Tuesday, April 10, 2012

[Balancing Jane] The Last Name Project

In this new series co-hosted by from two to one and The Feminist Mystique, we will be profiling an array of individuals and couples about their last name decisions upon marriage or what they expect to choose if they marry. The goal is to explore how individuals make decisions about their last name, and to highlight the many possibilities. We will be posting profiles periodically and encourage you to stay connected via Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.  If you would like to participate in this series, email Danielle at danielle [at] fromtwotoone [dot] com or Shannon at hill [dot] shannonp [at] gmail [dot] com. 

The following post is from one of my favorite feminist bloggers, Balancing Jane.

Two Worlds, One Self, How Many Names?
Choosing a last name ended up meaning more to me than I thought it would. Wrapped up in this question were a host of social issues I was used to examining from afar, through hypothetical theories and distant studies. Suddenly they were all here, in my face, and very personal. In some ways, choosing a name felt like a challenge to “walk the walk” and own up to some of the philosophies I said I believed in a real, tangible way.

I grew up in a rural Midwest town with very little diversity. I’m the first person in my family to go to college, and many of my childhood friends chose very traditional paths: marriage and kids right out of high school, wife as primary caregiver. My mother was a stay-at-home mom and my dad worked at a factory. When they divorced, my mom scrambled to find work and keep our house financially together; she wasn’t always successful.
That past is part of me, and the ties I have with the people in that world are important.

But these things are also true: I am an educated woman who has completed a Master’s degree and is pursuing a PhD. I live in an urban area full of diversity and am a white woman married to a black man who is also highly educated (law degree). In my household, we both value our careers and our skills are not delineated by gender roles. I have friends and neighbors who run the gamut of different types of family arrangements.

This world is also a part of who I am.

While considering options about my name, each one took on a meaning about what these two worlds meant to me. (Please note, I’m not saying that these interpretations are universal (or even right). This is just what these options felt like I would be saying about myself.)
  1. Take my husband’s last name- I accept the cultural norms of my upbringing and admit that—no matter what I’ve said I believe—I ultimately see myself stepping into a role primarily defined as “wife.”
  2. Keep my last name- Marriage does not define me. I am independent of this relationship and my sense of self is determined without it.
  3. Make my last name a second middle name- I have kept a part of my independent self, though I don’t say it when I introduce myself to new people or sign it in my signature. I did to remind myself I have a sense of self outside of marriage, but it’s not necessary to communicate to other people.
  4. Hyphenate- I am both the self I formed prior to this marriage and the person I will become through it. My marriage is an important part of my identity but not the only one.

I chose to hyphenate. Taking my husband’s name wasn’t really an option. I have an identity outside of my role as wife and (for me) I didn’t feel like I could give up the most obvious label of that self. At the same time, I did want to take my husband’s name in some way. My marriage is incredibly important to me, and (while I completely respect and value other people’s alternatives) saying “I Do” changed me. I was tying my life to this man forever, and my identity changed because of it.

I talked to my husband about this decision, but he always said the choice was mine and he would support whatever I did. Our daughter has my maiden name as a second middle name.

The decision hasn’t been without complications. My name is long (ten letters-five letters) and people constantly comment on that. Doctor’s offices can’t seem to handle hyphens, and I am constantly under the wrong name. I get mail addressed to all kinds of combinations.  

Ultimately, though, I am happy with my choice (even when a childhood friend called it “stupid”). My name feels like me. It signifies the new life I’ve started, a life I love, but it also points to the life I already had and continue to build independent of my identity as wife, and I love that life, too.


  1. I have a cousin who kept her maiden name when she got married, which is also my last name. She is a world-known journalist. At the time of her wedding she was more accomplished than her husband. He has since come close to catching up. I respect her decision. Otherwise, she is quite traditional. However, my wife had no such reasons, and there was no question that she would take my last name as hers.

  2. Chris - Why was there no question your wife would take your last name?

  3. I hyphenated too. Initially I was going to just keep my own last name, but my husband was a little sad because he sees the same last name as indicating that we're now a family. It was a littttttle hypocritical that he would never consider taking my last name as his own, but we love our spouses flaws and all. Mostly, he's pretty enlightened. I decided to hyphenate because we married in our early 30s, and I had nearly 10 years of a career including two masters degrees, through which I made contacts under my maiden name. I'm a teacher and the kids still call me by my maiden name, but if we ever have a kid of our own - I'll probably use his last name a bit more.

    The best part about hyphenating is that they are BOTH legally mine. I can go by either. Even my bank will cash checks made out to my maiden name, married name, or hyphenated name.

    Best of all worlds. Who cares if it confuses other people? I answer to all three so it doesn't bug me.