Legally Married: How to Advocate for Keeping Your Last Name
Author: Neena S.
So I polled members of the community about the age old question: Do I take his last name? In today's age, I have been very intrigued by the issue behind keeping your last name. I have been asked by black men, well what about the kids? Whose name would they have? I also posed the question often to the black men I met: would you be willing to let your wife keep her last name? The responses varied with the presumption being negative. Thus, I decided to unpack this further by asking women who were married to either black men or white men, single folks who were seriously dating, and single black women professionals and I made very impactful discoveries.
The Ask: If your future wife chose to keep her last name how would you feel?
She should have my last name because she is my wife and I also want my kids to have my last name. But I also wanted her to keep her last name because that is common in my culture and I know she is the last generation to have the last name. -Married Black Man
She take mines the end. You don't want it marry your daddy. -Married Black Man
She doesn't want to get married then. -Single Black Man
If we get married, then her taking my last name is her coming up under the protection of my family name. Without that, it would seem she didn't care enough about the relationship. -Single Black Man
Any girl who thinks that is going to have a hard time finding a black man willing to consider that. -Single Black Professional Woman
I mean it's possible but what about the kids. I have never really thought of a woman saying that to me. I also never imagined that there are professional reasons as well as personal reasons that would impact that decision. -Black Man Dating
The Ask: Why do you/society feel taking the man's last name is more important
I never really questioned it and never had a problem taking a man’s last name because I was never taught that it was a bad thing or felt pressured by society to do it. I am glad that I get to keep my last name though because my dad only had girls, so now I get to continue the last name because my kids will have both my last name and my husband’s last name. -Married Black Woman
Historically, marriage is an institution by which men acquire property (e.g. dowry, woman to bear his heirs, etc.). A woman was her father's property, and hence carried his last name, until she became her husband's property and took his name. To not have his name was to not be fully his. That is essentially why it is "important" to take the man's last name. -Single Black Professional Woman
A man who has his name taken often feels like this is a symbolism of two becoming one. It also stems from a man never really being put in the position to have to question what it would be like to not have his name “identity” being eliminated. -Single Black Professional Woman.
The Ask: Would you be willing to take your wife's last name?
We know a ton of people whose wives kept their last names and I even have a friend whose husband took her last name. -Married White Professional Woman
Are you kidding me? Never. -Married Black Man
I understand there are people who want parents and children to have the same last name. As a solution, I have seen some couples hyphenate both of their names, and the kids' last names will be a combination of each of their parents' names. I also support men taking their wives' names if they wish to have continuity. -Single Black Professional Woman
The Ask: What do you have to say to people who tell you that your wife keeping her last name or you taking hers is wrong or that she doesn't value the relationship?
Those people are wrong. Why would you ever marry someone you don't value? And if so, not valuing your partner would manifest in other, more serious ways than taking your name. A partner who doesn't value you doesn't consider your opinion or cultivate your ambitions. Refusal to take a surname should be the least of my concern's if my partner didn't value me. -Single Black Professional Woman
I’m not married but I told my boyfriend I wanted to get my name hyphenated. I don’t want to change my name on every single thing. So I said on paper, my name would be hyphenated but I would go by his last name and our children’s last name would be his also. In my personal opinion I really don’t think the name should matter in this day. I feel like taking someone’s name was important in the old days when a woman would be out and about and someone would ask her name and think ‘oh she’s married to —-‘ you know? Before everything was displayed on social media. -Black Woman Dating
The Ask: How did you make the decision to keep or change your last name?
