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What’s in a Name?: Mrs. or Ms., Married or Maiden

Like so many other parts about family life in the 21st century, women are deciding that they want the benefits of all potential choices. They want to work, have fulfilling professional identities, and yet still have a rewarding family life.

It’s not news to anyone that women — as well as men — often feel pushed and pulled between many identities. You might feel like you have your work “self,” your “mom self”, your “old friend” self, your “play date” self.

English: Scanned image of author's US Social S...
English: Scanned image of author’s US Social Security card. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even though this phenomenon has impacted me directly, I hadn’t thought it much until I read yesterday’s New York Times piece “The Problem That Has Two Names” about one physical manifestation (on identification cards and invitation lists) of that identity struggle. The piece is about one editor’s inability to decide whether she wants to go by her maiden name or married name. She describes herself as in some sort “in-between purgatory.” She writes:

Like others wanting it both ways, I held on to my professional name while also taking on my husband’s. For years, I’ve gone by both, fearing that at some point I will be called out or, worse, arrested. Though I moved my last name to my middle, this has left me in a muddle: Under what name do I travel? Who pays taxes? What if I, er, still haven’t switched over my Social Security card? These are questions that for 10 years I’ve been unable to answer.

Those questions are starting to sound familiar to me, as they are a growing number of American women. As women wait longer and longer to marry, they have professional lives and identities that are well-established before marriage.  About 35% of American women are now choosing to keep their names, but not as a feminist statement.

According to a recent Salon article summarizing this trend, “What we’re seeing in America is that the older the bride, and the better her job, the more likely she is to keep her name. In the long run, that’s probably a good idea for her career (that’s $472 a month).”  That’s because women who keep their maiden names are viewed, on average, for whatever reason, reason as “less caring, more independent, more ambitious, more intelligent, and more competent” and earn more money on average each month.

I certainly wasn’t thinking about my pay check when I made the decision to keep my name.

In my women’s studies classes at Wesleyan in the 1990s — so much the height of “political correctness” that there was actually a movie that came out while I was there based on the writers’ experiences there called PCU — if I had ever announced that I planned to take my husband’s name upon marriage it would have been regarded as equivalent to submitting to Chinese foot binding.

Over the years, I hadn’t given all that much thought as to whether I still planned to keep my maiden name for the cause of feminist principles. Then as I hit my thirties, and friends started getting married, most of the them changed their names to their husbands’. But I knew quite a few others, living in a town like Cambridge, Mass., who did keep their own names. When I got engaged on my 35th birthday, I was surprised by my own mixed feelings. Suddenly, part of me started to like the idea of both of us (and our future children) sharing the same name.


weddingSo I asked around. It turns out that my friends — despite what their e-mail addresses or Facebook account claimed — were playing a complicated dance with their names. Many hadn’t changed them legally at all. Others did still use their maiden names professionally. Some were trying to use both names together.

So I did nothing. By default, I kept my name, figuring that in grad school and in academia, that would be easier anyway. I could revisit the decision in a year or two. And then I got pregnant within a year and we moved to Buffalo. I had too much on my mind to think about these big existential matters — who am I really? who do I want to be? — as well as deal with the bureaucratic hoops of social security offices.

Now I live in a town where my husband’s family has been for generations. It’s not nearly as common for women to keep their maiden names as it was in progressive Cambridge. When we go to parties or events, I’m often given a name tag with my married name. I’m introduced with my husband’s name.

And rather than start to give a lecture about patriarchy and feminism, as I would have in my early twenties, I just smile and shrug.  Because don’t all of us have all sorts of different identities?

I like having a separate last name as a blogger than my husband and son. I feel a sense of independence and freedom that their public anonymity seems to allow me. I do like keeping the connection to my own family past and to my dad, who passed away nearly ten years ago.

But I find it frustrating when I have to explain that my son’s name is different than mine.  And I worry that my son will find it confusing too. So, all in all, I’m no closer to a definite decision about names and identities than the day I got married.
How did you decide on your last name after marriage? Are you happy with your choice? 

