Make A Name For Yourself

ringsRecently, we received a wedding invitation that was addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Baxter”.

I’ll have to give the invitation to Mrs. Matthew Baxter when I find her.

When I got married in 2012 I decided to keep my last name (or surname, as people call it in Australia, New Zealand and Britain). Why? Well, I had several reasons. I kept Stollznow because it’s been my name for my entire life. I’m an author and I’m known by that name. It’s also the name listed on my three degrees. Finally, my birth name is a part of my history and identity and I’m proud of it. It’s got an “evil Doctor” thing going, when it’s pronounced with a German accent.

Should a women adopt her husband’s last name when she gets married?

This is a controversial topic that generates a lot of debate. In our culture, many women still abandon their “maiden name” and take the family name of their spouse when they get married. Last names only go back about 1000 years in the English-speaking world, and this tradition goes back to the 15th Century legal doctrine of coverture that stated a woman, upon marriage, became the property of her husband. This remained the custom until the mid-19th Century when an American activist named Lucy Stone became famous for challenging the practice. She retained her birth name when she married and paved the way for other women today.

Of course, last name customs are different across cultures. In many parts of China, married women keep their birth names. In Spain, spouses keep their birth names, which include both the mother’s and father’s last names. In Greece, women don’t change their names after marriage. Since 1983, they are required by law to keep their birth name for life although they can also add their spouse’s name to their own.

In English-speaking countries we have a choice, and while there is social pressure placed on women to change their name, women are increasingly choosing to retain their own name. There are many reasons why women want to do this. They want to keep their name for professional reasons, to carry on their own name and preserve their heritage, or as they see it, they don’t want to swap their identity for their husband’s. When you’ve been known by a name your whole life it’s difficult to suddenly see yourself as Mrs. John Doe.

Anyway, there’s a big difference between being addressed as Mrs. Doe versus Mrs. John Doe. The latter is archaic and patriarchal. It seems to imply that the wife is secondary to the husband, or somehow his property.

Mr. and Mrs. are unequal titles. Mrs. invariably implies the woman is married, while Mr. doesn’t imply marital status at all. Other people don’t need a map of a woman’s home life when she is introduced, so many women prefer Ms. I see myself as married, and as a wife, but I’m not “Mrs. Baxter” or “Mrs. Stollznow.” I’d rather be addressed as Dr., if an honorific must be used.

Mrs. has only meant “one’s wife” since the 1920s. From the 16th century, Mrs. was an abbreviation of mistress, but the word didn’t always have the modern connotations of ‘a bit on the side’. In the 14th Century, mistress meant a “female teacher or governess” and comes from the Old French maistresse, meaning female teacher, housekeeper, or lover. By the 15th Century, mistress developed the meanings, “a woman with authority over servants” and “a kept woman of a married man”.

So, should a woman take her spouse’s last name when she gets married? Well, that’s up to her. It’s a personal statement and she has many choices. She can assume her spouse’s last name, hyphenate both last names, keep her birth name as a middle name, keep her birth name (which is probably her father’s name anyway) or adopt a new name entirely. Same-sex marriage is also challenging the tradition.

Some progressive men take their spouse’s last name as a middle name, such as Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z, who is now legally Shawn Knowles-Carter. Way back in 1969, John Lennon took Yoko Ono’s last name and became John Winston Ono Lennon (he wanted to drop “Winston” but the English government would only let him add a name). Artist Marco Perego, the husband of actor Zoe Saldana, recently changed his name to Marco Saldana.

The decision becomes more complicated when you have children. Now we have a son and he has both our names. We have talked about combining our names, although more than anything this poses a bureaucratic headache right now.

I’m sure I’ll continue to receive mail for the mysterious Mrs. Matthew Baxter. In the end, we shouldn’t assume that when a woman marries she has taken her spouse’s last name, and that she likes being addressed by his first name, and as “Mrs.” The easiest thing is to simply ask, “What would you like to be called?”

Posted in: Uncategorized
Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist and researcher. She is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, Would You Believe It? and Haunting America. Her forthcoming book is On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

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