When Bride and Groom Don’t ‘Match,’ Maybe Our Names Should?


“And just who are we related to?” the dog-walking stranger said, her eyes on the blond, blue-eyed 5-year-old in the pair, but her query very much meant for the brown woman – that is, me. I returned her cutesy tone, explaining that my playmate was my fiancé’s niece, and weren’t we having fun outside?

My mind wandered to this encounter often in the weeks leading up to my wedding date: Who knew how “white” or “black” our kids would look, and did I really want to add to the potential questions by keeping my surname, as I’d planned? Married and divorced by age 24, I knew the name-changing hassles well – and this was before I’d had any career to speak of, bought property, or written under a byline. Now, verging on 30, I was suddenly unsure. There were plenty of mixed-race couples among my friends, and their horror stories – from routine “are you the nanny?” incidents to confusion at hospitals and schools – made me think perhaps eliminating at least some drama was worth the reams of paperwork.

Of course, women have been agonizing over this choice since the trailblazing decision of abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone to keep her name in 1855. In a not-so-happy twist, she found herself disenfranchised by her choice when voting officials rejected her enrollment under her “maiden” name instead of her husband’s, even though he fully supported her decision. We 21st century women have it much easier, to say the least, but the trend stories have many different things to say about the end result.

A small sampling: After steady increases, the percentage of women keeping their names after marriage peaked in the 1990s at about 1 in 5 women, researchers proclaimed in 2009, and has since been declining.  No, wait: More women are keeping their names, after all, according to a Facebook study from last year  that was widely reported but far from scientific. And in the stating-the-obvious category, a 2010 report found that older brides were more likely to keep their names – what with those long résumés and kids from past marriages – and that more religious women were more likely to take their husbands’ names.

Egg_photo_cropFor me, a decision that had been so certain became a serious quandary. Once the mixed-baby question reopened the case, the subtle, self-induced pressures of feminism and my own (competing) romantic notions tipped me into a near-constant feedback loop right up to our wedding day. All the while, to his credit, my husband-to-be remained his easygoing, progressive self: Your call, babe – I just want to marry you.

Reader, I took his name. And two years later, when I gave birth to a pink, blue-eyed baby, I was glad to have it. Lucky for me, the kid’s eyes were brown by the time we left the hospital, and age has given him a nice “perma-tan.” More than two years in, I can’t easily recall the last time some stranger found a not-so-subtle way to ask if he was my child.

Still, it’s nice to hand over health insurance cards with matching last names, to go through airport security without an awkward examination of our passports. I have plenty of occasions to remind myself just how nice it is, in fact, when I’m haggling with a utility that still has my maiden name on file, or a doctor’s office, or a credit agency, or a drugstore …


Ex-journo, comms guru, mom/wife, runner, singer/songwriter, middle ground-seeker. NYC/NJ.
  • KO

    In my case “not matching” facilitated not taking his name. This was a huge issue with U.S. boyfriends regardless of their heritage, but to my happy surprise my husband (who is South American; I’m white and from the U.S.) and I never even had the conversation. I kept mine, he kept his, and our daughter has both, as is conventional in his country of origin- and exactly what I would’ve wanted anyway.

    • One of the things that always rankles me in conversations about hyphenating — in lieu of just taking the man’s name, in the case of straight couple — is the concern-trolling over “cumbersomely long” surnames. I’ve had a hyphenated last name my whole life, and it’s never been a problem. (Because It’s not like mofos have to say my whole damn name every time they address me.)

      My hunch is that that argument is a patriarchal tic dressed up as a concern about logistics and convenience.

      • KO

        I’d tend to agree- that, plus a) hypersensitivity to minor bureaucratic inconveniences, and b) ignorance, sometimes genuine, about the cognitive challenges imposed by some extra letters.

        The latter is my favorite-not-favorite: “but what about the chiiiiildreeeeen?!?” Which.. you know, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that kids in the States are not any less capable of bearing that heavy, heavy cross than the the *many entire countries full* of children with two last names.

        I do understand wanting to have one’s relationships to family be easily clarified, especially if you’re in the social position of having those relationships questioned. We’ve found that the two last names take care of that for the child in official contexts; before my husband received permanent residency we would travel with our marriage certificate, but since that’s been in place there has been no high-stakes questioning of our belonging together. In informal situations, I’m not sure a more traditional naming practice would help, as the people who openly wonder/comment about parentage tend to not know you or your last name anyway.

        • I’m curious, I’ve always wondered… I know in South American culture use both parents’ last names, but what do they do when they get married?

      • ladyboss09

        On hyphenating: it can indeed cumbersome depending on your profession. my name is signed to thousands of documents per year. i sign contracts and time cards and payroll paperwork and rental agreements and every other piece of money related paperwork that comes through my office. in the two months of taking the position, it agitated the fuck out of me. signatures should take a second. eventually- i opted for my three initials on everything that isn’t sent to the IRS. solution to my first world problem, solved.

    • To KO’s point, the Southerner overriding the feminist in me always thought I’d take my husband’s name. But, to my surprise, my Mexican bf is staunchly against me taking his name. In their village, the women never take the man’s name, & the kids have both last names anyway, so a woman taking a man’s last name was American foolishness to him.

  • SJJ

    This reminds me of a roundtable that happened last year about intersectionality, feminism, and naming. In my contribution to the convo I, in part, wrote this about Grace Lee Boggs:

    Grace Lee Boggs, the 97 year old feminist, activist and philosopher, was born in the United Stated in 1915 to Chinese immigrant parents. Boggs earned her PhD in 1940; these credentials were no shield against discrimination based on her Chinese ancestry. When Boggs married African American activist James Boggs, over a decade before the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage, she made the choice to add his name to her own. Their marriage would last until James Boggs’ death 40 years later.

    In observing debates around the politics of naming, especially when it comes to gender, I often think of Boggs. Someone who knows little of her life and politics, or of intersectionality, might judge Boggs’ last name as an acceptance of a patriarchal naming tradition that privileges men. But is it?

    The argument could also be made that by adding the last name of her black husband to her own Chinese name Boggs was putting into personal action the political solidarity between people of color traditionally pitted against one another by white supremacy. Perhaps her acceptance of the name was even a revolutionary act that flew in the face of the laws of a country that said race must determine whom you choose to love?

    Here’s the rest: http://arewomenhuman.me/2013/03/22/lets-talk-names-ali-hooks-lee-boggs/

  • Query

    When people meet us, they assume I took my spouse’s name, but it’s much more complex than that. We had met in a women’s chorus. When we had our big lesbian church wedding, we wanted to share a name but neither of us wanted to take the other’s father’s name. Instead, we both chose to start using the last name “Singer” on everything except legal documents. A few years later, after his transition, he had his ID changed from F to M and the Singer name became legally recognized; and then when we had a legal male-female wedding, it was easy to change my name to his. I love messing with people’s expectations!

  • Mediatress

    1. This may be a straw man for some folks, but I’ve had serious issues (like, Will I be allowed to board this flight?) when my name gets mixed up. Especially once you own property or need your driver’s license to match your insurance card, etc., these things can be more than inconveniences. And this, mind you, is after doing what I THOUGHT was easier/made more sense: making my maiden name my middle name, officially.
    1.a) All this might be easier if you’ve had a hyphenated/two-surname-name all your life.