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Her Husband's Last Name: Does a Woman's Identity Change, Too?

5 years ago
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Hey gals, it's wedding season and women everywhere will be making one of the most important choices of their lives: not "I Do," that's easy. The difficult question is whether to change your name. Want to honor your new spouse's lineage? Studies suggest that perhaps you should reconsider. It seems that what name you use affects how others perceive you. Does our identity change along with our name? With the stroke of a pen, do we, along with the surname of our new husbands, suddenly take on a new persona? Some people think so.
But, first, some facts.
We've always known that names mean a lot. New parents agonize for months about what to call their newborn. For a boy, will it be traditional like Michael, John, or David? Or, dare to be different, with Pierce, Ward, or Luke? For girls, is it feminine Priscilla, or androgynous Morgan?
Popular names change over time, of course, and those changes tell the world a lot about when you were born. For example, in 2008, the five most common girls' names were Emma, Isabella, Emily, Madison, and Ava, whereas 50 years ago, the most used girl names were Mary, Susan, Linda, Karen and Donna. So, regardless of whether you intend to give this impression, if your name is Madison, chances are that people will assume you are younger than your colleague Karen. Boys don't face such prejudice. Michael, James, and William were as popular 50 years ago as they are now.
Freakonomics, the economics bible for non-economists, told us that names parents give their kids can make the difference between success and failure. Who doesn't think that a girl named "Wynne" will be a winner? But be careful, names with unusual spellings or with strong ethnic connotations may saddle their owners with an unintended burden.
Whereas we can't do much about the name our parents gave us (we can use our middle name, as the oilman T. Boone Pickens has done, but women rarely do so), we women have an opportunity when marrying to do something about the family name we use. We can decide to use our mother's name, our father's name, our husband's name, or a hyphenated version of all of the above. But, that choice might make a big difference in our professional outlook, even in how much we are paid.
As Catherine Rampell wrote this week in the New York Times, a group of Dutch researchers recently found that women who change their name at marriage make nearly $400,000 less over their lifetimes than women who do not. To add insult to injury, they are viewed as older, less educated and unmotivated compared to women who kept their names when they tied the knot.
What? Does this study really say that just because I changed my last name when I got married (so that I'd have the same name as our future kids) people think I'm old and dumb and not worth paying as much as a woman who keeps her maiden name? 'That can't be right,' I thought, but what if it is? I asked my WomanUP colleagues, if "Mrs." misses, then what's a girl to do?
My query set loose a torrent of torment that my sister bloggers have endured over their names.
To start, there's Suzi Parker, whose name has a solid pedigree. But she never really liked the traditional spelling, Susie, so chose a unique version. I like that spunk. I also like that her e-mail name is Emma Peel, which conjures up images of Diana Rigg as the very sexy fictional spy who regularly rescued her partner, John Steed, from his mishaps. Interestingly, Wikipedia tells me that the name Emma Peel is allegedly a play on the words "Man Appeal" or "M. Appeal" supposedly because of Emma's fatal attraction. Hmmm, Suzi, I now view you in a totally different light than before. Choosing such a spectacular e-mail name reminds me of the old cartoon that appeared in the New Yorker in 1993 that on the internet, no one knows you're a dog. Suzi, you're no dog, but you're something else on the web.
Frankie Tobin, our gal out in Cal, has a great story. Her mom and her aunts all kept their birth name, Finch, when they married, and her mom gave Frankie (a.k.a., Frances) the name Finch as a middle name. After reading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as a child, Frankie promised her mother than she would give her future son the name Atticus and convince his father to give him Finch as a last name. Bravo, Frankie. Giving your son the name Atticus Finch follows the tradition of parents who give their children inspirational names. Would Bill Clinton have aspired to be president if his middle name had not been Jefferson? Would George W. Bush have become president had it not been for his dad, George Herbert Walker Bush?
Then there's Jamie Stiehm, who could have had the coolest name ever --- Jamie Bondy --- if she had taken her ex-husband's name when she married. But she didn't. Come to think of it, would she really want to respond, yes, my name is "Bondy, Jamie Bondy" every time she met someone new?
Mary C. Curtis, Politics Daily's conscience-in-chief, was ready and willing to change her name when she married, until her husband-to-be asked her "why?" Not having a good answer, she stuck with her famous byline. If she had changed her name to Mary Olsen, maybe her thoughtful stories would instead conjure up images of teenage twins.
Our indomitable Lizzie Skurnick questioned the study's implications, suggesting that women who change their names may be on the run from the law. She has a point there, cinema's favorite uppity women Thelma and Louise were women on the run.
Luisita Lopez Torregrosa pointed out the complicated naming in the Spanish tradition. When her mother married, she became known as Maria Luisa Torregrosa de Lopez Candal. Since her mother never dropped her birth name, a subsequent divorce created no identity problem, she simply cut off the "de Lopez Candal." I have never understood that Latin tradition of calling a woman "of" her husband anyway.
Sandra Fish explained that out in Iowa, when women got married, it was expected that they changed their last name. She didn't want to do that, so she remained a fish, even though she'd suffered school bullies who mocked her over her last name. Middle school is no fun wherever you are.
Jan Battaille reminded us of how far we have come with our naming conventions. When long ago Jan declined to change to her husband's surname, her father thought people would think she was living in sin. Things got worse when they had a boy and gave him her last name. "What?" her father cried, "Now people will think you have an illegitimate son!''
Then, we have Delia Lloyd. Delia, who is struggling more openly than the rest of us over her identity, poses a real challenge to herself. She struggles over her religion, what holiday to celebrate, and, particularly, what to call herself.
For me, I can give the following answer, people make very different pre-judgments about me when I give my last name as "Weiner," my husband's birth name, rather than as "Martens," which was mine. To those who think that because my name is Joann Weiner, that I am not completely educated, or well paid, and for those who know me as Joann Martens and consider me an independent, educated and well-paid woman, you are both right. Changing my name did not change who I am.
I'm proud of my heritage, and I use Martens as my middle name. But, I'm also proud of who I am now. (The one time I made sure that Martens wouldn't get lost, was when I authored my one and only book under Joann Martens-Weiner.) Was I old and uneducated when I made the choice to use Weiner as my last name? Well I was 30 when I got married and, in the 1960's, anyone over 30 was considered old. I was still in the midst of a PhD program, so I guess I wasn't quite as educated as I was about to become. Whatever the study shows, for me my identity is shaped by who I am, not what I am called.
Filed Under: Woman Up, Humor, Culture

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