I began my career as a columnist a year ago, writing about how many of my friends are engaged or married. I won’t be 21 for 47 more days, and already seven of my peers are married, another one got engaged this month and another will be married next month. I find this a bit surreal. In fact, I find a lot of things about marriage surreal.
There’s a very narrow margin for what society seems to consider an acceptable age to be married, especially for females – somewhere between 16 and 24. When a couple gets married at a younger age than average, many people assume the woman is pregnant. If someone gets to his or her early 30s without being married, relatives start to wonder.
My friends have always pushed the boundaries on what is socially acceptable, but I’m not sure marrying young is the best boundary to push. However, my column today isn’t going to focus on where my friends ignored what’s socially acceptable. It’s going to focus on where they have conformed to social acceptability: the name change.
Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly (author of “Frankenstein”), kept her own name when she married in the late 1700s. Three hundred years later, it’s still assumed that when a woman marries she will take her husband’s last name. The thing I hear most from married women, whether one of my young friends or a middle-aged teacher, is that they wish they had thought about the name change more when they got married. They say that at the time it just seemed like such a hassle to come up with an alternative to changing their name.
It used to be that when a man and a woman got married, they became one person in the eyes of the law. And that person was the man. Even though laws have changed to give married women property rights and custody rights over their own children, society has still convinced women it is a hassle to keep their own last names when they get married. A person’s name is a part of his or her identity. Giving it up shouldn’t be taken lightly.
There are many alternatives to a wife simply taking her husband’s name. My mother kept her own last name; she was Ms. Schmidt before marriage and Ms. Schmidt after. Some women keep their own last names as middle names or hyphenate their last names.
Even more egalitarian is when the husband also considers the implications of his wife’s change. I know a couple that decided to take the wife’s last name as both their middle names and the husband’s last name as both their last names. I know another couple that took equality a step further by adding each other’s last names to their own so they each have two last names. A most interesting solution was found by a couple that combined and rearranged their names to come up with an entirely new one for both of them.
But those are only three couples out of the many that get married each year. The marriage licenses in many states ask for the woman’s name before marriage, the woman’s name after marriage, the man’s name before marriage and the man’s name after marriage. The licenses are set up this way so both spouses can change their names for free at the time of the marriage if they want to. More couples should take advantage of this.
So ladies, if you are planning on getting married, please think about if you really want to change your names – and what you really want to change it to – while you have the chance. And gentlemen, before assuming your wives-to-be will change their names, ask yourself if you’d be willing to do the same.
R.R.S. Stewart welcomes comments at [email protected]