On Last Names…

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I had a reader reach out to me to ask my opinion on last names. When women marry a man and do not take their last name, or when they choose to take their husband's last name, what I think in regards to feminism. While this isn't a topic I focus on as a style blog, I do consider myself a feminist and had a similar discussion with myself when I got engaged. Her email:

“I love your take on feminist issues, and I've enjoyed your recent posts on attire for a protest march and women helping women. I'm emailing because I'm a newlywed. Something I had A LOT of people ask me leading up to the wedding was 1) what would my new name be and 2) was I going to change my name. When I was hesitant and admitted I was leaning towards NOT changing my name, I got a lot of different responses. Most asked how my fiancé felt about it. This is something we talked about before we got engaged and my wonderful fiancé, now husband, understood my perspective 100%. This took people even more by surprise. On my wedding day a lot of my friends tagged a picture with me as #mrshislastname. That didn't bother me since I know there will be a lot of confusion but I found it almost humorous how many of my friends and family assumed I was changing it.

I want to keep my name because the tradition of taking his seems icky and old fashioned to me, and I hate the historical reasons why women changed their last name. I am an independent adult and I've had this name my entire life. I'm relatively new in my career but I've been establishing myself under this last name for several years. Also, I just plain love my last name. And I consider myself a feminist.

However, I'm having the inkling of second thoughts, mainly because if/when we have children, I would really like us to have the same last name. I've floated the idea of changing it after we have a child, or not changing it but giving the child my last name as their middle name. And I'm not keen on the hyphen. I'm unsure though. My current last name just fits and I'm hesitant to change it. So, I was wondering if you changed your last name and how/why you came to that decision. If this is too personal to share on the blog or with a stranger via email I understand 🙂 But it has been on my mind a lot lately and when I think about it and come across your posts, I always have a feeling you would be the right person to ask.”

I’m so honored that you would come to me with this question! Truly, it made me tear up a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when I’m asked fashion advice, but for something this important for your life? Wow!

My original last name was Ashpes. A. S. H. P as in Peter. E. S as in snake. Ash-pes. No not ass-piss. Not ass wipe. Not ashweppes. Not asheps. Not ash heap. Some relatives pronounce it Ash-piss and some say Ash-pez, but in my immediate family, we were Ashpes. Sounded the way it’s spelled. That is if you can spell it.

Speaking of relatives… not all of mine have the same name. See, when my family came to Ellis Island and were asked their name, those checking them in wrote what they heard. So there’s a lot of different spellings. On top of that, some relatives ended up changing their last names to something more neutral so they could get jobs and not experience prejudice. There’s a few folks out there with the last name Ashley who are likely related to me.

I grew up with a last name that was a hilarious joke every first day of school. Plenty of nicknames on the playground.  When I went to college and encountered many other Alisons, Allisons, and Alysons most were called by their last name. Not I. Few wished to even attempt it.

My dad died in 1998 and for a while I swore I would keep our last name in his honor. But with time, I realized my dad is more than just the last name he gave me. My dad knew Karl, and I know he not only would have been happy to see me marry him, he would have been totally cool with me taking his name. Also on a totally superficial level, I always wanted a last name like Gary.  When I was little, I dreamed of being a newscaster or actress and decided when I was an adult I'd change my last name to a male first name or a shorter name from further back in the family.  Alison Blake.  Alison David.  Alison Chase.  Meeting an amazing man with a pretty catchy last name was a bonus.  When I went to have my last name legally changed after our wedding, I also had my original last name legally changed to my middle name. While I don’t use it on the daily, it’s officially part of me forever.

But that’s my story, and I am a completely different person from you, and from everyone else. Names are personal, names can carry a lot of weight, a lot of memories, a lot of pain, a lot of pride. And luckily we live in a time when women have the right to do what they wish when it comes to their names.

