The confusing new world of the married name.

 

In marriage, the first question is usually pretty easy to answer: will you marry me?

But it’s the multitude of questions that follow that are really leaving women stumped: Where will we live? Do we join bank accounts? Will we have kids? And, a big one – will I take his surname?

One of the oldest wedding traditions in existence, the taking on of a husband’s last name was an unquestioned ritual until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.

All of the sudden, women stopped viewing themselves as objects to be acquired and owned. They didn’t want to abandon their surname and walk blindly into a whole new identity as ‘his’.

And so, a whole new can of wedding worms was opened: will you take his name, or won’t you?

 

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For a time, the answer from many women was a resounding: No Fricken Way.

One of the Mamamia senior writers notes that she can actually approximate the age of someone as to whether or not they have taken their partner's last name. For women of her age-group, keeping your maiden name was the 'done thing'.

Brisbane nurse Mary-Ann Beresford-Smith is a great representative of this baby-boomer era, who was among the first to really consider what was in a name.

"Deciding to get married brought up many questions that we explored together," she told me. "It seemed like everything was up for discussion. Where to live, when to marry, where to marry and by whom, did we want kids, a mortgage and so on."

"Suddenly my identity was in sharp focus and I thought about “losing” my name and having some one else’s’."

We discussed this issue on the latest episode of Mamamia OutLoud. Listen to it here:

The hyphenation of their two surnames didn't sound right together, so they sourced an old family name (Beresford) in her family tree that went back several generations, and added it to his name (Smith).

"My husband was completely open to it. He had to change his name firstly by deed pole, and from then on his identifier was his birth certificate and then his deed poll certificate."

"We both love the name and the tie it gives us to the generations past."

And Mary-Ann is not alone. In an article recently posted to Arts Mic, writer Angie Siu explains the historical rise of keeping one's surname, and how it became something of a phenomenon.

"Keeping one’s maiden name was born out of feminist philosophy in the 1850s," she explains.

"The practice was first introduced by U.S. suffragette Lucy Stone. In the 1920s, members of the Lucy Stone League began to adopt this practice, and the feminist movement of the 1970s popularized it. It was a way for women to declare that they were equal to men."

Stepping forward into the 1980's and 1990's, even fewer women again were looking to adopt their husband's surname.

According to The Wall Street Journal, "The trend toward women keeping their maiden names after marriage peaked in the 1990s, when about 23% of women did so."

It is tempting to equate the rise of the 'power woman' to a strong female desire to own her identity, especially in marriage.

But the article delivered a surprise ending, adding that "(the trend of keeping their maiden name) then eased gradually to about 18% in the 2000s."

Wait, it decreased?

Yep - just when you thought that the surname swap was finally beginning to slow, millennials have taken an unexpected turn, gravitating back towards tradition.

Data mined from Facebook has shown a significant swing back towards young women opting to take on their husband's surname.

"In partnership with The Daily Beast, Facebook looked at the names of 14 million married females, ranging in age from 20 to 79 who are currently active on Facebook and married in the United States....Facebook determined that of that group, 65 percent of women in their 20s and 30s changed their names." - Huffington Post.

And the trends are reflected on Aussie shores, too: according to an article published by the ABC, a massive 80% of women in Australia are now taking on their husband's last name after getting married.

Social media addiction.

 

So, what's in a name?

A tradition that's been around since the Middle Ages, the act of changing your last name it is almost exclusive to those of English heritage.

"It has a very long history, and it has to do with inheritance and property - dating back to when women were property or as good as - and you are actually taken into the husband's family, and therefore you take his name," Professor Corcoran-Nantes told ABC News Online.

Interestingly, there are many places in the world where even if you wanted to take your husband's name, you couldn't.

Canada, Greece, France, and the Netherlands are just a few of the countries around the world in which it is mandatory to keep your family name. In other countries, like Malaysia and Korea, it is simply local custom to keep your surname when you get married.

What is your biggest wedding regret? (post continues after video)

Here in Australia however, where it remains a choice, opting whether or not to change your name is becoming a crisis of personal identity and expected gender roles.

Despite trends showing a rise in women ditching their maiden name in order to take on their husband's, the very fact that this loaded choice even exists in still putting massive pressure on Aussie women preparing to tie the knot.

After all, modern Aussie relationships see the men and women on equal footing. We split the bill on dates, we both take out the garbage, and on any given day you could be sure that both sexes are wearing the pants. Literally. So why change their names?

After all, would their husband do the same?

In a 2013 poll taken by Men's Health, men were asked if they would take on their wife's surname. Almost 96% of men asked replied 'no'. And whilst my inner dialogue immediately started shrieking, 'SEXIST! SEXIST!', I have to say...I get it.

I don't think anyone should be faced with the idea of 'giving up' something because of marriage. Marriage is a unity, a celebration of two: not a laundry chute in which we shed one identity for another.

Also adding to the pressure of the decision is the factoring in of future and/or existing children. Whose name should the kids have? Is it fair to only have one? Should they carry both their maternal and paternal surname?

Or should they have NO surname, like Beyonce?

Men want to carry forth their family heritage, but in modern egalitarian society, so do women. Meet Deb, for example. Deb was interviewed by the ABC about her and her husband's decision to give their children her surname.

"We had quite a discussion about names when I was first pregnant and we made the decision together that the children would have my surname," she said.

"That was to do with many things, to start with I was very proud of my surname and would never have changed it when I married, so it was a very important thing to me.

"The other thing was there were no other children from my father's family I guess to carry on our surname, so there were not going to be any others, because I had sisters and they had changed their names at marriage."

 

Personally, my mind strays to the most superficial region possible: what do I want my surname to be, from an aesthetic sense?

Would I be upgrading, or downgrading in the name swap? How do the surnames work as a whole?

I mean, the idea of two last names is a lot to handle for someone who has lived their life with two first names.

Name please?

Maggie Kelly.

Kelly is your first name?

No, my surname.

So what was your last name Kelly?

Kelly.

*blank stares*

There are so many things at stake! The two names might not work together, or turn into a tongue-tying jumble of clashing sounds. And what if I wanted to give my child a stately first name, like Benedict, or Agamemnon?

The issue of cultural expectation weighs heavily on the woman in the surname saga: in America, 10% of the population believes that keeping your name means you aren't dedicated to your marriage. And a full 50% of Americans think you should be legally required to take your husband's name.

It's a simple enough equation: woman takes surname, so woman is committed. Woman keeps maiden name, so woman is not committed. It's a wildly inaccurate, albeit widely shared, perspective.

For many, the choice is a statement of independence and commitment to themselves and their own identity.

In an article for The Guardian, author Jill Filipovic expresses her dismay at the number of her friends who changed their name when married.

"Your name is your identity," she says. "The term for 'you' is what situates you in the world....Part of how our brains function and make sense of a vast and confusing universe is by naming and categorizing."

And yet, for other women, the symbolic act of changing their name is a gift, a signal to their husband that they are committed to being their partner for life.

At the end of the day, we live in a country which says: it's up to you.

Choose what you like. But make sure it is for the right reasons. Not because your husband wants to keep his name, and certainly not because his has a nicer ring to it.

....And especially not because 'Agamemnon Kelly' doesn't quite roll off the tongue, either.

Listen to the full episode of Mamamia OutLoud here:

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