The Incredible Disappearing Woman

My husband and I recently had dinner with my freshman year college roommate and her husband. It was one of those conversations that combines walking down memory lane balanced with catching up. Seemingly out of nowhere my husband asked my roommate if she had changed her name when she got married. She did. I didn’t. He then said, “I’m always interested in why someone would change their name. When women do so it’s almost like they disappear.”

I was speechless with his willingness to express his feminism and equal rights support until he went on to say, “Doing genealogy research is made so much harder when women change their names. I’m able to get much deeper into my family’s history using the male ancestors. When I follow the female ancestors there are too many blind alleys.” Aha! His comments made sense now.

All playful spouse-baiting aside, changing one’s name is fraught with contention, no matter which path a woman decides to take. It never occurred to me that I would change my name; our names are so much a part of who we are. I had already refused to change my name decades before, when my stepfather asked me if I wanted him to adopt me; then we’d all be a family with the same last name. My reply: Absolutely not! I wasn’t giving up “Love” as a last name even if I was trading it for a Hallmark moment.

Later on, when my career plans included an academic path, I already had a body of work and papers under my birth name; to change my name would compromise my ambition.

In the U.S. today approximately 20% of married women keep their birth last name after marriage. An additional 10% chose a third option, such as hyphenating their names, using their birth name as a middle name or using their married name socially and their birth name professionally (“Maiden Names on the Rise Again,” by C.C. Miller and D. Willis, The Upshot, The New York Times, June 28, 2015).

What’s behind all the angst? There used to be legal reasons. Just a few decades ago women were forbidden by law to keep their birth name, under the premise that the wedded couple were viewed as “one person” by the law. That one person was the husband, whose identity superseded the wife’s. He was the sole person who could vote, hold property or go to court, to name just a few of the myriad rights that men held and women did not. In fact, it was only in 1972 that every state legally allowed a woman to use her maiden name as she pleased.

The fact that a woman’s maiden name is even called a “maiden name” is evidence that this practice is antiquated at best. Unfortunately, a woman not taking her husband’s name is treated like deviant behavior in the US. While the number of women taking their husband’s name has slowly grown (after ebbing in the late 80’s and early 90’s), a staggering 50% of Americans think it should be illegal for a woman not to take the husband’s surname (“Marital Name Change as a Window into Gender Attitudes” by Hamilton, L., Geist, C., & Powell, B., Gender & Society, 25(2), 145–175, 2011).

When my husband and I got married, he completely understood that I wasn’t going to change my name. The group I had the most trouble with was my own family, even though my mother and I had different last names for most of my life. The entire family sent Christmas and birthday cards addressed to “Mrs. Glenn Bell.” When I was young and stubborn, I sent them back with “No Such Person” scrawled across the front. As I got older and wiser, I was grateful they remembered the occasion and accepted whatever they chose to call me.

When I ask young women today why they’ve changed their name, the answer I get most frequently talks about the importance of a family unit, with parents and children all having the same name and thus defining the family. Forgive me but hogwash! We know that the name itself doesn’t really matter; what matters is the love, support and connection that our nuclear family is supposed to offer.

It’s a messy topic and who am I to judge? What my husband and I did worked well for us, I think. Keeping my name was not a rejection of him or a statement about the expected permanence of our union. My sons never seemed to mind that I had a different last name than they did. There were so many divorces and remarriages among their friends’ parents that different last names were not uncommon.

I have been and continue to be determined that I will not disappear. I hope there’s a genealogist in our future family who appreciates my decision.


“Make sure my sister knows I love her.

Make sure my mother knows the same.

Always remember there was nothing worth sharing

Like the love that let’s us share our name.”

Avett Brothers,  Lyrics from “Murder in the City”



Join the discussion One Comment

  • EM Novak says:

    Oh, of course I loved this. I do agree with you that the reasons we change our name are weak. I know that I held on to my birth name to hold onto my identity. After going through a divorce and having my birth name “returned” to me only because I was smart enough to include it in the self-written paperwork, I just could not lose it again, in its entirety. So, did I wimp out to my second husband? Was it out of respect? Was it to insure his security? My rebellion was to put that birth name on all my official documents, never to lose it again. When the New Jersey Motor Vehicles Commission told me I could not have Martin Novak on my driver’s license because it was too long (really?), I refused to change it. There is no hyphen in this name. I won the argument. I still have my first credit card with my birth name only. I think your husband is secure in himself that he never has to doubt what drives you. (I am so happy that a dinner conversation can spark a post!)

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