What’s in a name?

I married young—at the age of 21.  I come from a conservative, traditional family, so the decision to change my name was never really a question.  Of all the married couples I knew, almost all of the females had changed their name upon marriage.  So I, too, changed my name, without much thought to the matter.  It was exciting and I felt like an adult following in the footsteps of the cousins and siblings before me.  But, not too far into the marriage I started experiencing a bit of an identity “crisis.”  After the novelty wore off, and especially when on autopilot, I wouldn’t always respond to my new name.  For 21 years, I had been Gracie X and suddenly I was Gracie Y.  Who exactly is Gracie Y?  I don’t know, it just didn’t sound like me.  In my mind, I was still Gracie X, but people were calling me something else, my signature was strange, and I just missed being who I had always been. I also didn’t expect the baggage of the new name in a new town.  At the time, my husband’s family didn’t have a stellar reputation in the small town in which he grew up. (I was a kid, so why would I think of this, and marriage is supposed to entail riding off into the sunset, right?).  Anyway, I was unaccustomed to the bad vibes I got when people heard my last name.  identity question

I later learned that experiencing an identity “crisis” when changing your name is pretty common for most people.  Your name is a pretty fundamental piece of how you define your identity.  Why wouldn’t it feel strange to be called something else?

All of these new experiences (and being in a bad marriage) made me question whether I had made a mistake in changing my name (and also in getting married).  Long story short, eventually my husband and I divorced.  A couple years before parting ways, I had started to work towards a career in academia.  Given the lingering misgivings with changing my name and the feeling that my marriage would likely end at some point, I thought about changing my name back to my maiden name even before the divorce.  I really wanted all of my publications to be under the same name, or at least not under Gracie Y.  The end came during the second semester of my master’s degree, and I changed my name back after the divorce.  Ugh, changing my name back was so much more involved than I had anticipated, and the process took over a year.  I suppose it shouldn’t have been that surprising; I had more than a checking account by that time.  Due to this headache (and the slight longing for my maiden name for several years), I swore that I would never, ever change my name again.

In the years since, I started a doctoral program, published a few articles, found feminism (topic for a different post) and remarried.  Although my husband never brought up the issue and honestly had no opinion on the matter, I thoroughly deliberated whether or not to change my name.   Why would I want to change my name again?  Why do (mostly) women change their names with marriage?  What would we do if we had kids?  What would it mean to be Gracie Z? What would it mean to keep my maiden name?  Well, based on my previous experience, I knew exactly why I should NOT change my name.  We would figure out something for kids, when and if they ever come.  However, the last question gave me pause.  I am not close to most of my family, and they are unsupportive of my life.  (Seriously, how often does going for a PhD render you the black sheep of the family?)  On the other hand, my in-laws are very supportive and encouraging. They share many of my values and interests.  In the end, I decided to take my husband’s last name as a way to embrace my new supportive family and become a “Z.”

I had expected more comments from my feminist friends and colleagues, but never really got any.  Instead, I perceived disappointment when they found out—looks as if to say, “I thought you were one of us.”  I felt like I had to explain my choice, but I didn’t really want to bring up the subject in order to avoid defensively launching into an explanation.  That’s not me.  Another aspect that surprised me was the plethora of comments from my male colleagues.  Somehow, it was inconceivable that I would change my name; although, interestingly, every colleague’s wife had changed her name.  Also, it’s pretty common in our society for people to change a last name upon marriage, so why is it so weird that an academic would?

Now that the newness has worn off, I still absentmindedly forget that I am no longer Gracie X, but that’s ok—I’m a different person now than I was in my childhood.  I also do not fully identify with my new name yet, but I’ve got time to grow into it.  For me, it is liberating.  I get to choose who Gracie Z will become instead of being confined to the previous expectations of Gracie X.  This was a deeply personal decision for me, so I’m not advocating for everyone to follow my path; the only thing I advocate is to do what feels right to you and accept that others have chosen what is right for them.


