Style & Then Some

What’s in a name? Feminism meets practicality…

ComellMare wedding rings changing your name marriage and feminism

Image by ComellMare

I was in the hospital with my dad the other day, and the nurse asked my mum and I to fill out next of kin forms. Mr Caldecott, Mrs Caldecott, and Miss Caldecott: a family unit, proudly bearing the same name. And then my mum cracked a joke about how I wouldn’t be Miss Caldecott for much longer, and I felt a sudden pang of grief. ‘No man would ever get me to change my name,’ the nurse retorted as she took the forms from us and walked away. It’s easy to say, and I have toyed with the idea of keeping my name before, but it hit me clearly in that moment: if mum hadn’t taken dad’s name, we wouldn’t be that neat little family unit with matching names. I treasure the fact that I have the same name as both of my parents, but someone has to be willing to give up their family name and take on a new one to form a new family identity.

Yes, there’s the option of double barrelling your name with your spouse’s, but if everyone did that it would get out of hand a couple of generations down the line. (Also, ‘Caldecott-Lippiatt’ is a ridiculous mouthful in itself – what would our children do when they got married and suddenly had a four name long surname?) In Spain there’s a tradition that women keep their maiden names, which seems like a perfect feminist solution at first glance. As Wikipedia explains:

In Spain and in most Spanish-speaking countries, the practice is for people to have two surnames. Usually, the first surname comes from the father and the second from the mother but it could be the other way round. A child’s first surname will usually be their father’s first surname whilst the child’s second surname will usually be the mother’s first surname. For example, if Señor Smith Adams and Señora Jones Roberts had a child named Paul, then his full name would be Paul Smith Jones.’

But in reality, this still means that the woman’s name dies out after a few generations.

It’s hard giving up a name that carries with it a large part of your identity; all the family history and the outward sign of relationships that have been unspeakably formative and important. But if someone doesn’t do it, you’ll either have a different name from your children and partner, or end up getting tied up in all sorts of complex knots trying to merge multiple names – and what you were trying to protect in the first place will get lost a few generations down the line, anyway.

The ability to give up a name isn’t an inherently female quality, though. We weren’t born or raised with less of an attachment to our name and family identity than men. I believe that someone in the relationship has to make that sacrifice, and to do so is a beautiful thing; marriage is all about both men and women giving themselves completely and becoming part of one another, after all. But I would like to see a situation develop where it isn’t automatically or always the woman who changes her name: we need a new generation of feminist men to start bucking the trend and taking on their wives’ names. It’s not that I think women should never change their names when they get married, but more that I think it should be a choice, freely made.

I’m going to change my legal name, but keep my family name for writing. It’s scary, but also rather exciting: having the same surname as each other will mark us out as a new family, a team. And, as my dad told me, I’ll still be a Caldecott. What’s in a name, after all?

What about you? Would you ever consider changing your name?

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About Sophie Caldecott

Writer | Founder of www.abetterplacejournal.com

9 comments on “What’s in a name? Feminism meets practicality…

  1. Jo Rush
    September 4, 2012

    A great article that sums up so much of the practical and emotional difficulties of name changes.

    I wish we lived in a world where it could be either the man or woman who gave up their surname without the stigma attached to either men for doing something seen as ‘unmanly’ or women for seeming ‘anti-feminist’. Since changing my name when I got married I have been accused by other women, albeit passive-aggressively, of doing something inherently ‘unfeminist’, simply because I wanted to create a family unit with my husband that had just one name and sense of identity.

    I do think that men don’t always understand how hard it can be to give up your name, as society doesn’t expect them to do this, so they never have to consider the potential feeling of loss. Both my husband and myself have surnames that have been used as our nicknames over the years and when I explained to him that losing my surname also meant losing an affectionate nickname that was a huge part of my identity it hit home to him what a difficult transition that causes. If more couples had these sorts of discussions before marriage and name changes, maybe there would be more consideration and less assumption that it’s the woman’s role to take on a new name.

    In the end I have grown to love my new surname and know that I haven’t stopped being who I am because I chose to leave my old name and take my husband’s, especially because I’ve decided to hang onto my maiden name in one small way by having it as a new middle name!

  2. Leopard
    September 4, 2012

    My mum never changed her last name, and my parents chose to give us double-barelled surnames. This meant that the only person in my family who shared my surname was my brother. Did this make us any less of a family unit? Definitely not; it’s not like it was a regular occurrence for people to refer to families by their shared last name, then come to my family and start stuttering awkwardly- “And here we have the Smiths, and here the Browns, and here the um… the um…er…” Never happened.

    I guess I don’t really place any importance on last names. Some might call it useful to trace the bloodline up and down the generations, but if we follow the tradition of having the woman take on the man’s surname, then all we’re really tracing is the male bloodline; the female children with the same blood become invisible.

    I’ve decided to keep my last name when I get married. That’s not a difficult choice for me, what’s more difficult is what last name to give the children. You’re right when you say that double-barrelling all the way becomes rather impractical, but I’m not happy with the idea that the child should automatically get the father’s last name. Neither am I happy with the culture that would assume me to be a single mother if our children took on my last name. When people see us as a family, they would also assume that my partner was not the father of his children.

    So in conclusion- conundrum! If I could completely overhaul society I would rework it so that men and women can both take each other’s last names without eyebrows being raised, and where people can even invent last names for themselves and their children if they choose. As an individual choice in this society though? I’m really not sure what the best option is.

  3. Sophie Caldecott
    September 4, 2012

    Thanks for your brilliant comments, guys – you both bring really interesting perspectives to the mix. A conundrum indeed!

