‘Congrats on your engagement! Will you be changing your name?’

I have recently found myself mulling on the question of: a) why so many straight women still take their husband’s surname when they get married and b) why – in this era of supposed equality – that it’s something we seem to just accept as the norm.

According to a survey in 2016, almost 90% of women in the UK still take their husband’s name when they marry; I suppose that may have reduced a bit seven years on, but I’m guessing it’s not by much and I find it fascinating that it’s still such a high percentage.  I know plenty of women of all ages, who’d be off lighting torches and erecting barricades at any suggestion that they were the property of – or in any way of inferior importance to – their husbands, so why did many of those same women feel the need to re-label themselves when they married them?  

To put my cards on the table from the outset, I’ve been married twice and have never given up the surname I was born with.  I just couldn’t see the point of changing it: I was pretty comfortable with my own identity and saw no advantage in suddenly acquiring a different ‘label’ to the one that I and everyone else was used to. 

I should clarify that I didn’t then (and still don’t) consider myself to be a particularly radical feminist.  If I’m honest, the first time round, it may have been a tiny bit to do with sheer laziness, rather than any burning desire to mark my independence.  My partner and I had moved house less than a year before the wedding and the idea of going through the round of form-filling again so soon was a hideous prospect (this was in the days when you couldn’t simply do everything online!).  However, it wasn’t just that.

I didn’t see why I should have to learn to announce/sign myself as someone different all of a sudden, plus there was also the fact that I really liked my signature: heaven knows I spent enough time perfecting it when I was 16, so why on earth should I have to start practising a new one?!

I know that some women will have a perfectly good reason to want to change their name – maybe their family background wasn’t a happy one and they want to disassociate themselves from the name they grew up with; perhaps they just never liked their name in the first place, but if neither of those things applies, what is driving them to change it?  And surely, there are as many men who might want a new name for similar reasons, so why don’t more of them opt to switch to their wife’s surname instead?

I sometimes wonder if there’s a general misconception that you automatically acquire your husband’s name when you marry and that there is some kind of additional hassle if you choose to keep your own, when – in reality – it’s quite the opposite.  It’s a lot less trouble to just stay as you are, although there is the Mrs/Ms quandary to consider as well, I suppose.  I had already opted to be a ‘Ms’ on everything official by my early twenties anyway, so I just stuck with that; I didn’t see that I needed a special label to signify my married status when my husband’s prefix wasn’t going to change.

Hyphenating is an option, of course, but there are pros and cons.  If I remember rightly, I did have some discussion with husband #1 about the possibility of hyphenating, but ‘Hall’ is an awkward single syllable, which sounds odd in front of a multi-syllabic name and if you put it second, you turn yourself into a stately home!  (Actually, someone at a wedding fair once assumed I was there to promote a venue, just on the basis of my banner headed ‘Sarah Hall’, so it’s bad enough already.)  Anyway, hyphenating would still have presented me with the new signature problem, so I wasn’t going there.

I know some people think going double-barrelled is overly-complicated and justify having a single family surname on the basis that it ‘just makes everything easier’ and you don’t have to keep explaining who’s called what to teachers at the school gates, etc., but surely if everyone having different names was the norm, it would soon become a non-issue?  

Alternatively, they imagine their double-barrelled children facing the prospect of trying to combine those surnames, when it’s their turn to get married (with the combinations potentially getting ever more absurd as the generations pass!), but surely it doesn’t need to be that way.  Either give the children just one of your surnames (draw lots or alternate between the two!) or allow them to choose the one they prefer when they get older.  Or everyone could just choose which of their own two surnames they want to combine with one of their partner’s when they’re thinking about marriage themselves.  Okay, I know it’d make historical family research more complicated, but it could be a lot worse (spare a thought for the Icelanders)!

Perhaps there’s still some kind of active (or unconscious) pressure coming from parents to stick with the name-change tradition?  Neither of my husbands, nor either of their families expressed any objection to my decision to keep my own name (although, admittedly, my first mother-in-law always did address any correspondence to me as Mrs S D****n!).  Bizarrely, the only person who had any problem with it was my own mother, who said that if I didn’t take my first husband’s name, it would: ‘…be like you’re not really married.’.  Admittedly, I was already 33 the first time round, so I think she was just worried no one would believe I’d finally found a man who was prepared to take me on!

At the end of the day, of course everyone is free to choose what they want to do, but it just intrigues me – in a world so hyper-aware of the issues of equal pay, equal rights and equal opportunity – that we simply accept the implicit message of inequality delivered by a woman relinquishing her own name when she marries (even if the old inequalities of that actual legal status may have been dealt with).  

Maybe the picture will gradually shift, as more same-sex and differently-identifying couples marry (or form whatever equivalent domestic arrangement may sit alongside or supersede marriage in the future) and maybe we’ll eventually get used to the idea that people don’t always have to be called the same thing as those with whom they’ve chosen to form their family unit.

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