What's in a name?
Cheryl Cole may have ditched her errant hubby, but not his name. Anna Carey looks at the politics of taking your husband's surname
Published 28/08/2010 | 05:00
Once upon a time, and not that long ago either, every woman who got married knew she was saying goodbye not just to single life, but to her own surname.
Changing your name was just what happened when you got married, whether you liked it or not. These days, however, it's a personal choice. Cheryl Cole may have taken and kept Ashley's surname, even after filing for divorce, but Kate Winslet has remained Winslet through two marriages.
The Central Statistics Office has no figures on the subject, making it hard to know exactly how many married women take their husband's name in today's Ireland, but both changing and keeping one's name are generally seen as completely normal decisions.
"We got married in a registry office and they asked if I was going to keep my name," says mother-of-two Jennifer Foxe, who changed her name when she married five years ago. "It wasn't assumed at any point that I was going to do one or the other."
So why do some women happily take on their husband's surname -- and why is keeping their own name so important to others?
For some women, the decision to change their names is a straight-forward one. "I always assumed I would," says Lauren Fahy, an American woman who married her Irish husband in March. "I wouldn't be old-fashioned in other ways, but I don't think I'd feel really married if I didn't change my name. I didn't know anyone back home who didn't do it."
Dropping her original surname didn't feel like a loss. "I had such a difficult time growing up with [the name] Woelfel -- I was really teased about it," she says. "So being able to change my name was a perk. And in a way it made me feel more Irish."
For many women, taking their husband's name is primarily about starting a new family. For undecided women, this idea of a family identity can be what tips the balance in favour of a name change.
"Before I got married I wasn't sure whether I would change my name or not," says Anne Morris. "Then I thought, if we're going to have kids they're going to be Morris [like my husband] and I don't want to be the only one who isn't a Morris."
Some of her friends were surprised by her decision, but to Anne, who now has two children, changing her name wasn't a sacrifice. "It didn't feel like giving anything up. It was just about starting a new chapter in my life."
And sometimes changing a name isn't a final decision -- even when you're happily married. Before she got married five years ago, Suzanne Murphy wasn't sure what she was going to do. Having weighed up the pros and cons, she decided to change her name from Murphy to O'Sullivan.
"I'm a terrible procrastinator so at first I didn't change anything formally, although I knew I was going to," she says. "But then I got pregnant."
As starting a family had been a factor in her decision to change, Suzanne changed her name on documents that would affect medical care. But then she had a miscarriage.
"If I hadn't miscarried I probably would have just continued with O'Sullivan," she says. But gradually, she found herself reverting to Murphy. "I didn't consciously do it," she says. "It just felt more right. Suzanne Murphy seems more like me. When I meet someone new, I tend to say my name is Murphy."
While Suzanne still switches between names, Camilla Fitzsimons decided to go back to her original name just six months after she changed it, and has never used her husband's name since.
"I was involved in a group discussion at work and everyone said their name," she says. "But when it came to me, I just couldn't say my name was Camilla MacNeill."
Camilla says the fact that she doesn't share her husband's and children's surname makes no difference to their happy family. She thinks it's important to talk about the traditions surrounding name changing.
"It goes back to the days when you were subsumed into the identity of your husband because in social terms they were more important," she says. "Holding on to your name is a way of saying you're equally important."
It's true that name changing, like marriage itself, doesn't have a particularly women-friendly history. A woman traditionally abandoned her name along with her legal independence. But name changing isn't universal.
Most women in Asia and the Spanish-speaking world never change their names. Women in the Islamic world always keep their own names -- in fact, changing one's surname is considered to be against Islamic teachings.
And here, some women simply have no desire to change their names. When I got married two years ago, the thought of changing my surname never crossed my mind. And I'm not alone.
"As a young child, I practised writing my name with a man's last name because I read a book where a girl did this and it seemed fun that you could change your name just like that," says Isabel Toolan, who works in Washington DC and is married to an American.
"When I was old enough to think about it properly, it didn't make sense to me. And I've pretty much stuck to that viewpoint ever since. He has a name and I have a name. I don't see why anyone has to change anything."
Léan Ni Chuilleanain never considered changing her name, not least because her own mother didn't change hers when she married.
"Growing up, I was proud of being different and having a mother who had her maiden name," she says. Now she's married with two young sons, one of whom has her surname while the other has his father's. "It's something I feel very secure about."
Some women who keep their names have found their wishes ignored. "My husband's extended family attributes his last name to me all the time," says Isabel. "While I'd prefer they check first rather than assume, I take the attitude that they're from a different generation and it just doesn't occur to them."
But, generally, a married woman keeping her name doesn't cause raised eyebrows.
While some husbands do like the idea of their family sharing one name, usually their own, the women I talked to decided to change their names without any pressure from their spouses (several said they'd have been put off the idea if their husbands had pushed for it).
As far as Anne's husband Colin was concerned, it was completely up to her. "It's not something I initiated, as it really wasn't that important to me," he says.
Suzanne Murphy -- or is it O'Sullivan? -- says she always thought other women knew exactly how they felt about their names: they either really wanted to change it or keep it. "There never seems to be anyone but me who is unsure about the whole thing," she says.
But talking to women about this complicated subject reveals that many feel they could have gone either way -- and some are never quite sure. For those who like the idea of sharing a name with their husband and children but don't want to give up their old one, there's still the option of keeping both.
"I'm still undecided," laughs Suzanne, who uses both names in different situations. "And my procrastination abilities mean I can continue with two names for a long time!"