In an unusually matrilineal tradition, my last name has been passed down from mother to daughter for the last four generations. I grew up proud of that fact, calling my family a matriarchy. So when the question of whether or not to change my name came up during the course of planning my wedding, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would be betraying generations of O’Donnell women if I chose to break the streak. Or, bigger than that, if I would be betraying women everywhere, feminism, and everything I believe in.
After all, when Lucy Stone became the first woman to keep her own name after marriage in 1855, it was a huge deal. It was activism; a step toward autonomy and equality. And keeping your last name is now almost as popular as ever: there's been a recent increase in women keeping their birth names after marriage — about 20 percent — almost back up to the all-time high of 23 percent in the '90s. But many of the reasons women now list for keeping their names are practical or professional, rather than political. And after some reflection, I decided that personally, changing my name was the right choice for me.
I must not be the only one who feels that, with actual strides toward equality being made everyday, feminists don’t need to prove our fidelity to the good fight simply by keeping our names. Just like we’ve moved past the one-dimensional image of the feminist as a man-hating, razor-shunning lesbian, it may be time to reconsider the idea that changing your name makes you a lesser feminist.
Taking my future husband’s name isn’t a sign of my subservience to him, of the dissolution of my own identity — it’s symbolic of our becoming a unit, a team that makes decisions together on equal footing.
Because the truth about my great matriarchic family is that the name wasn't passed from mother to daughter out of feminine pride, but because most of the mothers in my family have been single mothers. My grandmother raised five children alone, and my mother gave me her last name because she wasn’t sure if my father was going to stick around. It wasn't about strong women — it was about the lack of strong families.
Though my father did end up sticking around, I never liked not having the same last name as him. It made me wonder if maybe I was officially my mother’s child, and not officially his. It was child logic, but it still disturbed me. Since my husband and I will have the same last name, our children will never have to wonder why they share a name with one of us and not both. Taking my future husband’s name isn’t a sign of my subservience to him, or of the dissolution of my own identity — it’s symbolic of our becoming a unit, a team that makes decisions together on equal footing. And when we have kids, it’ll signal to them that they’re part of a strong, stable team.
Of course, a name is not what makes a family. Two parents and some kids is not what makes a family. We don’t even have to get married to be a family, but we are, because it’s symbolic of our joining forces. And so is having the same name.
The whole point of last names is to signify which clan you belong to, and the clan I want to belong to is the one that my future husband and I are starting, the one that will one day be made up of our kids. I still love my family, but my ties to the O’Donnells who spent generations being poor and having too many kids are less important to me than my ties to the future, to the new, happy family I plan to have.
Changing my name won’t Spotless Mind away my shared memories with my family or friends, because my name is not my identity. A rose by any other name, right?
My reasons for changing my name are very specific to my situation, but that’s the whole point — it’s my decision. The fact that it wouldn’t be a big deal if I kept my name makes me feel like I don’t need to take a stand by doing so. If it were still a defiant act for a woman to keep her name, I’d feel like it was part of the fight for equality and I’d want to take part. But now, keeping my name just to take a stand would feel like wearing a button in support of suffrage. With so many emotionally-compelling reasons to change my name and one questionably relevant political reason to keep it, for me, the decision is easy.
Images: Lilly O'Donnell