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  1. I kept my name ( Kelly Clifford ) after getting married. I was a prosecutor in NYC & everyone knew each other’s court paper at work by last names…was my surface reason. My sub-surface reason was I just didn’t want to change my name. Really saw no need. Dial ahead 14 years with two little girls we move to California ( 3,000 miles away from anyone who knew my name ). I was not going to pursue my legal career & my oldest was to start school…so by default I became Kelly Wilkniss. Not legally, just at school…Nine years later , except for plane tickets, my credit cards, refinancing documents & the like I am Kelly Wilkniss or Mrs. Wilkniss. I do have to remember which name I booked hotels in & things like that…but with my very nice content life it is kinda fun to retain that bit of the younger less wise me…and who knows might be good to have an alias someday! Haha. I am still glad I was & am Kelly Clifford and Kelly Wilkniss.
    kelly@mysoulfulhome.com recently posted…A Discovery for the Senses – Ali’i Kula Lavender FarmMy Profile

  2. Mercy says:

    I never actually decided. When we got married I started using his name, but I never made the legal switch, just because I never thought of needing to change my ID, etc. Now I stick with my maiden name because it is my legal name, and I am living in a foreign country so all my legal paperwork (ie.visa) is in my maiden name. I’m okay with keeping it.
    Mercy recently posted…The Little Boy and the Fire TruckMy Profile

  3. Tracie says:

    I changed my name immediately after getting married, but I was excited to dump my old name (and father’s family) and move forward in my life. My mom got remarried a few years ago, and I’m still not used to her having a new name.

    I can see how women would want to be able to have the best of both choices, and be able to move back and forth between names. I wonder how easy it is to change your name years later – do you have to pay for a name change if you wait a certain amount of time?
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  4. Dana says:

    I was a bit sad to give up my maiden name, but I kept it as my new middle name. I like that all four of us have the same last name, but I much prefer my maiden name – it’s ethnic and musical and unique. I (half) jokingly told my husband we should combine our two names into one new one, but he didn’t go for it. Great topic for discussion, Jessica! I am glad you kept your name – it makes for an awesome blog name!
    Dana recently posted…A one hundred celebrationMy Profile

  5. Heather says:

    I appended my married name to my existing name, anticipating children and, you know, “being married.” I use my maiden name professionally, where it is recognizable, and my married name with all things related to my kids and their activities.

    HOWEVER, my married name is long and hard to pronounce (unlike my last name) and I’m required to use both at places like hospitals, pharmacies, some jobs, etc. The two names do not roll off the tongue as a hyphenation. Someone once asked, “How many hours now do you waste signing that name, writing it, correcting others’ pronunciations of it?” He was right. If it weren’t such a hassle to “change back” — and if it wouldn’t cause many raised eyebrows — I would do it in a hot second.

    I also think every single woman should be referred to as “Ms.” whether you know she’s married or not.

  6. Sarah says:

    I changed my name immediately, but when we had our son, I gave him my maiden name as his middle name. So it’s almost like he’s hyphenated…almost. Mine was kind of weird situation, though, because I took an Italian last name and I am definitely not Italian. I felt like an imposter for a while, but I’m over it now.
    Sarah recently posted…Crock Pot London BroilMy Profile

  7. mary kathryn says:

    What an excellent topic for conversation! Thanks for asking all these honest questions. Where and how we grow up plays such a part. I come from Deep South Christian roots, so it’s no surprise that I took my husband’s name. But I’m content with that choice now, 24 years later. In my “circles,” it’s assumed that a woman will change her name at marriage, but that she is still strongly aligned with her biological family; thus, I’m always and forever “a Robinson” among everyone I know. As you note, it would be very disturbing to me to not share my children’s last name. I am their mother; they came from my body. We WILL have a single family name that binds us all together. I mean … if it’s important to ME to have shared a family name with my parents (and I’m glad they shared one name), then aren’t I doing my children a disservice if I bring them into a family with two names, as if we don’t all belong together? I don’t view it as patriarchal really. In the Christian tradition it’s understood that both men and women, when they marry, step away from their birth families and form a new family, and the bond with between the spouses is tighter than either bond back to the old families. The last name is merely symbolic of that new unity.
    mary kathryn recently posted…Unfinished (Yarn) BusinessMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      I am conflicted about this (obviously). It would mean a lot to me to have the same last name as my son, but that’s not the only consideration that I’ve been thinking about. In Cambridge, MA, where I was a teacher for many years, probably about half the kids in my class had moms who had kept their maiden names. Here, where I live in Buffalo, it’s less common but still not at all unusual. From my experience, kids with moms who kept their names don’t think about it as a rejection by their moms of their families; in fact, I don’t think that they think about it much at all. But you’ve given something to think about — in a new way — as always! Thank you, Mary Kathryn!
      Jessica recently posted…What’s in a Name?: Mrs. or Ms., Married or MaidenMy Profile