37 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Got married at 21?? In hindsight I thought I was mistaken to get married at 23 without giving a second thought on what I expect out of a partner..Anyhow am glad that you found the right partner for you ultimately. I did change my name coz my Mom did so…In our parts women have their father’s first name as their last name before marriage and husband’s first name as surname after marriage.Sometimes in between I wanted to have only my first name and no surname.Then had to recoil to the fact that society still perceives women as something that belongs to a man and hence requires those unnecessary tagging.Had to give in and take the partner’s surname..But still in many places I get delighted when I get referred only with my first name:)

  2. It can be your business and the right decision for you, and I can be disappointed, at the same time. The atmosphere that led you to unthinkingly change your name with your first marriage is being perpetuated, and I think that’s a bad atmosphere. I honestly do hope you’ll continue to be happy with your choice, but I have a real problem with what our individual choices do to the society we live in sometimes.

    • I understand where you’re coming from, but I hope we can get to an atmosphere where personal choices are embraced rather than having to trading one set of dogma and norms for a different set.

  3. My mother did not change her last name when she got married, and they’ve been together for ~40 years now. Her surname’s initial is my middle name and they gave me my dad’s last name. I get more confusion over the middle name (“You only have a letter? Are you sure?”) than the last name, to be honest, and it hasn’t hampered me any. Sometimes I wish they’d hyphenated it, but then my last name would be 16 characters and a little overwhelming.

    In summation, if you want to keep your last name, you’ll figure out what to name the kids, and they’ll be fine with it.

  4. Changing names makes it hard for me to keep track of what our female alums are up to. That could be a bug or a feature, from their perspective. If I had married I would probably have changed my name, just because so many people spell it wrong in citations. But then my work would have been out there under three names…sigh.

    • Good point about keeping track of alums. The nice thing about my new name is that it is original, particularly for my field as opposed to my maiden name, which is quite common.

  5. Gracie, I’m glad that you’ve made a decision that you’re happy with, and one that reflects the positive parts of your life. I agree with Jinian that there is often a bad atmosphere around name-changing, but I disagree that your current choice is perpetuating it. You have obviously thought a lot about this, and I hope we can get to an atmosphere where anyone can choose to change or not change their name (provided that choice reflects an informed decision). I wish you the best of luck with growing into your new name!

    • Thank you, drmsscientist! I, too, hope we can get to an atmosphere where personal choices are embraced rather than trading one set of norms and dogma for a different set.

  6. Throwing some balls in the air here. It is a totally personal issue. My hat goes off to you Gracie for working it through according to your circumstances. These comments are questions or anecdotes, not meant to be any type of ‘should’ or ‘should not’. The only ‘should not’ is that everyone should respect individuals and their decisions and names.

    Does anyone know of cases where the husband has changed his name to his wife’s family name on marriage? That is certainly possible here in Oz, as is making up a totally new name that both can use, although these things are not well advertised and hardly ever taken up (over 80% of women change to hubby’s name).

    Does anyone know of people who give children the wife’s surname instead of the husband’s? (I heard of one couple who gave the sons the father’s name and the daughters the mother’s name, but it is only heresay – I do not know them personally). It always seemed logical to me, if the woman kept her name, to give the kids her name and not his name, but say this in mixed company and everyone’s eyes glaze over and it is really best to change the subject if you want to continue congenial conversation. One of my friends changed her name to her husband’s after she had a dream where she had lost the kids at a large railway station, and (in her dream) no-one would give them back to her because they had a different name. She did, however, keep her own name in all her professional dealings.

    I also know many people of immigrant backgrounds who have chosen anglicised names, often for ease of pronunciation and spelling. My mother’s best friend insisted her fiance change his Austrian name before their marriage, which was right after the War. Then there are all the name-changes in the British Royal Family. And as already mentioned, non-anglo cultures do things entirely differently. Many from other countries look in horror at you at the thought that you would change your surname on marriage, yet they happily choose Anglo ‘given’ names and nicknames to use, often even back in their home country. Some of my students had no surname at all in their native country, and they tell stories of their parents hurriedly choosing one – often their village name, or their grandfather’s name, when completing immigration or visa requirements. One person I knew was really excited to actually have a surname after her marriage (we used to put a full-stop in the column for ‘surname’ when she was a student or the software would not accept her entry on our database). But her new name was of Southern European background, and she discovered the inconvenience of a name that no-one could spel.