My husband and I kept our names the same this time. When I got divorced it was a huge hassle to get the court order for the name change, and then change it with my banks, and with social security, and with the university, and many other places. I probably had to send in a few dozen name change requests to various places. I even have friends whose husbands took their wives last names. -Married White Woman
My primary reason for keeping my name is that I've already begun my professional career under my maiden name (publications, grants submissions, etc.), so I'd have to change more than just my license and social security card. -Single Professional Black Woman
I kept my last name and added his to the end! I one day might want to open my own firm and I’d like to have my last name still because of its recognition in the Latino community. If I just had his last name it might not be as easily apparent that I’m a Hispanic bilingual attorney. Also, whenever I receive my JD I want it to have my last name on there too because I’ll be the first on both sides of my family to get a graduate degree so I feel a sense of pride in that. We discussed it prior to getting married and he fully understood my reasoning and supported me on the decision. -Married Hispanic Woman
I haven't decided yet, but I'll probably either keep my last name or hyphenate it. But rest assured, it will be a conversation topic that comes up early, ideally before there's even a proposal. -Single Professional Black Woman
It was easy because I got to keep mine and add his. We want our children to have both and continue the tradition of my husband’s culture, so I kept both.-Married Black Woman
In assessing these questions and the answers, I realized that there are far more people used to the idea of a woman taking a man’s last name. White men and women are far more likely to be open to this idea and even to the idea of taking the woman's last name. The reasons have varied for not keeping her last name from being: a respect for the relationship, the man’s feeling strongly about his last name carrying on his legacy, the woman’s desire to carry on her family name being one of only girl siblings, the woman’s own professional publications and having her name recognized in her community, the woman’s desire to keep her identity and not be forced to change documents and her name everywhere, and a few black men were understanding and let her keep her name and added theirs whereas some white men took their wife’s last name. In fact, in one instance, a mom’s last name was Native American and her husband was open to legacy of that culture carrying on with the kids names . My thoughts as a Black and an Indian woman relies on three main points.
First, when I set out to pursue a relationship, I am often asked to learn to make compromises in a relationship. My first thought when I hear this argument is what does compromising my last name have to do with the strength of our bond?. From day one, I hope to cherish the man I choose to end up with, but a relationship is more than giving up your identity. It is a deep emotional bond that deserves to be able to withstand challenges to the status quo. If society presumed women’s last names should be taken, a man would possibly have an issue with having to give up his own last name without question. In fact, he would likely question the practice and want to understand why this had to occur. Too often, we do things out of feeling obligated and not questioning how we feel. Compromise however means that we value and take into account someone’s emotional needs and often times, it will contradict the status quo. That does not mean we cannot learn to accept a trend towards letting women keep her last name. It just means it is different than what most people do. We have to be willing to break tradition in our relationships to continue to become more responsive to our partners and that starts with refusing to accept “that’s just how it is” logic.
Second, many times our decisions as women are not often seen as reasonable, and there is an underlying presumption that if we are not famous or a celebrity that our desire to keep our names is foolish or misguided. I would challenge that with the reality is that most professional women who attain a JD, MD, or PhD have had many instances to be published, earned grants in their name, patented or invented ideas, and have gained some form of notoriety for their name. I was first exposed to this possibility in law school when a white professor of mine and her husband both kept their names. When I asked why, the seemingly natural and simple response was that she and he had been published. Simply having your maiden name on a degree can be powerful to your family and to the brand that you have cultivated. Many people remember women that way in the community and changing the name can take away from the continuity in your own professional contributions.
Lastly, the part of this conversation that is often missed is that just like the man cannot imagine his family legacy being erased. That same issue happens for a woman especially when she considers her father's name or given last name. Her wanting to keep her last name does not question her love for you like many suggest. Think about naming your first child. The hope is that the name you both pick incorporates and honors both of your cultures and histories. Likewise, a full erasure of her name does not comply with the underlying need to hear her side of this decision. We cannot move forward with following a patriarchal system without questioning how does this system undermine my wife's need to be heard.
Ask yourself the question early on about your last name and its importance to you.
Talk to and engage with many different people about their views and challenge the status quo about your thoughts on this issue.
Prioritize your beliefs over societal pressures to change your name.
Consider alternative reasons to help illustrate your desires: not wanting to change all your documents, the equal importance of your family name, your professional work identity, your own views on choices being important for you and your future daughters.
Remember this is a system that has been in place for a while. Merely challenging it will be met with opposition and huge critique. Your reasons are just as valid. You do not have to be a celebrity or notable to desire this.
Be clear on why keeping your name matters to you and know there are many women and men who understand your mindset. Be confident knowing your last name is equally important and valuable.
Open to Comment
In my poll, there were many cultural insights that were not voiced or included, and I want to know more about how your culture handles the idea about a woman wanting to keep her last name. Please share this article and weigh in on what you think. I'd love to hear from you.