This weekend I received an email from a friend:
Random question for you! Did you ever think about changing your name after marriage? Did you and S talk about it? I haven’t changed my name and it bothers my other half every blue moon. I’m really torn.
I didn’t say it was an easy question.
It’s a social custom that a woman in the US will change her last name to her husband’s after marriage. This is an interesting concept, because as everyone knows, divorce is quite common in the US. My mom and dad were not immune to it, though my father’s name remained the same (naturally) following the divorce.
How would it feel, after being married for 25 years, being called half of the Mr. & Mrs. John Johnson this whole time, that due to a divorce, you now no longer have a “reason” to be called Jane Johnson? Do you keep this name, do you leave it? You’ve met decades of people that know you only with this name, possibly your children, or their children, too. How could you explain that one day Grandma Johnson was now Grandma Nelson?
It wasn’t until my 20s when I had to entertain the prospect of maybe marrying and changing my name did I really start thinking how much I liked My Name.
My first name, being Sara, is quite common so when I was growing up my last name was really my identifier. “Sara R” or “Rosso” was the way people distinguished me from Sara E, Sarah F, etc. As I grew up, it also became part of my identity as it was an Italian-sounding last name, belonging to grandparents I never had a chance to meet. And when things were starting to get serious between S and I, and we didn’t know which country we would end up in, I started thinking about My Name.
I liked My Name, I wanted to keep it, it was mine.
Why did I have to give it away or change it? I started to realize that most, almost all, Italian women do not take their husband’s name upon marriage. They keep their own. When you introduce yourself as Jane Nelson, they do not assume there is a Mr. Nelson. Many times a mother may identify herself by her husband’s last name when speaking to a school to establish herself as the mother of her child, “Hello, it’s Signora Conti, the mother of Marco (Conti).”
In Italy there is no concept of a Mrs. vs. a Ms. (like in my blog title) or a Mz. If anything, they have a signorina (“young girl/woman”) and signora (“woman”) that is tied more to age than marital status. Note that after marrying in Italy, even at a young age, they joke and call you “Signora,” but once you reach a certain age in appearance, you will no longer hear signorina, married or not.
So, combined with the bureaucratical nightmare of marrying in the U.S., changing my name on everything (including my passport) and moving to Italy to have them then ask me why I have S’s last name (are you brother and sister?) seemed like the final piece of the puzzle which has led me to keep My Name, even now.
But what about my friend, Jane Nelson? She has so many options after marriage:
- Adopting the husband’s name: Jane Johnson
- Keep the “maiden” / birth name: Jane Nelson
- The husband takes the wife’s last name: Jack Johnson –> Jack Nelson
- Take the husband’s name as a last name, hers is a middle name: Jane Nelson Johnson
- Use that lovely hyphen: Jane Nelson-Johnson or Jack Johnson-Nelson
- Merge both names into something new: Jane Neljohn or Jane/Jack Sonson
- Take the latin approach – become a de: Jane Nelson de Johnson
I was surprised to remember there were so many options! An article in Slate in 2004 even remarked that the number of women keeping their birth names after marriage was declining from 1990 to 2000, though in those 10 years the Lucy Stone League was reborn, and one of their principles is “Name Choice Freedom” due to Lucy Stone being the first married woman to retain her birth name.
What’s your advice for my friend? What do you think about a woman changing her last name upon marriage?