have the same last name. His own last name is his father's last name through adoption, so he feels somewhat alienated from it anyway.

I imagine his insistence that the whole family should have the same name comes from his mother, who kept her husband's last name even after her messy divorce, since she was basically taking care of the kids and so kept it for their benefit. I do think it's funny that his fiancee is guarding her last name so fiercely when her mom wrote up the wedding invitations with "Dr. and Mrs. Husband's First and Last Name," which many of my mom's old friends also do, despite all of them having promised never to take their husbands' last names!

Anonymous said...

Just to throw some fuel onto the fire. I wonder if those women who feel that taking on the husband's last name is a outdated, sexist tradition also feel the same way about getting an engagement ring and having a wedding with all the trimmings.

I personally feel that the sharing of the last name helps create a family unit where everyone identifies themselves as a "Chan" "Kim" etc. While I understand that the tradition has roots in a patriarchal society surely we have moved beyond that and can appreciate it as a tradition in creating a new family without such sinister undertones.

I know personally my wife would not agree with anyone that she has given up any of her rights, powers, independance simply because she chose to identify herself as part of something new by changing her last name.

I guess my only problem with such discussions is the condecension I sometimes feel from those who have chosen to keep their last names towards those who changed it.

Let the flaming begin.