Why is a woman changing her name still an issue in 2008?

When I got married three years ago it didn’t occur to me to change my name. I figured that debate was done and dusted, at least for most reasonable people, and I didn’t actually care what the unreasonable people thought.

In the run-up to our ceremony, I was surprised to find that friends and family and acquaintances and the occasional stranger were interested in what I intended to do. I said, ‘Nothing.’ It costs money to change your legal name, you have to get a new passport and credit cards, and change your bank account details, and tell your doctor and optometrist and I didn’t fancy my husband’s name enough to go to the hassle. No offence intended.

But there was more to it than that. While I had never had any special affection for the name Black—I had always wanted a more lyrical multi-syllabic surname—I became protective of it as I left my 20s. My father had died, my Black nephews lived in the United States, there weren’t many of us left in New Zealand, or at least not of our strain, with our Scottish/Maori heritage, our crippling inability to make small talk and our deficient sinuses.

I didn’t want Dad’s name to come to nothing. And so I stuck by it, monosyllabic bland-fest that it is. I haven’t thought much about it since. It is a non-issue in our household.

The other day the man who married us rang to say that his wife (who did not change her name upon marriage) saw an article in a recent Next magazine written by someone calling herself Eleanor Black Watkin. Surely it wasn’t me? Um, yes, I have been experimenting, I replied. ‘Eleanor, you don’t have to do that,’ he said, meaning, I assume, to reassure me that I was a significant individual in my own right and that my husband didn’t give a hoot whether I took his name or not.

He was right on both counts, of course, and it was a trifle embarrassing that I could not offer a well thought-out explanation for the name change, like I’d suddenly turned ultra-conservative or uncovered an embarrassing Black forebear (of which I am confident there are many) from whom I wanted to distance myself.

The truth is as bland as Black. I added Watkin to my byline when we were living in California. I got a job at a magazine where, in the spirit of team bonding and maximum time-wastage, the editor-in-chief handed round manuscripts to all members of staff to comment on and sign off with our initials.

There was an Emma Brown in our workplace, an intern. Her handle was EB so I would have to be known as something else, explained the production editor, as she stood before me with a clipboard and impatient pen. EBW had a nice EB White flavour, we agreed, so I adopted it. Before I could whistle, my new name had appeared on the magazine’s masthead and for consistency my stories also were written by this Eleanor Black Watkin person.

So I would have two writing identities then, I thought—the Kiwi one, and the international one. How chic.

Then a friend took over the editorship of Next magazine and asked me to write a couple of pieces for them from California, and EBW made her New Zealand debut without much thought on my part. When we returned home earlier this year I kept writing the occasional piece for Next and stuck to the new name to avoid confusion. I wrote a couple of stories for Mindfood and the Washington Post, same thing. Then we launched Pundit and I realised I’d rather be known as a Black than a Black Watkin on my own website. Not sure why, exactly, but I felt that if it was my publication I’d rather use my inherited, legal name. And so it has been.

I don’t have a problem with women who want to take their husband’s names, by the way. It seems to me that the advantage, and curse, of living in these times is choice. We have so many options. Who am I to tell you that you can’t adopt your partner’s name, or your mother's, or start calling yourself Bibbity Bobbity Burlap Sack? Having said that, I do agree with the Lucy Stone League, named after the first American woman known to have kept her maiden name after marriage, that women who change their names get absorbed into their husband's family histories and lose their independent identities. And that is not something I want for myself or my future children.

According to the Oakland Tribune, one of many publications to note the retro-swing towards women taking their husbands' names in the late 90s and noughties, "The number of women in The New York Times' wedding announcements keeping their surnames was 2 percent in 1975 and had reached 20 percent by the mid-1980s. Then the trend stalled. Among women in the Harvard class of 1980, 44 percent retained their surname, but in the class of 1990, only 32 percent did. According to Massachusetts records, the percentage of surname- keepers among college graduates in that state was 23 percent in 1990, 20 percent in 1995 and 17 percent in 2000."

So it turns out that I am bucking a trend, which is pleasing, and honouring a fabulous woman who, in addition to her suffrage work, was a slavery abolitionist. And so the matter is clear again, until we have children and I end up being the only member of my immediate family to be called Black, surrounded by a passel of Watkins.