I live in an awesome, inclusive, and kinda crunchy town. There’s as many women who kept their last name as women who changed it. There’s a few couples who together changed their names to something completely different, couples who both hyphenated, and many couples who are happily committed but not married. It’s all awesome because it’s what is right for them.

I have learned in such a community you can NEVER assume a person’s last name. Jane Smith and John Doe may have a kid together, but that doesn’t mean the kid’s last name is Smith, or Doe, or Smith-Doe. Steve Green may introduce you to his wife Denise, but you can’t assume her last name is also Green. Amy may introduce you to her son’s father Greg, but that doesn’t mean Greg is her husband, partner, or even an ex. I know the addresses of Emerson’s friends’ homes. I know the email addresses of the parents. I text with them, I’ll chat with them for a whole half hour in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store but I may not know their last name. Often I don’t know their last name until we friend one another on Facebook.

So what does a kid call her friend’s parents? In our community, it’s usually their first name. This wigged me out at first, I felt there should be some separation between parent and peer. In Girl Scouts, we leaders tried to start the troop by having the girls call us Ms. Lastname. That lasted about five minutes. Kids who only call teachers Mr. or Ms. Lastname were utterly confused (especially when the kids of the leaders had different last names!). We got them comfortable with Ms. Firstname, but that didn’t sit terribly well with us. We as leaders, and I as a parent in this community have gotten used to just being called by our first name, sometimes with a Ms. in front of it, and often just being called “So-and-so’s Mom.”

A family is so much more than a last name. I know families where each kid has a different last name and each parent another different name and it doesn’t matter. It doesn't matter because family transcends names and titles and cultural stereotypes. And love in a partnership transcends names. You live in a time where you married because you wanted to, not because you had to. As a feminist, you made the decision to have your union legally binding. The same holds true with your name, and the name of any child the two of you may bring into your family.

Re-reading your email, I think you already know what is right for you. I fully support it, and it sounds as though your husband does too. People may say there’s no right answer but there is a right answer, and it’s the one that your gut and your heart is telling you. Celebrate the fact that right now we live in a time and country where we have this freedom!

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. Golly, this is a really timely post for me. Been married for 16 years, didn’t take his name but am now in the early stages of pregnancy. I guess we’re going to have to make some decisions!

    I didn’t want to take his name a) ‘cos I didn’t want to feel like I was changing identity/ subsuming myself into his family and b) ‘cos I actually don’t like that side of the family. (His parents are divorced and remarried, I much prefer my mother-in-law’s side of the family but she’s got a different name to my husband now).

    My relationship with my father (‘cos my surname is his) is quite problematic too. The name I’d like to identify most is my mother’s maiden name – there’s a strong line of awesome women in that line.

    Complicated! My husband won’t change as his name is rare and he has a strong identity about passing on the name so I suspect he’s going to want the surname somewhere in the baby’s name…

    We’ll have to have a good long think and talk about it.

  2. Its interesting as in Latin America the moment you marry, the most usual thing that will happen is that, in your case your name changes to: Allison Ashpes de Gary. “De” can be translated as “from” or “that it belongs to”. For me, that was not the case as I chose to keep my name, its the last name on all my diplomas and its part of my identity. In our case, children take both of the parents last name, so your daughter would be Emerson Gary Ashpes.

  3. I kept my last name when I got marriied, my husband never had an issue with it. My mother, however, did! I have a son from a previous relationship and he has my last name. That was a decision I thought deeply about. I decided that because I grew him in my body he would have my name. Part of the reason I kept my name when I married was to maintain the connection to my son through a shared name. It doesn’t bother me when people call me Mrs. Hubby’slastname, I only correct it if it’s legal business.

  4. I kept my last name when my husband I married for many of the same reasons mentioned by the reader in her original question: new in my career, my name is strong and alliterative, but most of all it just felt right. When we had our first child, 7 years later, I hyphenated my name so I would have a connection in name to our kids. The hyphenated name is a pain to write out and spell when speaking to customer service reps, etc, and four years later, I’m still not quite used to it. I use my maiden name at work and most of my friends use just my maiden name because they know I prefer it to the hyphenated name. I live in the Deep South and even here, I haven’t gotten any flack for my decisions regarding my name, so to the newlywed: go with what feels best to you and congratulations on your marriage!

