By Any Other Name

1st February 2013

Jennifer Lipman debates the pros and cons of becoming Mrs X…

“You are going to change your name eventually?” my fiancé pleads. “Aren’t you?”

For months, I’ve been knee deep in wedding planning and preparation for married life, from debating the merits of one cutlery set over another to considering whether the guests would prefer chicken or beef and worrying about what the Best Men will say. With not long to go before our big day, one question remains: Once we’ve said “I do,” what will I be calling myself?

Once upon a time, taking on your husband’s name was the done thing, for reasons of inheritance and family honour. Few women wanted to burden their children with the merest whiff of scandal implicit in having parents with different surnames. For the majority it simply wasn’t up for discussion; as one fiftysomething wife tells me, “I never even thought about it.”

These days, though, for some ardent feminists, the tradition is yet another example of an unreasonable patriarchal society, and as such should have been discarded along with the corset. A child having unmarried parents – as two different names might indicate – no longer carries such a stigma. And with more women marrying later, there are plenty who have built up a professional reputation using one name and are unwilling to abandon it because of convention.

There’s also the hassle; sending off for a new passport, amending my name on the electoral register, updating my bank accounts and informing my GP and dentist of my new moniker were not exactly at the top of the list when I said “yes”.

More to the point, I’m not some Victorian damsel. I hope my marriage will be one of equals, not a throwback to the time when a woman went from being her father’s possession to her husband’s and was compelled to defer to him in every area, name included.

“It's almost as if they disappear, becoming a new person, even though they spent so many years becoming the person they are,” says Sarah, who is heavily opposed to the tradition. “It also allies them with a family which is their husband's and not their own. I do not want to be known as the same name as my mother-in-law. That's not who I am.”

More practically, as a journalist my name is my currency. I’ve spent years building up a media identity, and especially an online one. Why would I throw that away for the sake of tradition?

As a mother of two, Sarah is often asked ‘but what about the kids?’. “I do see that this is a problem,” she says. That seems the biggest incentive; when we have a family, wouldn’t we want to share one name, signifying one unit?

But on parenting support and advice website Mumsnet, the suggestion that a husband-to-be is pressuring his future wife into a name change is greeted with vitriol. “I would genuinely reconsider marrying him,” says one poster. “Whenever I meet a woman who has kept her own name after marriage I always feel as though I'm more likely to be mates with her,” writes another. Overwhelmingly, the advice is that women must stand their ground.

Yet how many actually do? Wedding sites use words like ‘most’ or ‘usually’ when referring to the name change; ‘Changing your name after you get married is an old tradition’ is how the UK Deed Poll service puts it.

In 2008 the UK Deed Poll estimated that around 50 per cent of women were opting to adopt their partner’s name. Exact figures aren’t easy to find, since to officially take on a husband’s name requires just the marriage certificate (an application to change by deed poll is only necessary if you want to blend your surnames or use your maiden name as a middle name).

In America, a 2011 survey revealed that 86 per cent of recent newlyweds had changed. This side of the pond, we tend to be less socially conservative – but it’s clear that in the west, this old-fashioned custom hasn’t yet gone out of style.

Certainly, the expectation remains. I’m aware that even if I take the modern route, I’ll still find letters addressed to me under a married name, and that most – certainly those of my mother’s generation – will take it for granted that I am no longer a Lipman. “I think people are surprised,” admits Julia, who kept her maiden name. “It can get confusing with things like restaurant bookings.”

I could always go double-barrelled; why should I take his name if he won’t take mine? That’s what Sarah decided to do, and she says it works, as their surnames are not very long. “it does bother me a little that it makes the kids seem posh,” she says, adding, “Of course, when they get married, they will have to make their own decisions.”

“I personally wouldn't go for that,” says Lucy, who does plan to change her name on marriage. “It would be too much of a mouthful. And anyway, then you're just changing one decision for another – whose name goes first?”

Or then there’s the burgeoning trend for ‘meshing’ – building components of both surnames into one unified moniker. TV personality Dawn Porter became Dawn O’Porter on marrying actor Chris O’Dowd last year.

“Meshing has allowed couples the freedom of reinvention,” explains the UK Deed Poll. “It’s a symbolic reflection of their union with a completely new start.”

But is that really a solution? Julia’s decision was partly about maintaining work contacts, and partly, she explains, because “I really like my family name and was quite happy to in some way keep that part of me in my life”. Meshing wouldn’t quite hit the spot.

“I do feel a pang of sadness at the prospect of losing my surname because on my side of the family we're all girls,” adds Lucy. Still, she says she likes “the idea of being the 'Jones family' or whatever. Names come and go, and it's a bit silly to get too attached to them – they're only words.”

Only words? “Well,” she admits. “He has a very nice surname. I think I'd feel differently if I was someone facing a lifetime of being ‘Mrs Ramsbottom’.”

She takes issue with the suggestion that changing a name is a betrayal of feminism – something Julia says never even crossed her mind. “On the scale of sexism, I think it comes fairly low when compared to street harassment, the belittling of women in the media, or unequal pay,” says Lucy. “However, I would want my husband to wear a wedding ring, because, whereas a name doesn't immediately tell someone whether or not you're married, a wedding ring does. They are supposed to be symbolic of your commitment, so why should it only be women who are expected to advertise that?”

Ultimately, she’s right. My concern isn’t really about what the suffragettes would have said (Emmeline Pankhurst took her husband’s name and campaigned for women’s rights using it) or what to do about work (there’s always the option to use a different surname professionally, of course). It’s simply that my surname has got me this far – through school and university, through friendships and romances, through my happiest memories and toughest times, it has been a constant. It’s not simply a name, it’s who I am; not Jennifer, but Jennifer Lipman, with ‘P for Peter’ in the middle. As one Mumsnet commenter puts it, “I want to keep it. Mainly because I like my last name, and I'm used to it.”

To misquote Jane Eyre: reader, I’ve a lot to think about before I marry him…

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