  8. I struggled with this as well. I changed my name in my first marriage… which was a huge decision because I loved my maiden name. Then I got remarried. It seemed odd to keep the name from my previous marriage (despite the fact that I had a strong reputation in my field with my married name). So I took my new husband’s name. Unfortunately my brother-in-law was married to another Jennifer, so I share the exact same name as my sister-in-law. Now they are divorced and I’m waiting/hoping she’ll change her name or get remarried.

    So all in all, I regret ever changing my name. I wish I had kept my maiden name.

    Thanks, once again, for making me think.

    Wishing you a lovely day.
    Jennifer | The Deliberate Mom recently posted…Wonderful WeekendingMy Profile

  9. Great post, Jessica! I read that article, too! I was at Carleton College in the 90’s, another liberal feminist hotbed, and I knew I wouldn’t change my name when I married. I had established myself as a professional with my own name, and I liked my name! But then when I was pregnant, we pondered over and over what to do for my daughter’s name – my last name, my husband’s last name, a hyphenated name? I don’t have one of those last names that makes a cool middle name, so we decided that the children would take my husband’s last name, and I added ‘Beach’ to my name – no hyphen, just two last names. I still use just my maiden name at school (I’m Ms. Rudell) but when I am “mom” I am Sarah Beach, and now I am starting to use the full name with blogging and social media. Now that I have had this name for seven years, it actually looks weird to be to see my name with only one last name.

    And here’s the thing I didn’t know – if you change your name when you get married, it’s FREE and easy. If you decide to change your legal name later, you have to pay $250 in fees (so that was $50 per letter added to my name!), plus I had to show up in court with two witnesses to prove that I was not changing my name to escape prosecution in another state. The judge even interrogated me about why I did not change my name when I got married, and why I wanted to add his name now. I felt like a failed feminist hauled into name-change court!!

    Ultimately, like other things, I think it’s about what individual women want to do, but my inner feminist does not like the fact that it’s just assumed women will give up their name (which, though it’s just a name) is a big part of identity. So much to say…. Great post, again!
    Sarah @ LeftBrainBuddha recently posted…Mindfulness and Gratitude: Bouquets of Sharpened PencilsMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      I did NOT know that, Sarah! Well, I guess I’m too late, since I got married in 2009. That’s crazy that women are expected to “prove something” just to change their names when they want to. A reader on Twitter told me that it was recently made illegal to change your name (legally) in the province of Quebec.

      I love the way that you have two last names. I have a good friend from Wesleyan who did that, and she loves it. Unfortunately, my husband’s last name is so long and weird that this would definitely not work!
      Jessica recently posted…What’s in a Name?: Mrs. or Ms., Married or MaidenMy Profile

  10. Interesting article. I wouldn’t beat yourself up about the difference between your name and your son’s. It’s very common (unfortunately) that the last name is different because the mom is a single parent, or has married or remarried. Whatever the case – it’s common. I was 26 when I got married. I really wanted to keep my maiden name but I didn’t want a fuss about it. I dropped my middle name and my maiden name became my middle name. It’s that way on my SS card and everything. I did it right away and don’t regret it. I am Kenya Gallion Johnson.
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  11. Great post, and great comments. I also read the NY Times article. I went back and forth when I was engaged. I had a lot of friends who kept their names and even more who used one name professionally and another name personally. My husband was totally cool with us using both names as our last name, but Brovetto Radigan just seemed like an awfully long last name! I finally decided to switch it shortly after my wedding. I was a little sad at first but then I really grew to like who Kathy Radigan had become. I also wanted the same name as my kids. I do think that if I was not going to have children I would have been more likely to keep my maiden name. Thanks for a great discussion!
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  12. Great post, as always. I have too long of a story for here (and perhaps too personal), but basically I never thought I would change my name. Then I did, for very good reasons. I got married in between jobs, and I think if I hadn’t, I would still be going by my maiden name (switching to the new job with my new name made it easy to change over). I’m still a little traumatized at having changed it. The only thing I like is having the same last name as Henry.
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  13. Kate says:

