Recently, Anna Murray, a good friend and kick-ass writer, wrote a series of posts about women changing their names when they marry. As part of the project, she asked friends to share their reasons for their choices. Anna’s posts are provocative and well-researched. I particularly love the one where she debunks the myth that women have always taken their husbands’ names. I highly recommend reading the whole series in one sitting.
The project got me thinking about my own choice to keep my surname.
I never considered changing my last name, especially since I married later in life, in my mid-thirties. By then, I was known in all my social and professional circles as “Colette Sartor.” Any name recognition value I’d built through the years would have gone out the window if I changed my name. And, from what I’ve heard, legally changing names is an administrative nightmare.
But really, the choice to keep my surname was more personal than that.
I’ve been a feminist since I learned the word from my first grade teacher, Ms. D___. She was my idol, right up there with Martin Luther King, Jr. Her hair was long and straight and parted in the middle, and she went braless under peasant blouses with filmy sleeves and colorful embroidery along the neckline.
She was unapologetic about using the honorific “Ms.” instead of “Miss.” Even a few years later, when I was a third or fourth grader and she got married, we still called her “Ms. D___.” That was her name. Why should it change just because she got married?
Strong women, feminist women, had to buck tradition at every turn to help women gain equal footing with men. Which meant keeping one’s surname. It became, for me, the hallmark of feminism, the thing I had to do, no matter what.
There was also the issue of my heritage. My Italian-American family takes great pride in our culture: the art, the food, the personality traits. (Yes, Italians are passionate about everything; yes, they’re loud and emotional and dramatic. Stereotypes sometimes exist for a reason.) We assume everyone wants to be Italian.
My surname is part of my heritage. I could never imagine life without it.
The most important reason, though, was this one: relinquishing my name, even to someone I loved, felt like I would be subsuming myself in someone else’s identity. It took me decades to define myself—what I wanted in life, who I was capable of being, who I could become and continue to be. The unusualness of my name—first and last—the heritage it reflects, the image I conjure in my own head when I hear it, all have been part of my struggle to become a strong, independent person, someone who could experience the unity of marriage while maintaining a separate self.
When I was single, all of my reasons seemed laudable, inalienable, even. I would wear my badge of feminism in my surname, which I would never relinquish no matter what.
Outwardly, I was supportive of other women who didn’t change their names. There were valid reasons not to: family unity, tradition, love.
Secretly, though, I did a little eye roll. You couldn’t be a feminist if you were willing to subsume yourself in someone else. That’s not what empowerment was about. Such a shame, that those women weren’t as enlightened as I was.
I was young and naive enough to believe that feminism could come in only one self-righteous flavor: mine.
I was in my mid-thirties when I met the man I would marry, a kind, smart, even-tempered guy who’s as strong willed and opinionated as I am, just in a quieter way.
Within our first two months of dating, we started talking about marriage as a “when” not an “if.” We were older, we’d dated a lot of different people, and we knew a good thing when we saw it. Plus, I didn’t have the hide the crazy. I could be myself, a rare and wondrous thing.
He was also very accepting of the idea that I would keep my surname. He didn’t need me to take his name for us to feel like a couple, he said. He was fine with my decision. It was mine to make.
Then we got engaged.
Suddenly, everyone had an opinion about whether I should change my name. My mother, who was usually uber liberal, at least socially, insisted that I address the wedding invitations to her friends as “Mr. and Mrs. [Man’s First Name] [Surname].”
I was furious. “So the woman disappears into the man, that’s what you want me to do?”
She sat there, stony-faced. “It’s etiquette. It’s the right way to do it.”
When I discussed the ceremony with my dad and the priest, I reminded the priest not to present my fiance and me as “Mr. and Mrs. O_____” since I wasn’t taking his name.
My father interrupted me. “I don’t understand why she’s doing it, Father. It’s wrong. She should follow tradition.”
Finally, I understood what it meant to see red.
Later, once I cooled off, I said to him, “Pop, if someone came to you and said, ‘Listen, I know you’ve been ‘Sartor’ your whole life, it’s who you are, but now you’ve got to take someone else’s name,’ what would you say to them?”
He got quiet, then looked at me and said, “I’d tell them to fuck off.”
“I’m your daughter,” I said. “You shouldn’t expect anything less from me.”
