As I finished work on my most recent novel (Here, Below the Surface, to debut in 2023), I realized that I had somehow incorporated (yet again) a plot point that reflects my obsession with women changing their names when they marry.
I’ve thought about this since I first married and was told, by the school where I was then teaching, that it was illegal for me to keep my own last name. I had a present, a letter from the attorney general’s office in that state, which I still have, which informed my employer that I use any name I wanted unless I was doing it to commit a fraud. “I just don’t want to get in legal trouble,” said the school’s registrar.
Two women I know well (relatives of mine) have each been married four times. Each time they married, they changed their name to their husband’s name. When I told a coworker this, she said, “What? Did they live at the RMV?” And yes, they sort of did. Their checks still bear a string of middle names, none given them at birth. (I want to add here that each of these women had children, from previous marriages, and neither of them intended to have more children. So they were changing their own names to a name that was different from their children’s name.)
Why did they do this? A friend who’s about to marry explained, “I always assumed I would change my name when I got married.”
Another friend said, “His family expects it. They would be suspicious if I didn’t.”
Still another reminded me that until the mid-1900s, marriage was mostly an institution dedicated to property transfer (which seems to be an argument against changing your name).
Why do they do this? Do women want so deeply to belong to someone that they (still) literally want to become a part of that person? Do men want so deeply to possess?
I’m aware of all the arguments. My last name was my father’s last name – in other words, my keeping it only extends the patriarchy of a previous generation. I’m told I wouldn’t do this if I were not an author and if my name were not my byline. I’m told that it’s strange to have a different last name from my children’s last names (although apparently, my girls will change their names to something else … so what is the difference?).
It’s my name.
It’s MY name, the one I was born with.
I would never change it, well married though as I have been for 25 years.
Is this feminism, humanism, or just common sense?
Does being a family really require everyone to have the same name? Are people who don’t less committed? (My nine children should be apprised of this … ) And why if … like my relatives whose marriages failed … you have to go back to court and pay yet more fees on the flip-flop?
Do what you want. Like everything else, including marriage, it’s a triumph of hope over experience. -JM