Why Are People Still Baffled By My Choice To Keep My Last Name?

This originally appeared on From Two To One, as part of the Last Name Project. Republished here with permission.

A few days before my wedding at age 32, my father learned that I was keeping my birth name. My mother recalls the conversation as this:

Father: Hmm, what’s that all about?
Mother: I don’t know, I guess she just likes your name better than his.

Every time I think of this I laugh because my decision not to change my name was firmly based on feminist ideology. Having my consciousness raised by an array of undergrad and graduate Women’s Studies classes, I was fully versed in the Anglo-Saxon “laws of coverture” on which many of the customs associated with marriage are based. It never occurred to me that by keeping my birth name I was continuing the tradition, albeit in a slightly twisted form.

While my father never said a word to me directly about my decision, my father-in-law did. Interestingly, the conversation did not take place until 12 years into my marriage! (I guess he finally felt comfortable enough to ask me). I told him that I liked my own name and while he didn’t seem all that satisfied, he dropped the subject. My husband and I never actually discussed it either, I just said “I am keeping my own name after we get married” and that was that. He’s a pretty secure guy. Some relatives, however, are a different story. These are the ones who still send all cards, invitations, etc. to “The HisLastName Family.”

While I was pregnant with our only child, we did have long discussions about names. I had no issue with the baby having his father’s last name, thinking that it would just be simpler and for the most part it is. I am all about honoring the ancestors so I made sure we did so with our son’s first and middle names. When I am introducing myself to a teacher or coach I always say, “Hi, I am Anne MyLastName, Mark’s mom.” I generally roll with it if someone addresses me as “Mrs. HisLastName.” I did, however, take exception to the school principal who kept referring to me as “Mother” in a tense meeting we had after my son had been sent home on the wrong bus in the first grade. “That’s Dr. MyLastName” I said icily, “or Professor if you prefer.” I am not sure he got my point.

This is one topic that is sure to generate discussion and sometimes controversy among students in my Gender and Communication class. Recently one young man declared, “That would be a deal-breaker for me!” I asked him why and he replied “Because everyone in a family should share the same name, otherwise how would anyone know you are related?” Another student introduced him to the concept of blended-families. He remained unconvinced. I usually wait until close to the end of class to share that I kept my birth name. Typically the first question I get is, “What does your husband think?” My response, “I don’t know, he’s never said, but I think after 20-plus years of marriage he’s had ample opportunity to share.”

There are times when I purposefully use his last name. A few years ago I was up late reading in our living room. Around midnight I heard a car door slam and glanced out the window. An unmarked truck was parked across the end of our driveway and a man was shimmying up the utility pole in front of our house. I thought it suspicious that someone would be out that late at night working, especially without an electric or cable logo visible on the truck. I decided to call the police. When the dispatcher answered I gave my name and address and told him about the guy climbing the pole. He responded, “What did you say your name was?” I told him again. He replied, “That’s not the name on my screen” I said, “Oh, the phone is in my husband’s name which is ‘HisLastName’ so anyway about the guy. . .” He interrupted, “Well, how does THAT work?” “What?” I asked. “Having different last names,” he replied. “It works fine,” I said. “Huh, really?” he asked. Exasperated, I said “Okay, about the guy on the pole who is now clipping wires and who could be some kind of terrorist. . .” “Oh, that’s the cable company,” he said, “they always work this late.” Needless to say, if I have occasion to call the police, I now identify myself as ‘Anne HisLastName.’”

I do find it surprising that after three waves of American feminism we are still having this conversation. Though in an era when it is fashionable again for young men to ask their intended’s father for her hand in marriage, I guess I am not all that shocked and I don’t think Lucy Stone would be either. Discouraged, yes, but not shocked.

Anne is a professor of communication studies. This post is part of The Last Name Project, a joint series by from two to one and The Feminist Mystique profiling a diverse set of individuals who are single, engaged, and married about how and why they decided on their last names. The goal of the project is to explore the patriarchal tradition of taking your husband’s last name and the tremendous amount of symbolism and meaning choices about last names still have for women, their partners, and society. If you are interested in participating in the series, email Danielle at danielle [at] fromtwotoone [dot] com or Shannon at hill [dot] shannonp [at] gmail [dot] com.

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