    As someone who was married and changed my name then was divorced and had to change it back, I definitely understand why someone would not want to do so. If I ever marry again, I’m not sure what I will do. It will depend on children, my career and the others notes you lay out above. To each their own!!
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  14. Sarah Almond says:

    I guess I didn’t really think about it at the time, but then again I was just a teacher working part-time in Iowa. Perhaps if my life were different at the time I might have thought twice! It’s like so many other things-it’s such a personal choice. One good friend of mine chose to hyphenate her name, which I think is a nice compromise.
    Sarah Almond recently posted…I’m Not Misplaced, I’m Just DistractedMy Profile

  15. I was 23 (!) when I got married and I kept my name. The only flickers of doubt I had were the day after the wedding when we were both emotionally exhausted, and I wondered why I left up that wall, then later when our son was born. I had momnets of worry about confusion at school, etc. But in the end I figured, eh, people do it all the time, the school will figure it out! And they have. My son is 9 and it is only just now on his radar that I have a different last name. Frankly, he could not be less interested.
    Jessica @scienceofparenthood.com recently posted…SA: Schleppers AnonymousMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      That’s funny. Even though it sort of makes me a little sad to have a different last name than my son, my experience as a teacher was that kids didn’t really care at all. However they grew up is what is normal for them. They have much more interesting things to think about than their mothers’ identity crises over last names!
      Jessica recently posted…What’s in a Name?: Mrs. or Ms., Married or MaidenMy Profile

  16. Jessica, I have used my maiden name professionally – including with our blog – and now, like you “I feel a sense of independence and freedom that their public anonymity seems to allow me.” I also volunteer with my dog at a psychiatric hospital and am very glad to be known with a last name other than my married name. I also (like you) love the connection with my family and dad who also passed away 8 years ago. So for many reasons, I am sticking with “Harrington.” However, that being said, I am known by my married name at our kids’ school, at church, and around our suburban area. Our kids are older and I think they completely understand my reasons for using different names. It gets a little confusing, though. Good luck!
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  17. I did change my name but have some old colleagues who still call me by my maiden name. The decision, for me, was really that I wanted to have the same last name as my son. My cousin did the hyphenated thing and it was always such a mess. She’d go to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for her daughter and say “try Rieger. Try Matthews. Try Rieger-Matthews with a hyphen. Try RiegerMatthews without a hyphen.” It seemed messy to me, so I changed my name. I did move my maiden name to the middle as well and also on many platforms, use both. Great and thought provoking article!
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  18. Ashley says:

    Great post! We got married at 23 years old, so we were just starting out and it was much easier to go ahead and jump off the name cliff. It’s been 10 years and I still find myself getting used to my married name. My maiden name was Doyle and my married name sounds kinda funny (as in, I wouldn’t use it if I taught middle school) and people are forever messing it up. I never thought about having one legally and using another for social / professional purposes. I might want to consider that for blogging, etc…
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  19. I have to say that when I got married I was doing well in my sales job and wanted to keep my name. So for work purposes, I did, but legally I changed it. I was torn between a traditional role and a less traditional role. Eventually, I left that job and because I had changed my maiden name to my middle name, I felt like I kept a part of my old self too. Now I solely use my first name and my husband’s last name – even on my blog. I still contemplate if it’s the right decision.
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  20. Jen says:

    This topic caused so many arguments pre wedding! I wanted to keep my name. I had it for 20some odd years. It was me, my identity. I didn’t want to give it up without a fight. Plus my maiden name was common (read:easy to spell and pronounce) and his name was NOT. But after talking it out I saw how important this was to him. I compromised and smushed his name at the end of mine. It has shown to be easier with his name (I still think of it as “his”) since we became parents. I thin kI made the right decision for me.
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  21. KeAnne says:

