Whenever a friend of mine gets married, I’m waiting to see how long it will take before she changes her name. It’s a test for the modern woman, especially those of us who’ve grown up encouraged to be independent, to chase our dreams and let no man stand in our way.
So many women ask themselves: Should I change my name when I get married? Do I need to? Do I want to?
That we have a choice at all is something to be celebrated. Society today accepts the different choices women make. It never used to be this way, though. Only a generation or so ago, women in Australia naturally took their husband’s name upon marriage. It was just what you did.
Names are very personal. They signify who we are and who we belong to. So when a couple share the same name, they’re telling society that they’re a pair, that they’re together for life. The ring on their fingers are another way to show this, but changing your name is one step more. You’re making a conscious decision about your identity.
Some feminists would argue that it signifies male ownership of women, and upon marriage you’re joining ‘his’ clan if you take his name. Other people feel that changing your name is proof of love for the other person.
When it comes to children and what name they should take, the options are numerous. Can mum have a different name to her kids? Should they double-barrel or hyphenate? Do you need to all have the same name to show society that you’re a ‘unit’?
In this day and age, one thing is clear. If a woman changes her name, it doesn’t mean that she loses her identity. You can make and create your identity anytime. You can change your name any time you want to, as long as you’re an adult.
Changing your name isn’t an easy thing to do. It often involves filling out forms, photocopying your marriage certificate, getting it certified and telling every institution you’ve ever dealt with about your new circumstances. And then your friends, family and acquaintances need to be advised. Often this comes with opinions. I know because I’ve done it.
But it took me five years to change my name. And only then, it was a combination of three particular factors which made me eventually start downloading the change-of-name forms. First, I’ve always had the surname of a man I didn’t know (a biological father who was absent in upbringing). Second, in the field of English teaching, an Anglo surname would be to my benefit, compared to my original non-Anglo surname (yes, economics does triumph over principles sometimes). And finally, my husband’s surname is actually his mother’s surname, rather than his father’s (quite an uncommon situation). Given all this, I relinquished my attachment to the idea that women should never change their names, and just did it. And I don’t regret it at all.
Some women cherry pick, and take their husband’s name if it has a nice ring to it, or at the very least, improves on their maiden name. But if you’ve built up a professional identity using a particular name, it’s harder to carry over your reputation into a new name.
And when that other modern thing – the divorce – happens, it can get a bit messy. Do you change your name back, or just carry on with an ex’s surname? I’ve met the occasional older woman who has changed names, but I can’t be too sure which way it’s gone – are they newly married or newly divorced? I’m too scared to ask.
Changing your name is a reflection of many things – your allegiance, your status, your identity. And it’s different for everyone. Occasionally you’ll hear of a man changing his name to his wife’s, or of a couple taking on a completely new name together. It’s all each to his, her and their own (names) I guess!