marital naming (identity, and mothering implicated)

April 21, 2006

Editor’s note: We began to discuss the name issue in a previous comment thread; I thought this would make a great topic for discussion. Thanks, Salie, for throwing it out there. I’ve also added a poll.

By popular demand ; )

A diary on post marital naming practices.

This topic is a slight bending of the feminist maxim for me – it represents the personal being, if not political, academic. I kept my name when I got married – well, it’s not as simple as that – and the act has become the topic of my dissertation. More below:
I really didn’t think I would get married – let alone at 23. I’m a decidedly nonromantic type. But I met my husband in September of 96, we were engaged by Thanksgiving, and married in August, 1997. I hadn’t ever thought about changing my name – I hadn’t ever really thought about marriage (thankfully, I have a Martha Stewart-ish sister who did all the stuff associated with the wedding).

I tried to talk my husband-to-be into combining our names. It was very much a nonstarter, which I could understand – I didn’t really want to give up my name, so how could I ask him to do so? Plus, his is a 4 syllable Germanic sounding 9 letter name; mine is 3 syllables, 9 letters, and has that Polish -ski on the end – the options were pretty limited! Still, I was flummoxed when the stand-in minister (ours had to hop a plane to do conflict resolution in the Sudan for the UN, which makes us sound much more exciting than we are) asked how he should introduce us after the ceremony. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that he could just say our first names … but it didn’t. Instead, we had him introduce us as Joe and Jane Smith – his last name. And hearing that name was like being sucker punched.

I felt like I was commiting fraud when I endorsed the checks written out to his last name. I never even began to fill out the huge stack of paper the clerk at the courthouse insisted I would need. And so I have – by design or default – retained my own name.

A note: I do not use “maiden” name and try to avoid “surname”. Both are intrinsically linked to a patronymical naming structure and a larger patriarchal framework that I’d like to, if not avoid, at least minimize in this discussion. I know the argument, advanced by Steinam and others, that a woman’s own name is typically her father’s name – however, as research participants have argued, living your life with a name makes it your own. I’m not a historian or even a feminist researcher (though feminism informs my research) – my interest is in the active choice of naming and what that decision communicates.

As time went on, I found that I wasn’t the only one in this situation – and that the women I met were anxious to talk about the decision to retain their own name. Partly, this was a natural outgrowth of where I was and what I do – demographic research indicates that about 10% of married women in the US do something other than change their names; most of those women marry later in life, have advanced degrees and more professional careers, and so on. In the conversations I had, I grew to recognize that the non-uniqueness of my experience was significant – there was something going on here.

I am, if any term closely applies, a communicologist. I study human interaction with emphasis on the construction of message and meaning. ( is our discipline’s primary site if you’re really, really curious and have extra time on your hands.) My approach has been to look at naming as:

*symbolically significant – marriage is a rare event wrt naming, in that it is one of a few times when we ‘get’ to choose our own names. Names are the means by which we are known, both to ourselves and to others, and as such, can be positioned as represented of identities/the self;

*reflective of identity – in my research, women have nominated identity concerns as the reasons they’ve retained their names, as the emphasis in the negotiation with the partner, and as the focus of ongoing communication;

*communicative – the use of the retained name says a great deal about the self, and about the relationship. It’s also an ongoing source of consversation in which the self is continually presented and renegotiated. Some of the interviews contain pretty funny passages (goodness, I am such a geek) regarding strategic use of the name with telemarketers, etc., and some fairly poignant exchanges about families that either embrace or reject the name.

My academic angle is to argue for a multi-layered theoretical approach to the study of the communication of identity, particularly where it is positioned upon significant symbols – drawing from symbolic interactionism (Goffman, Mead), Identity Negotiation Theory and Cultural Contracts Theory (Ting Toomey, Jackson), and the Communication Theory of Identity (Hecht). The more critical, feminist informed aim is to advocate not that more women keep their name – but that we become more aware of the decision and that more women make it consciously, rather than automatically.

There are a few things I haven’t addressed adequately – either here, or in my research – and in some cases, my own life. I have conflicted feelings about “the children” – a theme that came up in the interview data. My husband and I have separate names; our kids have 4 names: first, middle, my last, and his last – they use the first and his last, and the symbolic exclusion doesn’t sit well. There are also a minority of couples w/in that 10% who choose to merge names, which is a whole other case study for another day. And I think a serious shortcoming of the already paltry literature on the topic is that gay couples haven’t been included – ancedotally, I know of several who have combined names, hyphenated, or used one name.

I will confess, by way of closing, a bit of ambivalence regarding this diary when I started writing it. I have been living the “name thing” for almost 9 years now, and I’ve been studying it as part of the dissertation for more than I really care to think about (defense date … next month?!). But as I was writing, I found it easier to connect to my own personal interests on the topic, and I think it will be fun to have the discussion outside of the dissertation.