I’m getting married in less than a month, and I’m not a bit apprehensive about the actual “getting married” part of it. My partner and I have been together for seven years, so I’ve had plenty of time to get used to his annoying habits (and he’s had plenty of time to realize that I, of course, have none). I don’t have even the tiniest morsel of hesitation when it comes to marrying this guy—but taking his name? That’s giving me cold feet.
It’s not a topic I thought much about before getting engaged. I grew up in a small town where it was truly bizarre for a woman to keep her name after getting married, so it wasn’t something I even realized was a possibility until college. And then—like a lot of things at the time—it just seemed like something I’d figure out later. Well, now, I’ve picked out a wedding dress, registered for a Kitchenaid mixer and booked a caterer, so it’s starting to look like “later” is upon me.
After a lot of thought, I’ve decided to keep my “writing” name Winfrey and change my legal name to my fiancé’s last name. Is this confusing? Totally. Am I doing it anyway? Yep. I absolutely couldn’t bear the thought of changing the name I write under—after all, how am I supposed to show off to all my former classmates if I don’t publish my future, hypothetical books under the name they knew me as? Also, there are a lot of women with my soon-to-be last name, but less with my current one (well, except for that one who’s probably the most famous woman in the world). The only other Kerry Winfreys on the internet are young boys in Youtube videos doing the cinnamon challenge (and I don’t think any of them will be writing for women’s websites anytime soon, so I’m probably safe).
As for changing my legal name? Well, I kind of like the idea of having a secret identity. It makes me feel like a lady Clark Kent who just spends a lot of time on the internet instead of fighting crime. Mostly, I’m attracted to the convenience of it; I’ve heard too many horror stories about women who’ve had problems with their insurance or their bills or their children because they had a different last name from their husband. And, I’ll be honest, I dig the idea of my future family all having the same last name.
But I still feel totally weird about changing it. I’ve identified as a feminist ever since I found out what the terms “equal pay” and “pro-choice” meant, and I can’t help feeling like I’m letting someone down by taking my husband’s name. Am I giving up a part of myself? Am I giving in to the patriarchy? I don’t even believe that there’s One Right Way to be a feminis (women should be able to choose how they live their lives, as men do), but there’s so much baggage surrounding this particular choice that I can barely wrap my mind around it. There’s no denying the tradition is rooted in gross, patriarchal notions. But, then again, so is just about every aspect of a wedding, and I certainly don’t believe that a white dress still symbolizes purity or that the flowers in my bouquet represent fertility.
To clear up my confusion, I did the only natural thing: I asked the engaged and married women I know for their opinions. I asked them why they changed their names, or why they didn’t, and how they felt about it now.
Of those who changed their names, one woman was all too happy to be rid of her impossible-to-pronounce surname. Another mentioned liking the convenience of having the same last name of her husband, and worried that with separate last names “you will forever be required to submit copies of your marriage license and shared utility bills to prove your relationship.”
Another said she liked the idea of, “making a big change in my life and starting my own family with this person I carefully chose.”
All of those reasons make sense to me. I really like the idea of marking this giant shift into adulthood by changing something as visible as my name. Not that I’m saying getting married makes me an adult—I ate chicken strips for dinner two nights in a row this week—but it at least seems like a step in that direction.
The women I know who didn’t (or don’t plan to) change their names had similarly varied answers. One of them brought up one of the same concerns I had: “Why would I throw away many years’ worth of work to become another person whose name isn’t recognized in (my) business?”
Another thought women changing their names is a tradition that’s becoming irrelevant and old-fashioned as marriage dynamics change.
And those reasons made sense to me, also! Marriage has changed a lot, even in the short amount of time since my parents got married. Back then, many women married straight out of high-school. Women now are waiting longer to get married, and if they do, they bring with them years of work experience, accomplishments, publications and degrees. Who wants to start all over again under a new name?
But you know what every woman I talked to did have in common? They all specified that their’s was the right choice for them. None of them were judging other women for keeping or changing their last names, and none of them were asserting that their choice was the correct one for all women. Another thing they have in common? They’re all smart, independent and educated women who care about their partners. The women who changed their last names aren’t any less feminist, and the women who didn’t aren’t any less devoted to the people they married.
What matters, in my opinion, is that those of us getting married carefully consider this decision and what our names mean to us. I don’t think that there’s one right answer for everyone. Maybe I’ll never feel 100% okay with my decision, but maybe that’s normal. As long as I’m 100% sure about the person I’m marrying, I figure that’s probably the most important part. Getting that sweet new Kitchenaid mixer would just be a bonus.