    I was 24 when I got married and while I took my husband’s name, I felt pressure both to keep my maiden name and to take my husband’s name. Maybe this is a cop-out, but I finally decided that since my first name is unusual, chances were that I would be recognized as the same person no matter what my last name was.
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  22. Jean says:

    My husband was offended when I told him I was thinking of keeping my maiden name (he’s old fashioned), so that and the fact that my mom remarried when I was young and it bothered me that we had different names contributed to my decision to change my last name. Honestly, I went from one bad last name to another bad one so it didn’t matter much to me other than all the paperwork. I know, so profound.
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  23. I kept my name for all purposes and never thought of that choice as one made for “the cause of feminist principles”. There is the rub isn’t it – fear of being viewed as a feminist? Who cares? In 4 decades, I have not faced any problems as a result of my choice – including with our two sons – perhaps because they have their Dad’s last name. Not once have our kids asked me why I did not take my husband’s name. When asked for my maiden name, I simply say I do not have one. On the very few occasions when someone has asked me outright about the choice, I do not respond or say “Why would I” People ask all sorts of questions that do not deserve a response. Turns out that there are also fun aspects to keeping your name – is she the 2nd wife? Is she the other woman? There are so many questions to ask: Are we really not giving the perceived “old-fashioned” spouse enough credit? Will an “old-fashioned” spouse have other issues with wife’s choices down the road? Is fear of divorce a factor? Maybe a subtle and gentle reminder for our spouses of who we were and still are? Do same sex couples struggle with this and if not, why not? A choice to retain our names for all purposes should not be viewed as putting up a wall or drawing a line in the sand or a reason for anyone to take offense. The burden should be on those willing to put women through this.

  24. Carolyn says:

    I’ve been married ten years, one child so far, and I still have my birth last name. Back when were married, I suggested we could hyphenate or do a mutual middle name add, but nothing ever came of it. My daughter has my name, not her father’s (I suggested hyphenating or putting one name as a middle, the husband thought just my name was fine). I have heard almost no comments about either choice.

    This idea that a woman changes identity on marriage, while a man stays the same has always bothered me. I’ve formed a family with someone, not joined his family and left mine. I have never liked my name, but it’s me. I’ve honestly never been called Mrs. Husbandsname verbally, and the few people who have addressed mail that way have been quietly corrected (usually by the husband, for some reason, they don’t argue as much). We’re wondering as my daughter starts school and activities, if her father will be assumed to be Mr. Mylast, and if he’ll be assumed to be a stepfather otherwise. I am kind of looking forward to seeing how it will go.

  25. Stacey says:

    I’ve got a similar dilemma!

    I’m marrying a Chilean and we’re going to have all kinds of crazy names floating around in our family.

    He is Husband (Paternal Last) + (Maternal Last) (no hyphen or space)
    Our Children will be Name (His Paternal Last) + (My Maternal Last)

    I’ve lived in Chile and there the women don’t change their last names at all. It was also complicated getting around Chile with only one last name when there are two fields the computer asks you to fill!

    What should I do? Stay as Mrs Stacey (Maiden) – just one last name and lose the joy of changing names, or become Mrs (His Paternal Name)… [though people will assume I’m his sister in Chile], or take two last names like our kids [and have Chilean’s assume I’m my children’s sister].

    It seems like the choice is clear, but my family can’t believe I’m not changing my name when I want to, just because an entire nation (which the children will have citizenship in and I may end up working and living there again) won’t understand the move!

      • eaguilera says:

        Hi Stacey! we have the same dilemmaaa!!! My head is cracking now looking for definite answers. I am a Filipina who married a Chilean and in the Philippines, women take their husbands’ surname! What did you do? Did you take your husband’s surname?

  26. xony says:

    In Latin America no woman changes her name, it’s not just Chile. I’m reading articles about this because it has always puzzled me why you guys up there change your names like your husband is now your owner or your dad or something! I know it’s a tradition based in a patriarchal system, but in this day & age? It makes little sense (apart for romantic reasons or whatever, idk), but to each their own, I respect people’s choices. So, about your kids getting confused… why would they? They get their own name (dad’s or mom’s or dad+mom or mom+dad like they do in Brazil), mom has her own name and dad has his own name. See what I’m saying? You get an identity and you get an identity, everybody gets an identity!!!!!

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