  5. When my husband and I got married I kept my last name. And then years later when pregnant with our child, I had a (hormone-fueled??) change of heart and legally changed my name less than 2 weeks before our daughter was born. We were intent on giving our child my husband’s last name because my husband is the last one in his family with this name and he/we wanted it to carry on to a future generation. I have two last names now. No hyphen, just two surnames. My original/birth surname and my husband’s surname. I use only my birth surname in a professional context e.g., I introduce myself with only that one name. But in a social setting I don’t care as much. We’re often referred to as “The Husband’s Last Name Family” and that’s ok with me.

  6. This is so great! Almost 20 years ago, when I kept my name after marriage, my husband was totally supportive and it has been no problem at all–seriously. Sometimes, strangers (or even family) might get confused and think I have his last name or vice versa, but that is few and far between. About having kids: I get it. Both of our kids have HIS last name, but their first and middle names are inspired by MY family and that works really well. I don’t mind having a different last name and when people refer to our family unit, or in our stickers we use for return address stickers, we say “mylastname-hislast name family” and it works just fine. When we talk about ourselves as a family unit to others we just put a hyphen between our names and add Family at the end. My kids grew up with this and so it’s perfectly normal and when they were old enough to ask about it, I was proud to tell them I kept my name. So, I encourage you to go with your heart and what you and your husband decide. Some friends like us have given their kids HER last name and some have given them HIS last name and others have hyphenated their last names to give their kids two last names. It’s up to you!

  7. I’m from Quebec and here due to feminist reasons getting married is not a valid reason to change your last name. It annoys some people but it has eliminated people being weird about couples having different last names.

  8. I kept all four names! I’m very close to my family and didn’t marry super young, so my maiden name was very much a part of my identity. So my legal name is: First Middle Maiden Married. It’s very personal to me and I love it. I always go by First Married and for monograms (I’m Southern…) I used First Middle & Married. The only time I’ve regretted my decision was when I had to sign mortgage paperwork. Holy hand cramps! And, in this day and age, it’s also a security measure as most people don’t know I kept all four names and I sign checks and “official” paperwork with a different signature than cc receipts or school forms.

  9. OP, you do you! I felt like I’ve been myself with one name for my whole life and to boot, my spouse’s name is more difficult than my own! 🙂 I tossed and turned (literally – husband said when I’d fall asleep, before we got married, I would have discussions with myself about changing my name) over this and decided I would take the lazy way out by saying “I don’t want to change my name because I don’t want to deal with the paperwork.” Then I divert to another topic. It got a little sticky when my husband’s parents asked when I’m changing my last name and I said I’m not. Husband supported me in that conversation as well, and it’s never come up again. We don’t have kids but hope to someday, so we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

  10. People will always have opinions about your name and what you should do with it. Good for them. Then, do what you and your husband decide is best for you. I chose not to give up an 8-letter Eastern European last name for the nice simple, one-syllable one of my husband. He didn’t care, I didn’t want to, decision made. I did suggest we create a new name mashing up both of ours (Wolfnik. Cool, right?) but he preferred not to. I’ve had people tell me that “I’m not as committed to my marriage” (true story) because of the name thing. Well, 22 years after our wedding, I’m very clear that that opinion is bonkers. (Then again, I may be an outlier’s outlier. We also chose not to have children and I didn’t want an engagement ring.) And just to be clear, those of you with changed names, children and engagement rings? Totally cool by me. I don’t need to judge someone else’s choice to make me feel better about mine. If a genie gave me three wishes, Number One would be getting women to stop beating each other up for their individual choices.

