I have never really wanted to get married, but even less so have I wanted to get married and then take my partner’s last name.
Both of these facts were deemed absolutely horrifying to my family when I inadvertently dropped this “bombshell” on them the day of my sister’s wedding. I was met with confusion, surprise, and a thin but still lingering sense of disappointment. To this day I still remember my sister telling me, “If you don’t take his last name, you aren’t really married.”
At the time, I withheld the overwhelming urge to passive aggressively look up the definition of marriage and to explain to my sister just how wrong she was. Unfortunately, today that urge still visits me from time to time as I continue to encounter people who believe that my lack of desire to adopt my hypothetical partner’s surname is somehow a personal disgrace to God, the heavens, and the institution of marriage.
The debate on whether or not to take your partner’s (or most commonly, your husband’s) last name has gained a lot of traction in the past few decades due to vehement feelings from both sides of the argument. Though as a society we have moved further and further away from the myth that the nuclear family is the only functional one out there, there are still some who believe that tradition should designate all of our desires.
There are many reasons that women, like myself, choose not to partake in the tradition of adopting their partner’s last name after marriage. Some cite the history of name changing, arguing that its sexist roots are reason enough for them to sidestep the ritual altogether. Traditionally, women had to change their last names so that their property and all of their belongings would then belong to their husbands, relinquishing them of their rights and autonomy. In fact, nagging reminders of this law persisted well into the 70s and 80s, as women still weren’t allowed to open up bank accounts with permission from their husbands until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974.
Others simply feel that giving up their last names would be giving up their identity. Many professional women have built entire careers upon their namesake and don’t want to lose their notoriety. Not to mention that it can be kind of strange to introduce yourself as “Jane Smith” for three decades of your life, and then all of a sudden have to start calling yourself “Jane Doe.”
But for as many reasons as some women have not to change their names, there are others who have just as many reasons to change it. A lot of women consider it to be an easy way of creating a permanent family unit. It also guarantees that your children will have the same last names as both of their parents.
Regardless of your personal feelings on the matter, the issue with adopting a partner’s last name does not lie in the choice of doing it or not, rather the assumption from many people that it must be done. There is a problem with that fact that from birth, it is a question as to whether a woman’s name, the thing that arguably holds the key to her identity, will be permanent or not, while it is never a question for a man. This assumption means that we place value on a woman’s identity based off of her relationship with a man — whether she is a miss or a misses.
This debate also assumes that all relationships should exist in terms of a man and woman, and that even in queer relationships that each partner should fall into a masculine or feminine role.
The idea that taking your husband’s last name is merely a “tradition” and therefore should not be questioned or corrected is just a small part of the overlapping system of gender inequality that tells women that to go against the status quo is to de-sanctify the natural order of things.
Here’s the funny thing about that – there is no natural order of things when it comes to love and relationships. There is no right or wrong way to fall in love or to get married. You are not any less of a wife if you don’t change your name and, alternatively, you are not any less of a feminist for changing it. The important thing is to figure out why you make the decision that you do, and that it should be your decision and yours alone.
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.