Living Madly: By Any Other Name
By Emilie-Noelle Provost
Every year around Valentine’s Day, when advertisements for engagement rings and wedding venues start popping up in newspapers and on billboards, I start thinking about names.
When I was 11 years old, a friend and I would sometimes walk through the woods at the end of our street to get to the old cemetery on the other side. On one of these excursions, I came across a worn granite headstone from the late 1800s with the inscription: Daniel Smith and His Wife Emma.
Emma who? I stared at the stone for a few minutes. I even pointed it out to my friend, who didn’t seem to understand why I had a problem with it.
I promised myself then that I would never change my last name, even if it meant never getting married. Seeing Emma’s status as a veritable nonperson etched in stone made me realize that my name and identity were one in the same.
Fourteen years later, I did get married and I did keep my last name. That was almost 27 years ago. In that time, it’s never posed a problem for my husband, our daughter, or me. It has, however, occasionally caused other people, even virtual strangers, to ask a lot of questions, make snide remarks, and even become somewhat hostile.
The tradition of women taking their husband’s last names, at least in English-speaking countries, dates back to sometime in the late 14th or early 15th century. The practice has its roots in a part of English Common Law dealing with property rights called coveture, a concept borrowed from the Normans. A passage in Commentaries on the Laws of England, written in 1765 by English legal scholar Sir William Blackstone, says, “By marriage, a husband and wife are one person by law: The very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage …”
There are many societies, though, where married women don’t traditionally take their husband’s surnames. These include the Scandinavian countries, France, and Germany, where women also seem to enjoy a greater degree of legal and social parity than women in the United States, at least when it comes to certain things.
Citing factors like gender and income equality, U.S. News and World Report named Sweden the number one country for women as part of its 2022 Best Countries Survey, with Norway, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Germany all in the top ten.
According to a July 2022 report published by CNN, only between twenty and thirty percent of American women keep their last names when they get married. I wanted to see why this was, so I asked several married women I know how they felt about the subject.
Those who kept their surnames cited several reasons for doing so. These included wanting to preserve their professional, racial, or ethnic identities; wanting to feel “equal” to their husbands; concerns over future generations being able to trace their genealogy; and not wanting to do the extensive paperwork required for a name change. A novelist friend told me that the whole idea of being expected to ditch her identity in order to marry someone she loved made her feel as if she had “no more rights than a piece of property.”
Interestingly, some women who took their husband’s last names also did so for professional reasons—swapping a long, hard-to-spell name for a shorter, simpler one, for example. Some said they did it because they considered themselves to be traditionalists, others because they loved their husbands and wanted to share a family name. One woman told me she’d never even thought about it until I asked. Another said she regretted taking her husband’s name but felt it was too late to change it back.
Among the varied hyphenators and name combiners I spoke with, in a few cases both spouses had changed their surnames. A friend from college told me that her husband had wanted to add her last name to his but in Minnesota, where they got married, the state charged men a fee to change their names (women could change theirs for free) and at the time they couldn’t afford it.
A photographer I know told me that when she took her husband’s name, she got a lot of static from women she knew who had come of age in the ‘50s and ‘60s who felt she wasn’t being respectful of feminist trailblazers like Lucy Stone, who fought for a woman’s right to keep her birth name by refusing, in 1855, to give up her own.
Although my feelings on the subject will never waiver, talking to other women helped me understand that for a lot of people there is no right, wrong, good, or bad option when it comes to married surnames, mainly because each of us gets to choose. The most important thing, I think, is to never make the mistake of allowing others to make the decision for us.
Emilie-Noelle Provost’s second novel, “The River is Everywhere,” will be released next month. She has a reading and book signing scheduled for March 22, 2023, at 6:30 pm at the Dracut Library. For more information and to register for the event, visit the library’s website.