    So, indeed, what’s in a name?

    Then there is a related problem of ‘society’ in general being unable to cope with writing “Dr and Mr….” on an envelope or formal business letter, even where they both do have the same surname.

    (Personal addendum: In my case, I never liked my maiden name, so a chance to change it without any hassles was welcome. Nothing to do with my family, just an extremely, extremely common name and I didn’t feel it belonged to me anyway, only to a whole lot of other strangers. I imagine I would have felt differently if there had been some attachment to the name).

    • d,

      Thanks for your comments. Actually, to respond to the first one, yes, my brother-in-law actually changed his last name when he married my sister. He also didn’t get along well with his family at the time, but more importantly, it was because he is part Native American and it was a tradition stemming from a matriarchal society. Interestingly, my grandmother (who I think would have cheered me on with my career choices) LOVED that he changed his name; my mom, not so much.

      Also, my new name happens to be an anglicised names so my husband’s great-great grandfather might stop getting beat-up because of his immigrant name.

      With respect to the comment on the Dr. and Mr., that will be me soon. Maybe by the time my nieces and nephews start sending formal invitations to events, society will have gotten with it. Here’s to hoping.

    • I have a good friend and her husband who took both their names and made a new name by putting parts of each name together. I had a friend years ago, I’ve since moved away and lost touch, where the husband took his wife’s name because it was an easier name.

  7. My first job out of college was working for the American office of a Canadian engineering firm. We had a handful of English engineers with their multiple names and I got used to the idea that people might have more than a first, middle and last name.

    Jump ahead a few years and I was getting married. In my mom’s family it is traditional to drop your middle name and move your last name into your middle name. I wanted to honor that tradition, but I didn’t want to lose my middle name (named after my dad’s mother) that I adored. I also didn’t want a hyphen. So, I went to four names, “M E Y Z”.

    It is the most confusing thing to many, many people who have no idea of what to do with my names. For years I had a Citibank credit card that listed my middle name as “EY” because they couldn’t come up with any other option. Recently, I had to get access on federal computers for work. I had to explain multiple times to the person setting up the account that my last name was not “Y Z” and if I needed to show ID in order to complete the set up authorization, she needed to realize that my ID shows my last name as “Z”.

    • Thanks for your comment. Sounds like you put a lot of thought into your name too. I hope having two middle names starts getting easier–you would think it’s not that uncommon. Cheers

  8. Thanks for writing about your process of moving from Gracie X -> Gracie Y -> Gracie X -> Gracie Z! I had often thought I would change my name socially upon marriage, to have the same name as future children, but when the time came I didn’t. This was partly for professional reasons, but also because I realized how much I like my given last name. We talked about taking each other’s last names as middle names, but never went through with the (mountains of!) paperwork. Additionally, my husband and I are of different ethnicities and I like that my last name reveals my ancestral background. Our daughter has my husband’s last name; he wanted us to give female children my last name and male children his last name, but that seemed too complicated to me. Sometimes I wish I shared a name with her, but I look forward to her growing up and not finding it strange for partners/married couples to not have the same last name; at least among our friends, the norm is for spouses to have different last names. This seems like an improvement compared to when I grew up where only one friend’s mom had a different last name than her husband, and many assumed they weren’t married because of this.

    • The excessive paperwork is right! I’m still finding things here and there that I need to change my name on, e.g. car registration. Where (and when) I come from, it was assumed spouses with different last names weren’t married too, or they were divorced. Having different last names seems so much more common now that most people aren’t phased. Of course, I hang around a lot of academics and highly educated folks now too, so it might be sample bias. But, I do think things are changing, and I’m glad about that!

  9. I had a hard time deciding what to do about my maiden name when I got married as I already had some publications in my maiden name. I wanted to change my name for similar reasons to GracieABD – I really enjoyed my in laws and wanted to show some solidarity by changing the name. I thought about “transitioning” from my maiden name to my married name in publications by using my maiden name as a middle name, but I think this may have lead to more confusion. It has certainly confused some of my collaborators who still refer to me by my maiden name even though I was married in 2009! I guess it doesn’t help that I still work at the same institution and I never bothered to change my email address (which contains my maiden name) although my signature contains my married name.