  11. I was never really that fond of my last name. It also started with a W, so I was always last in classrooms that went alphabetically. I had no problems changing my name when I got married. My office does not update our electronic signatures in our software programs, so a lot of women “sign” things with a different name. No matter what you choose, you will encounter name confusion somewhere.

    Two of my friends recently married, and the husband wanted to change his name. He is estranged from most of his family, and wanted to cut ties with them, but he didn’t like his fiance’s last name. So he changed his middle name to his last name. She changed her name to his new one, and now they are a brand new family, which I find kind of sweet.

    A note about last names and voting – here in Texas, the voting registration list has a married woman’s name as FirstName UnmarriedLastName MarriedLastName. This is regardless of how you legally changed your name. Two years ago, Texas started requiring legal IDs to vote, and turned down a lot of women because the name on their driver’s license did not match the voting registration list.

    1. My sister INSISTS that my last name is “really” my husband’s even though I never legally changed it. Or wanted to. She still calls me that…a name of someone who doesn’t exist.

  12. Great post! My husband was born with a hyphenated last name (my mother-in-law is a badass feminist). I, too, always liked my last name and have decided to keep it. The real question for us is what our children’s last names will be. We have talked about having our (future) kids take my last name out of simplicity, but it is a real challenge to decide and maintain family history and namesake. We are undecided at the moment, but I welcome this conversation as it is super relevant these days!

  13. In Sweden it’s not uncommon for the husband to take his wife’s last name after they are married. Well, that the wife takes the name of the husband or keeps her own is more usual but even without trying I can name four couples taking the name of the wife, among those my sister and her husband. For me the main thing was that I and my husband had the same last name, and since he moved permanently to this country to be with me it was natural for me to take his last name to bring his background (Norwegian) closer to us.

  14. I kept my name because it’s who I am (and because my father died when I was only 22). Some of my older relatives still insist on addressing mail as Mr & Mrs [husband’s last name] or they hyphenate our names together, but I’ve learned to ignore that. But I have friends who have been thrilled to take a new name and that’s great too. Each to her own, I say.

  15. I kept my name because I felt I might lose my identity (a bit dramatic), I didn’t like the tradition and because I didn’t want to be lumped in with my husband’s family. It was also on my professional degrees and I didn’t want to look like a fly-by-night. My daughter and I have different last names and no one has made a big deal out of it. When people call me Mrs Husband I get a kick out of it. Later I asked him if I should change my name and he said no. I know a couple who came up with a new last name based on their love of nature. Crunchy and romantic. I guess it was a matter of independence for me.

  16. Very interesting topic! I ended up taking my husband’s name, keeping my maiden name as my middle name. I continued to use my maiden name at work. I had worked hard for my career. Believe it or not, my boss – VP of HR!- told me if he were my husband he’d be really angry about me keeping my maiden name at work??!!!

  17. It is a conundrum! I’ve experienced all of the emotions and opinions shared. 1. As a new bride, I married a man with a family name known to our community for decades. Taking his last name made me feel like I belonged. 2. As a divorced mother, do I go back to a maiden name I haven’t been known by for 15 years? I didn’t. I hated being asked if I had the “same last name” as my children when making doctor appointments are registering the kids for school (I also stopped indicating marital status on questionnaires, health history and applications). Oh, and lucky me, I got remarried before my ex-did, heaven forbid there have been two Mrs.HisName (Me,the ex and Her, the new wife). 3. As a repeat bride…now what? Repeat almost all of the previous scenarios? Sort of…I went to my given first name instead of the shortened nickname I’d used for 37 years (new hubby has a evil sister with the same shortened version of my name) and I took his last name (cause I couldn’t figure out what else to do…maiden, first marriage, second marriage, oy). I should have gone with my favorite dating alias last name…Justright. It was my own, it was perfect, it was just right.

  18. Do what makes you and DH happy. Don’t worry about your family, in-laws or co-workers.

    I will say that hyphenated names are a PITA especially if one or more of the names is long or unusual. Don’t do it. However, if you (the woman) hyphenate your last name, then he should also.