  4. Jo Rush
    September 4, 2012

    Additional note – I know a couple who are in their fifties and the wife recently told me that their last name is neither of their birth surnames!

    Originally she took her husband’s last name when they married but it was rather unfortunately ‘Pratt’ so they decided together that when they had children rather than their kids grow up as ‘Pratts’ they would choose a brand new surname for the whole family and that’s exactly what they did! She said it was great fun shopping for a new surname, but it’s not without issues because they do find it hard to make it clear who else they are related to (parents etc) which can cause difficulties. But still, another potential solution and far more equal than most!

  5. Sophie Caldecott
    September 4, 2012

    Haha, Jo that’s brilliant! I suppose that’s what people often did when originally creating family identities back before standardised spellings and everything. But yes, there still remains the issue of how to remain connected to a family history (I know you said you don’t think this is important, Leopard, but it’s important to me – retaining a connection and a sense of history and roots…).

  6. agirlwithquestions
    September 5, 2012

    Hi Sophie. Really enjoyed this article. As a feminist, this is an issue I’ve thought about before. Luckily for me, I have always hated my (mildly embarrassing) surname and would be more than happy to trade it in for a more ‘normal’ one someday. So for me, it’s simply a practicality. However, just like having the freedom to choose your own career and lifestyle, I believe the modern feminist should have total freedom over whether they want to change their name when marrying. After all, choice and freedom are what feminism is all about.

  7. BlondeKatie
    September 5, 2012

    Apparently porte manteau surnames are becoming more popular nowadays too. So Sophie you could be the Caldiatts or the Lippecotts?

    I think in time it will become more less common for women to automatically take their husband’s surname. But traditions tend to take a long time to become untraditional!

  8. helencoakley
    September 7, 2012

    I just wrote a long reply for this and it disappeared…maybe the web will regurgitate it at some point…

    Anyway, I wrote something along the lines of:

    Sophie, I love this article. Surnames have always been a problematic issue for me. I have always felt like my surname is somewhat meaningless to me as I hardly know anyone in my Dad’s family and having a strong ‘irish’ surname as led to random irish women telling me more about the connotations of my name that I know myself. With my father being an only child and with his parents no longer with us, and also the son of a broken home, he didn’t share his surname even with his own mother. Not that this is a problem, it just distanced me further from any connection to the name Coakley. I am in no contact with anyone apart from my father who bares the name Coakley by blood. Therefore I have no qualms in changing my name if married, but if I had a stronger connection to my paternal side then perhaps I would feel differently, or perhaps not? I am closer to my mother’s side, and after her divorce from my father, I actually told her to change her name back as I knew it held negative connotations for her. However, she refused as she didn’t want to have a separate surname from me. I have always thought if I had children I would middle name them after my mother’s maiden name as I feel a greater family connection to my maternal side. Or perhaps I will start a new trend and do a Prince or Madonna? No surname, no problem 🙂

  9. A. Brooke-Gandhi
    September 16, 2012

    We had this issue when we were married. I didn’t particularly like my maiden name, which was Evans. It’s not a bad name, I just never particularly liked it and looked forward to changing it some day, either by marriage or deed poll. I did (and still do) like my husband’s family name, I just didn’t want to take it on marriage, though I wasn’t initially entirely sure why. After a long discussion with him, I realised the reason I didn’t like the idea of taking his surname was partially the fact I didn’t like the idea of passing as a “possession” and liability from my father to my husband. I also dislike the way that this naming tradition feels like it’s negating the female presence in a family line. The other factor at play was our future children. I’m half-Indian by blood, but I have no intention or inclination give my children Indian names. I do, however, think it would be a shame for them to have a name with no hint of their heritage within it. Finally, taking his name without any hint of my family name just didn’t feel like it fitted to me, I believe in a right to self-determination and it felt undermined by the surname-taking tradition and just didn’t sit well with me, as the name one uses to present oneself to the world is one of the most basic parts of self-determination to me. My husband agreed. We decided to create a new double-barrelled family name consisting of my husband’s “maiden” name and my maternal grandmother’s maiden name (we couldn’t go further back in the female line on my side, unfortunately). Our new family name is Brooke-Gandhi, and we both like it. We intend to give our children our double-barrelled surname and encourage them to adopt a similar approach if/when they decide to create their own family unit, with any sons taking his family name and any daughters taking mine, both in conjunction with their partners name. I think our families are still a little bemused by our decision. We let them know about 6 months before we married, and we’ve been married 18 months now, but no one had any major objections.

    Surnames do seem to be a tetchy subject for some people, though. I was listening to the radio on the way home from work the other day, and they had a daily segment of the show where callers put a yes/no question to the rest of the listeners and 10 are picked at random to give their answer. On that day, the question was from a woman about to be married who liked her husband’s name, but felt that in conjunction with her own would sound rather odd (she was right, it did). Her fiance didn’t seem to have any strong opinions on whether she took his name or created a double-barrelled name to separate her name from his surname. I couldn’t believe the vitriol this poor woman had thrown at her- most of the listeners who called in were men berating her for “disrespecting” her fiance and his family and tradition by even suggesting she might not take his name on marriage, as well as one woman who told her rather scornfully she “had it easy” with her fiance’s surname as the one she’d taken when she married was far worse. I have to confess, these responses made me rather angry. I feel the right to self-determination extends to the name one chooses to use. I also don’t believe that choosing not to take your husband’s name is any more disrespectful than him choosing not to take yours, which means I don’t think it’s disrespectful at all.

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