    As an aside, when I first started using Research Gate, it didn’t allow female researchers to list publications in their maiden name in their profile. I haven’t checked recently to see if this had changed but I was very disappointed by this restriction when I signed up.

    • Thanks for your comment. I thought about doing a transition too (or keeping my maiden name as a pen name, professionally), but in the end, I thought it would be too confusing. I changed everything I could right away, including where I was teaching (even though my contract ended after the year). I think that helped–changing my email and name with HR led to less confusion on the part of my students and the department. It also probably contributed to the comments from all of my male colleagues. I haven’t signed up for Research Gate yet. I’ll have to check into it.

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  11. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with changing last names. My wife has been thinking about these things lately. When we got married (at 20, mind you commenter #1!🙂, I thought it would’ve been fun to change my name to hers, but she declined and wanted to do things more traditionally. Now, after three years and two children with my (though I prefer to think of it as our, but just for clarity’s sake) last name, she regrets that she didn’t take up on my offer, and has even suggested that we take her former last name, my father’s last name ( I have my mother’s) or a completely new name, different from both our families. This is because she doesn’t feel connected to my family from my mother’s side. I wouldn’t mind her changing her name back. After all, her family has a certain kind of reputation back in her home town that she’s quite proud of, but she wants to have the same last name with our children, and I don’t want to change my name anymore.

    If someone, male or female, came to me for advice on changing one’s name, I’d probably tell them to keep their’s. There are so many ways you can become discontent with someone else’s name, and I’ve never heard of a person being unsatisfied with keeping their own name. Also, homogenizing a family’s last name is in my opinion a lot easier than for one member to take an old name back.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think a lot of people start to ponder family legacies as they age. I can also understand your hesitance to change your name–it’s a deeply personal thing. Name changes are a lot of work, but if you identify more with the name in the end, it’s worth it.

  12. I loved this post because I share so many of the concerns you have. The only thought that brings me peace is in knowing that there are many facets to our lives; we can have an academic persona, a romantic side, a feminine side, and a strong side all in the same package. Sometimes we go by our first names with friends or use our titles to show ranks. With my family I even have a pet-name that reminds me I’m also a daughter, a sister and a goofy person sometimes. I think accepting the many personas within me has helped me not to feel held back or constrained by a name change. So happy you are coming to terms and owning your story🙂

    • Ana, this is a lovely comment – and very wise. It is a personal issue; some names have more emotional meaning to each of us than others. Another thought that occurred to me (I always have afterthoughts) is that we don’t turn a hair when people in the ‘performing arts’ community change their names or have different names professionally and personally.

    • Thank you for your comment. You are so right–we all have multidimensional facets to our lives and our names change in different contexts. I never thought of it from that aspect.

  13. When I was 3 days old, my parents changed my first name. When I was (barely) 23, I got married and changed my last name. When I was 28, I legally changed my first name to the more traditional spelling, which I had been using for over half of my life anyway. I have one child with my husband, who shares our last name.

    Most days my marriage feels like it’s on its last legs, so I’ve given the future of my last name some careful consideration. If we separate, my plan is to keep his last name. Part of it is because I want to continue to have the same last name as my child, and along the same vein, if I ever remarried, I would probably double-barrel my last name, unless it would be ridiculous or excessively cumbersome. But most of it is that I just plain like his last name better than my old one, and that hasn’t changed much relative to how I feel about him at any given time. It has a more pleasant sound, it’s more common, it’s easier to spell. I spent my childhood looking forward to getting married not so much for the riding off into the sunset, but so that I could stop using my maiden name (which I kept, legally, as a second middle name).

    • Thanks for your comment. Sounds like you’ve had a lot of name changing with your life too. On a similar vein, my dad’s ex wife kept his last name. Actually, I think she might have married, changed names, and then divorced husband 2 and went back to my dad’s last name. I’m pretty sure she did it partly to keep the same last name as my half-siblings and because she had that name for 10 years and her maiden name is difficult. My mom wasn’t thrilled with it, and still isn’t. I don’t think it’s a big deal.

      Good luck with the path you choose!