    Changing your on every official document and account is painful and time consuming. Since you didn’t do upon marriage (not sure how long it’s been) you may find that you can’t easily change it later. Since 9/11 it may require a court order to change it other than at the time of marriage or divorce.

  19. This discussion resonates with me. Twenty-five years ago when we married, I too went through this decision process. It was actually suggested to me (by friends) that my husband might think my reluctance to take his name showed a lack of commitment on my part. Luckily we don’t generally ‘guess’ what each other thinks about important matters, we talk about them. I am proud of my French background and felt my family name expressed that important part of me. I had built a thriving career where I was well known under that name. And the idea of giving up my birth certificate to have it returned to me with my husband’s name as a document of identification felt completely disrespectful to me. It made me feel the heavy weight of the ridiculous historical reasons behind the tradition of changing your name when you marry. My husband was completely accepting of my decision and my reasons. It was my name, after all. Over the past ten years, I have gradually started changing my name — at first to new friends, and eventually on government documents. Over time, as our children grew, I felt less like this was an abandonment of who I am and more like it was an expression of who I am now. I guess what I am saying is that your name reflects who you are and your image of yourself changes over time. Thank goodness we have the freedom to choose how we express those changes!

  20. I have my own last name. I was married before and took his name. When I divorced, I took back my name and have kept it ever since. We discussed taking his name, taking my name or keeping our own. As we both had our own careers, we each kept our own names. Also he was a state official and since I regularly dealt with a state agency, I didn’t want any implied influence on my dealings. Six months later I learned the agency had known all along. No secrets in government work!
    It’s been 32 years and I’m still quite comfortable with my own name. We don’t have children, not sure if that would have had any impact on our choices.

  21. This is another rich topic for conversation! Yay! I’ll start out by saying that I am totally on the side of this being an individual choice. Here are some personal examples: My daughter got engaged a few months ago and is planning to keep her last name when she marries this summer, as she feels it is in keeping with her feminism and she is developing a career already with that name. My understanding is that my future son-in-law is totally supportive of this. . .When her best friend/roommate from college got married 5 years ago, she and her husband created an new last name as a combination of their family names. . . When I got married (35+ years ago!) I was a totally committed feminist and considered keeping my name. But, to be honest, my parents always have had a stormy marriage (and it’s still that way, after 60+ years); meanwhile, my in-laws-to-be had a very loving marriage, that felt more like what I wanted mine to be like. So I made the choice to take my husband’s name, hoping that would help to create the path towards what I really wanted to experience. There is power in renaming, when you want to leave dysfunctional patterns behind. Did it help? Maybe! Or maybe the strong work and intention–and all the love–that we put into our relationship all these years, regardless of name. That’s what counts in the end!

  22. I’m the last Downing, so this is something that I’ve thought about too- although I love my boyfriend’s last name. My mom hated her first name and didn’t care much for her middle name so when she got married, her social security card/ everything from Mathis Ann Milling to Mathy Milling Downing. My middle name is a family name on both sides so I might do Caroline Suzanne Downing Price and name my first daughter EmmaLeigh Suzanne Downing Price to keep it going.

    I think what it boils down to is what feels right for the individual and their family.
    x0x0 Caroline http://thecarolove.com/

  23. Why not have him take your name? That’s also an option that never gets mentioned. Or is it not possible in the US? I’m from Sweden and we don’t really do titles or last names except for royalty. We call everybody by their first name, be it kids, parents, teachers, bosses… Everyone are adressed by just their first name, by everyone, young or old. Last names are not usually used in everyday conversations. That beeing said, we do like our last names, and we like them to stand out a bit. We have a lot of Svensson, Andersson, Johnsson and other last names ending in -sson, and most people will happily change it for something more uniqe. When two people get married, they usually take the less common name from the two, no matter who’s it is. So he might take her name, she might take his… or they keep their names, or make up a new one together. 🙂

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