Apparently, my fiance’s friends and family weren’t thrilled either. No one said anything to me directly, but they must have given my fiance an earful, because one day, close to the wedding, he took my hands over dinner and said, “I know you want to keep you name, but I would be so honored if you would share mine with me.”
I was touched, and shocked. When I asked why he had done an about-face, he admitted that his family didn’t understand. I explained my reasons all over again: how my name is an integral part of my identity, just as his name is integral to his. How I am vested personally and professionally in maintaining that identity. How it doesn’t take sharing a surname to be committed to each other.
Ultimately, he accepted my decision, though I know if I decided tomorrow to take his name, he’d be thrilled. Still, he’s never raised the issue again.
Other people, not so much.
My choice to keep my name continues to have its pitfalls. Once, when my husband and I were delayed with our newborn son for hours in Newark Airport, we tried join the United Club as a married couple so we could be comfortable while we waited. We weren’t allowed. “Because you don’t have the same last name, we need a marriage certificate to prove you’re actually married,” the embarrassed United rep explained.
Since then, I’ve carry my son’s birth certificate when we travel, in case I have to prove I’m his mother.
We still get invitations to family events addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. O_____” even though everyone knows I kept my name. I’ve had to ask repeatedly for my son’s school roster to be changed to include both my name and my husband’s; teachers and kids constantly address me as “Mrs. O_____.”
Why screw with societal norms? people still ask, family members included. Why insult my husband, my husband’s family?
I used to get defensive and explain myself, about how I couldn’t lose my identity, about feminism, heritage, blah, blah, blah. People’s eyes glazed over. They didn’t really hear me. I wasn’t changing their minds.
Then, finally, I realized: I didn’t have to make anyone understand. This was my decision. The only people whose opinions matter are my husband and my son, who accepts without question that some families share a last name and some, like ours, don’t. His mom is still his mom; she’s still in love with his dad, still a happy wife and mother.
Which made me realize something else: This is a personal choice for every woman, not just me. Just as there are valid reasons for me to keep my surname, there are a myriad of valid reasons for women to take their husbands’ names. (Anna Murray’s second post and sixth post in her series include great, thoughtful responses from women who didn’t change their names).
I can’t simply give lip service to accepting other women’s choices. I have to embrace every woman’s right to decide how best to express her vision of herself.[bctt tweet=”I have to embrace every woman’s right to decide how best to express her vision of herself.”]
It’s not my place to judge.
Taking a husband’s name doesn’t make a woman any less a feminist if that’s how she defines herself. The beauty of feminism is that at its core is the belief that all women have the capacity to make well-reasoned, thoughtful decisions that reflect the varied and complex machinations of womanhood in modern society.
I no longer get defensive or insulted when someone calls me “Mrs. O_____.” Nor do I apologize or explain. I just firmly and politely correct them. “My name is Colette Sartor,” I say and leave it at that.
Did you change your name? Why or why not? I’m curious to hear your stories.
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I didn’t change my name either, for all of the same reasons. I closely identify with my family from whom my name came and by the time I got married, I was me – unwilling to meld into a whole other family and lose my connection….how would anyone know who I was? I am tickled when someone calls me by my husband’s last name, but I am not changing mine. Thanks for writing about this.
Last August, I was while back east visiting my parents for the first time since becoming engaged, my father waited until he and I were alone to say, “I have to ask you something.” I was nervous. I’m 45. He still makes me nervous sometimes, maybe because his voice is so deep and he’s very tall and often grumpy. He asked, “Will you be taking Andy’s name?” What a surprise. “No, Dad. I’m keeping our name.” I think the old guy teared up he was so happy. I know I did.
One of the core issues here is the professional recognition power of the former name. If the woman has already created a big audience for her maiden name. why change it if she plans to continue the same kind of work. this is a business decision.
As a man with three professional sisters, one in academics, one a business woman, and the baby an equestrian, along with a strong (RIP) mother and numerous female friends who are either teaching professionals, military veterans or just plain smart and independent thinkers regardless of career, when it came time for marriage I said ‘it’s your name, keep it.’
I may be a dinosaur (1954) but I just dont get the change your name hooey attached to society. My wife established her naval career with the name she took out of USNA, not with mine.
I always told my friends and extended family I had four heroes in my life growing up, which did not include two older brothers, and I always made sure to put the lid down for those four!