Comments (10)

by Bonnie Robinson on October 29, 2008
Bonnie Robinson

 I think women should do what they want to regarding their name if they marry. But I do worry that this resurgence of women taking their husband's name is a kind of 'forgetting' of all the struggles that generations of women went through so we can have the choice - over this as so many other things.

The best answer to the question "Why aren't you taking your husband's name", was given by my husband. He would say to enquiring friends "I'm not actually giving it away".

by Julie Fairey on October 29, 2008
Julie Fairey

I too kept my name, for many of the same reasons you have listed Eleanor.  I respect that for other women it is their decision, and that my position of supporting women's rights to make choices about their own lives means sometimes others will make decisions I don't agree with.  Although I do find it hard that so many of my friends are being worn down by the societal expectation that they'll change their name.  Many start out intending to keep it, but get bogged down by the endless automatic changing that they start to think it might be easier just to give up.  Not to mention all the people who start calling you Mrs once you pass a certain age.  Humph.

by Eleanor Black on October 30, 2008
Eleanor Black

What gets me is that the name change comes with so many other expectations attached--that your husband's career will ipso facto become the most important in your household, that you will be the one to volunteer at school events, that you will be the one to clean the toilet and cook the dinners. Again, if you want to do all that stuff, then great. But what if you have your own agenda? Sure, there are biological imperatives at play--only women can bear children and breastfeed them and it makes sense for mothers to be the main caregivers when children are small, but then not every woman who marries wants children either. It is not the husbands who make these assumptions, in my experience. It is everyone else.

by Jenny Hodder on October 31, 2008
Jenny Hodder

I guess you could go one step back from this and question why women still get married (it seems to be making a come-back as well). Again, it's personal choice, but why bother when it doesn't  seem to have any added value over living in a defacto relationship...apart from "respectibility" perhaps.

And the naming of children is another whole question...why assume they should have the father's name? Though anything but double-barrelled, I say....what happens when Johnny Smith-White has children with Jenny Jones-Black?

As far as names being passed down through the generations, it would actually make more sense to hand it down through the mother, as maternity can be easily confirmed, while paternity can be doubtful!

by Tom Broadhead on November 02, 2008
Tom Broadhead

When my wife and I were planning our wedding I didn't have strong feelings either way about whether or not Em would change her name, but I was curious so I raised it one day.  And she laughed.  Oh how she laughed. 

I agree with Jenny that the naming of children is a bit more contentious though.  I did want to have my family name keep on keeping on and with me having one gay brother and Em having three horny straight brothers we decided my surname was more at risk than hers.

by Rab McDowell on November 02, 2008
Rab McDowell

Jenny said "As far as names being passed down through the generations, it would actually make more sense to hand it down through the mother, as maternity can be easily confirmed, while paternity can be doubtful!"

Maternity is easier to confirm than paternity but, contrary to Jenny's view, that is why it makes more sense for the male to be concerned about passing his name down through the generations. As it is harder to prove (before DNA testing), the name as a label of proof takes on greater significance. Also, as the male is (at least in evolutionary terms) more warlike than the female and is more likely to come to an untimely end, the continuation of the line is likely to be more important to the male.

by media hag on November 15, 2008
media hag

I am getting married in two months and have had this conversation more times than I care to recall. It usually goes like this:

- "So, are you looking forward to being Mrs X?"

-"I'm keeping my name"

-"[sharp intake of breath, significant pause]... oooohhhh! How does Mr X feel about that?!"

If you'd asked me a year ago I would never have dreamt it was such an issue. Such reactions have only made me feel more strongly about keeping my name; clearly equality of the sexes has a long way to go if this is any indicator. I agree with you Eleanor, it isn't the Wronged Husbands creating the drama. It's everyone else who seems to think society is going to hell in a handbasket.

by Sallie Edwards on February 04, 2009
Sallie Edwards

I think it is important for women to be true to self in selecting their name after marriage. I hyphenated my name when I married due to the possibility that we may have children.  I did ask my husband if he would be willing to hyphenate his name as well, but no dice. As time progressed, I found that resentment built over the adopting of his name. The marriage dissolved after ten years and while in no way a strong contributor in the ending of it, the resentment did remain. Should I marry again, I will not make the mistake of putting my identity aside by forsaking or amending my name.

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