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Rev. Amy Ziettlow Headshot

Your Last Name: To Change or Not To Change?

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I am married and I kept my birth name. This choice and confession has led to years of explaining myself which tend to peak during a family move. I live in a new community right now so I am introducing myself often and it's made me think anew of how a name ties us to our identity while simultaneously masking and revealing who we are.

For example, our new church community wears name tags. I am married to the pastor so a name tag may not be necessary but I wanted to be included in their communal practice and, in theory, a name tag is always helpful. Only confusion followed. In the receiving line at church I had more than one person stare at my name tag and then squint at my face and say, "Well, I thought you were his wife?" I'd reply, "I am." They would then look at me in total consternation that either I picked up the wrong name tag or that the office messed up. So, I would follow up with, "I kept my maiden name." More confusion.

The confusion threw me. I started to wonder, is keeping one's maiden name in marriage no longer a straight forward and highly public way to say that I AM A FEMINIST? (Side note: keeping your maiden name or changing it is of course not the only way to express your feminism, it's just the most radical and public way I could think to do so more than a decade ago.) Do I need to launch into my stump speech? "I kept my maiden name as way to show that I am an equal partner in marriage who is desirable and worthy in and of myself, who is loved and supported by a partner who is not threatened by my unique strength and purpose in the universe. A female changing her name in marriage has historically been a way of showing that ownership of a woman's existence has changed from a father's hands to a husband's, and I won't stand for that. Just as I wear a ring to make public the covenant of marriage I entered and live in, keeping my name was a fundamental way for me to publically hold on to myself. I am woman, hear me ROAR!!"

I was still pondering my feminist identity when our three-year-old ran up to be held by me. As I shuttled him around on my hip, he suddenly stopped me and pointed to my name tag. "Why it no say, M-O-M?" I then launched into my explanation that MOM is a relational term that applies only to him and to his siblings and although I find it quite endearing that to them A-M-Y will always be spelled M-O-M, having that term on a name tag is not needed for them and not helpful to strangers for whom I have no desire to mother. He of course, looked at me kindly and opaquely as three-year-olds are wont to do and repeated the question, "Why it no say M-O-M?"

Lord have mercy, I thought. This name tag is confusing to the people who don't know me AND to the people who do!

Names are intended to clarify but our choices can often confuse and demand explanation. How do we allow our names to reflect who we are in relationships, be that marriage or parenthood, and who we are as individuals? What does the practice of changing one's name in marriage mean today? It did occur to me that for my same-sex friends who change their names or hyphenate them in marriage, that change is now a prophetic act that challenges the inherent heterosexual assumptions of the marriage rite. What about for heterosexual couples? In a day and age of increasing cohabitation, is it now more radical to CHANGE one's name? In the past few weeks I have filled out countless camp, school and doctor's forms; all those necessary forms that follow a move. And every time I write down my name and my husband's I realize that most people reading the form will presume NOT that I am feminist, but that we are divorced. I find that I have to say, "We are married; live in the same house." How sad that having different last names in marriage is no longer a progressive sign of gender equality but a socially accepted and presumed sign of divorce.

Where are we in the name game? In 2011, Kate Bindley reported at HuffPost that,

The wedding website TheKnot.com surveyed nearly 19,000 women who got married last year. Of those women, 86 percent took their husband's name. The practice of women keeping their last names, first introduced in the U.S. by suffragette Lucy Stone in the 1850s, adopted by members of the Lucy Stone League in the 1920s and popularized during the Women's Rights Movement of the early 1970s, peaked in the 1990s at 23 percent. By the 2000s, only 18 percent of women were keeping their names, according to a 2009 study published in the journal, Social Behavior and Personality. Now, according to TheKnot, it's at just eight percent.

These statistics made me realize that many people marrying may not be informed of all their choices in naming and I was thankful to a reader who commented on a previous post of mine that led me to the highly addictive "Last Name Project" hosted by the blogs "from two to one" and "The Feminine Mystique," a thought-provoking story-collective that traces the different choices in last names women and men have made in marriage from double barreling names to hyphenating names, changing and keeping names, to choosing an entirely new name. Hear Bruce, who changes his last name to his wife's last name, wrestle with how their choice to reject "standard convention is a rejection of his family." Or Scott, who lifts up the ways that hyphenating your last name passes on the naming dilemma to your children. Or Anna, who decides that she and her wife will change their middle names while keeping their last names. Or Danielle, who wisely says that the goals she and her husband had for choosing a new name were "to be intentional, seek beauty, and resist patriarchy," and those goals were often interpreted as "be controversial, be critical of other's decisions, and ungrateful." She and her husband share how they navigate these emotionally charged and often surprising conversations. In the end, I appreciated the story of Scott who shares that what he loves most about his choice of last name is the opportunity he now has to explain where it comes from and why it reflects his identity. In the end, I am left with the thought that our names are sacred and remind us that all of existence is mediated through sound and symbol.

And then I visit a cemetery, and the graveyard reminds me that our names outlive the dust to which we return; names hold permanence beyond our control. As a hospice professional and parish pastor, I have spent a fair amount of time in cemeteries and it is there that the true weight of my choice of last name has sunk in. I realize that one day, my children, grandchildren, and great-children will visit our graves and they will have to explain why my last name is different from my husband's. I hope that that occasion will be an opportunity for them to talk about gender and how the relationship between us was one of strength and equality and that keeping my name was a way of publicly acknowledging that belief and holding myself accountable to it. Just as my choice in last name held an opportunity for me to explain my existence in life, I hope that my choice in last name will be an opportunity for those who live on to explain me after my death.

To read more from Amy Ziettlow visit www.familyscholars.org.