What’s in a name?

by Annie Lebovitz for Vogue, 2008

by Annie Lebovitz for Vogue, 2008

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;”

William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Act II: Scene ii

Today is July 4th. Here in America, we call it Independence Day. In honor of this holiday, I am writing about what it means for a woman to change her last name upon getting married. In a society where women are constantly fighting to break away from oppressive traditional values, the norm is still for a woman to change her surname (her father’s name) to her husband’s surname. It is a custom based on barbaric logic where the woman, who once belonged to her father, now becomes the property of her husband. Lovely, right. In fact, most wedding traditions came from a time where women were viewed as property. Always dreamed of your father walking you down the aisle, to literally give you to this man? Want to know why the bride’s family is responsible for the bulk of the wedding costs? It’s because your father is no longer required to pay a dowry. Except that he is. The cost of the wedding.

As established previously on this blog, I am not a very good feminist. I have never felt I had to be. None of these traditions bother me in the least, I find them more funny than upsetting. My father certainly does not feel he has any right to give me to any one. I will choose to get married if and when I meet a man that I want to spend my life with. I will also immediately ditch my last name. Not because I have any ill feelings toward my family, but because I hate my last name. And my initials. I won’t get into the details, but let’s just say Middle School was rough and I still resent my family name for being the primary cause. Professionally, I have already dropped my last name and, professionally, I will keep my name as it is. Kay is a family name from my mother’s side and as far as my father’s side goes, I have the McManus eyes, nose, and sense of humor, so I do not feel like I am abandoning that part of my family.

For this piece, I asked my sounding board for their opinions on the subject. While every single one agreed that it was their choice whether or not to change their name, every single one stated that they had or were planning to change their name upon marriage. There were many variations on the answer.

A common thing to do in the south, is to drop your middle name and use your maiden name instead. Which is really great if you maiden name isn’t awful and you don’t love your middle name. To me, my middle name is my favorite of all three. It is a name that has been passed down to all of the oldest daughters in my family for the past three generations. This name ties me to the women in my family and it was always special to my cousin and myself to be a part of (and to eventually continue) this tradition. Middle name stays.

Another solution that many people at least think about is hyphenating. You know what is a great name? Brittany Kay McManus-Anything. Hyphenating can work if your name is not already a mile long. As it is, I get bored in the middle of my signature, which is why it looks like this:

Brittany McManus. That is what this says.

Hyphenating is not that great a solution anyway. Plus, unless your future husband is willing to hyphenate as well, it will leave you with two different last names which most of the ladies were whole-heartedly against. Getting married is about becoming one family. Having one last name is not only symbolic of that, it is just SO much simpler. Having different last names will constantly require an explanation. This become compounded when (if) kids come into play. Not having the same last name as your child can be a real hassle. Having worked in childcare, picking up your kids if you have a different last name is complicated. Paperwork has to be filed and verified constantly. Plus, it can be confusing for your children. Not impossible, but not entirely practical.

I had a professor who she and her husband BOTH changed their names to a whole new last name which was half of both their names. That could totally work assuming your future husband does not mind giving up his last name. Which is very rare. Then you have to come up with a new name. Really easy if your names are both easily split and aren’t a terrible combination. I feel like this is a rarity. Of course, he could take your name. Which would be a really cool thing for a man to do. And some have done it. Most men would feel totally emasculated by this. Not all, but certainly most.

All of the ladies agreed that if their (future) husbands had awful last names or that the combination of their first name and his last name was horrible, they would keep their maiden name and deal with the future hassles. No one would agree to till death do us part with a terrible name. The solution seems clear. Only go out with guys with great last names. If his last name is something you do not want to spend the rest of your life with, do not get attached to the man.

So there you have it. Independent ladies sticking to tradition. It is easier. This may not always be the case, society is constantly progressing toward equality between men and women. Really, we are there if we want to be. If you really look into it though, we were raised with traditional values. We are the product of a lifetime of Disney Princess movies. Our generation is going to stick with our romantic notions whether we like it or not. Because, what little girl doodled “Mr. Jonathan Taylor Thomas & Mrs. Brittany Kay McManus” on their notebooks? No one. (The names were just an example, but you get my point). Part of getting married is the transformation from being single (worried about spinsterhood) to being married (which you know I am because I have a new last name to match my new diamond ring).

I am not really sure what the best solution is. Passing down names ties us to our history, which I love. So ditching family names all together seems like a mistake. Hyphenating is not a good long-term solution. Then your children not only have impossibly long last names, but if a kid with a hyphenated name marries another kid with a hyphenated name… That gets to be ridiculous. If you get to keep your name and he ditches his, then you are asking your future husband to do what you don’t want to do. That does not seem entirely fair either. Different last names seems to defeat the whole purpose of getting married. And can be very problematic. It seems like this just may be another sacrifice that women have to make going into marriage. Men have to give up plenty as well. This may just be one of ours.

If anyone comes up with a brilliant game-changing solution, please let me know.


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