What’s In A Name?

by Teresa Coda, HCWC Graduate Intern

As a person both interested in women’s issues and getting married this summer, I have received more questions, opinions, and adverse reactions regarding the name-change-debate than on any other nuptial related topic.  When hearing my plans to hyphenate, friends from my conservative hometown in rural Pennsylvania are shocked.  “You’re not dropping your name in favor of his?!  Don’t you love him?!”  Friends from Harvard are equally shocked.  “You’re hyphenating?!  Well!  Is HE hyphenating?!”

I reacted to the onslaught of opinions by doing some research on name changing practices in heterosexual unions and marriages in the United States. (Unfortunately, there is very little research available on the name-change-debate when considering lesbian and gay couples.  For that reason – and the fact that I need to keep this short – I’m limiting this post to a discussion of name changing in heterosexual couples).


The first woman recorded to have kept her maiden name at the time of marriage was Lucy Stone, an abolitionist and suffragist who tied the knot in 1855.  However, keeping one’s maiden name did not become even slightly common until the 1970’s, when laws pressuring women to change their names were finally abolished.  For example, until 1975 married women in Tennessee were required to register to vote under their husbands’ names.  Although the 70’s saw an increase in name “keepers,” approximately 90% of women today are still “changers.”  A woman’s age, level of education, future spouse’s level of education, socio-economic status, town of origin (specifically, the size of her hometown) and religious proclivities all statistically influence her choice.

There is so much to the name change question, and my future spouse and I had many heated, excited, tearful, energetic (you name the emotion, it was probably felt!) conversations before we decided to both hyphenate our last names, becoming a “keeper-changer” couple.  We are happy with our decision, but we recognize that it has problems.  For example, even in keeping my name, I’m still part of a patriarchal system.  After all, Coda is my father’s name.  We could avoid the patriarchy by going back to the tradition of medieval times and taking the name of the person with higher social status…but that would create its own difficult set of conversations.  Or we could attempt to do what the ancients did and have our surname relate to our place of birth or our profession.  However, on top of cumbersomeness of “Teresa of Shady Grove” and “Teresa the Student,” I doubt that the U.S. social security office would look favorably on such a decision.

There isn’t an easy answer, or any answer at all.  I’m not trying to propose one, or to offer my opinion on what other people should or should not do regarding name-changing.  Heavens knows there are enough opinions about this topic already floating around!

That said, there is a change that I want to see happen, and it has less to do with actual name-changing practices and more to do with the practices surrounding name changing.  What I am most disturbed by in both my personal experience and my research is that the conversation regarding name-changing centers on women.  People ask me if I am going to change my name.  Or they ask my finance if I am going to change my name.  They don’t ask him or me if he is thinking about changing.

This is my concern with women’s issues in general.  A few weeks ago the Women’s Center and the Office of Career Services co-sponsored a program having to do with work-life/home-life balance, and one of the goals of the event was to attract an audience diverse in gender.  Too often, this conversation about work/home-life balance is being had only by women…but the fact is, it’s not just a “women’s” issue.  And I don’t think the name-change question is, either.  Like the students hosting the work-life/home-life event, I want to see men brought into the conversation about name changing.  In an ironic way, the question of name changing is not just a women’s issue, but as long as it is treated as one, it will continue to be an issue that women face.

Do your feminist friends a favor, and next time you feel inclined to ask a recently engaged woman if she plans to change her name, stop yourself.  Instead, ask her fiancé if he plans to change his name.  You might receive an odd look, but it could start a conversation that needs to happen.

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