  14. Seems to me, after reading all these personal accounts, that the Bard was right …. all these roses by different names still smell just as sweet…..

  15. Thanks for sharing this post, Gracie. I have so many conflicting thoughts about this. I kept my name. It had honestly never occurred to me to change it, and I already had a research and publishing identity when I got married. I got a lot of flack for not changing my name from my family (though my husband was supportive), and many of them still passive-aggressively send us cards to “Mr. and Mrs. Husband’s Name.” It’s a small thing, but it mattered to me to really make sure I asserted myself that way.

    Increasingly, feminism has become about choice — the choice to work, or stay at home; the choice to take his name, or keep yours. While I support choice as a fundamental form of personal empowerment, I get tripped up by the fact that so many of these “choices” end up being the same choices that we made before feminism. If more women do take their husbands’ names, how much of a choice is it, really? How many of our husbands end up taking our names, or would even consider it? Why isn’t hyphenation more of an acceptable alternative, if people are so concerned about having different names?

    Everyone’s got a “good reason” why they decide to take their husband’s name, but I can’t help but feel like it’s still ultimately not a feminist choice, broadly speaking. I wish we were past this to the point where anyone could change their names any time for any reason (male, female, or otherwise), but we’re not there. And it frustrates me that we happen to keep making the same choices the Patriarchy would make for us (to be a little old-school there, but you get my meaning). I mean that not as an indictment of your individual choice, but to contribute to the broader conversation. It seems like most of the commenters were the ones who changed their names, and I wanted to push back on that a bit.

    • Acclimatrix, thank you for your comments. I can appreciate where you are coming from. I think it sucks that your family still passively aggressively addresses you as Mr. and Mrs. Husband’s name. I can also see how the dogma of a patriarchal culture influences your context and the broader feminist contentions with choice. However, I do have a couple issues with some of these/your arguments.

      First, getting “tripped up by the fact that so many of these “choices” end up being the same choices that we made before feminism” is a bit of a false argument against personal choice. Before feminism, these weren’t choices; these were the dogmatic norms of a patriarchal society. I think a lot of women still unquestioningly ascribe to this dogma, which is unfortunate.

      Second, I disagree with your opinion that my choice to change my name was not ultimately a feminist choice. I’ll momentarily ignore your sarcastic use of scare quotes and explain why I disagree with you. In choosing to keep my maiden name, I am choosing to continue with a patriarchal name.

      Briefly, let me fill you in about my particular experience with patriarchy. I grew up with a father who manipulated my mother into quitting a job she loved after she had me and then proceeded to give her an allowance to be used for groceries. My dad was emotionally abusive to all of us. He believed and told us regularly that a woman is mandated by God to obey her husband (conveniently neglecting the next part of that bible passage). He taught my sisters and I from an absurdly young age that unplanned pregnancies were the woman’s fault because guys can’t say no. He continuously laments that I don’t still work at the local retail establishment and comments negatively on my education. This is a snapshot into the patriarchy that I grew up with and to an extent, continue to endure.

      Granted, I do love my dad, and I know he did his best at raising us, but in the context of the toxic effects it’s had on me, I choose not to carry on his patriarchal name. That is also why I didn’t want to hyphenate my name. (I’ll be damned if I’m going to have his name on my baby, you know, my dissertation). Alternatively, my husband does not adhere to the traditional patriarchal dogma. He didn’t care about the name thing, doesn’t mind that he will be the trailing spouse, does the majority of the housework, and is completely supportive of my choices. This is why I chose his name.

      Could have I chosen another name, sure, but how do you randomly pick a name? Gracie Stone? Gracie Infinity? Talk about being debilitated by too many choices. Would he have changed his name? Probably not, but he likes his family and his name, so why should he? I do hope that any daughters we may have will choose to keep their father’s name as I am confident he will lovingly nurture them into strong, self-assured women that will be proud to keep their maiden names.

      I’m getting a little off track. My point is, real personal choices do matter. The world isn’t black and white, and besides, I am not about to trade patriarchal dogma for feminist dogma. Blind adherence to rules is not a desirable characteristic in any case. My post wasn’t to condone changing your name; rather, it was to promote critically thinking about choices we make, and accepting the choices that others make.

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