Changing Your Last Name: Yes or No?

To change my last name or not to change my last name… that is the question that I’ve been asking myself since before I got married in January of this year. Initially, I was quite eager to change my last name to my husbands’ last name, but as time passed and the timing in which I would be potentially changing it drew closer, I hesitated. Upon my engagement I would scribble Mrs. Justine Shields on paper, and imagine what it would be like to have this new name, but as the time came to start the process of actually changing my name post-wedding, I realized that it wasn’t something I actually thought through.

This is a common struggle for some women when they are betrothed or already married. The process of changing your last name to that of your husband is a societal ‘norm’, and while there are a number of women who keep their last names, and those who hyphenate, the largest percentage of married women in North America change their last names. Growing up, that is the norm that most children see in regards to heterosexual married couples; they see a husband and wife, with the same last name (whether it be their own family unit or their friends families, or families in movies and tv) and they view it as the ‘norm’. This was the same for me; growing up, I assumed that would be what I did when I got married, because, it was what was done. Most heterosexual males would likely assume the same thing, progressive or not, because it is the general societal assumption. This does not go to say that many men would not be completely fine with their spouse not taking their last name, as many are entirely fine with that once the subject is broached, it simply would likely not be something that they would have thought about growing up unless they were part of a family where the mother had not changed her name, or hyphenated.

I found that in reaching out to friends, family, coworkers, and some different social circles, I came back with mixed reviews on a married woman taking her husband’s last name or not. Some viewed it as the woman’s choice, others felt it was disrespectful to ‘the family unit’ to have different last names, and some felt very strongly that a woman should not take her husband’s last name. Personally, I feel as though it is entirely each individual woman’s choice as to what she wants to do, as it will be her name to carry, and no one else’s, and something that should definitely be discussed as a couple. However, making my personal decision was much more difficult than I anticipated it to be.

I read a surplus of articles, picked the brain of friends who were recently married, and looked at examples of women older than myself to compare what their choices were. My own mother had taken my father’s last name when she married, and my two cousins on my father’s side – who are both female – kept their last name, with both of their husbands adopting their last name. On my husband’s side, his mother hyphenated her last name, while some of her female siblings also kept their own last name upon marrying. The majority of my friends who are married, have all taken their husband’s last names, for their own personal reasons which, again, is completely their choice to do so.

While doing my research, I took the time to really dig into the reasoning I would have for and against changing my last name. If I was to make a decision either way, I would need to stand behind my choice, and make the most informed decision I could. My initial thoughts were that it would be beneficial for when we have children one day, as we would all have the same name. But was that enough? My husband’s last name, Shields, is a nice last name and less likely to be mispronounced than my own, but was that enough?

While I had no particularly strong attachment to my last name, it really hit me when I began to look at changing it on my social media profiles, that I did not like losing my last name. I felt as though, throughout my life, I have learned and grown and become the person that I am with this name, and made that name my own. Not to mention I have written some articles and other online pieces that are attached to my name professionally. As well, the thing that hit me the most was why do I, as a woman, have to think about changing my last name while my husband does not, and it is not socially assumed that he would change his last name? Thinking more and more about the roots of where that came from, also made me question what I would choose.

Other useful things I learned while doing research is that, in many countries, such as Greece, women legally have to keep their maiden names. In their opinion, it was easier to have women keep their last names so that their family tree and identity would not be lost, and upon giving birth to a child, the couple would decide which last name the child would receive. In Quebec it is also mandatory for women to keep their maiden names, which has come to light in recent years as to whether that is or is not a breech in womens’ rights. I also learned was that in Iran, married women will also keep their last names for similar reasons to that of Greece. It was fascinating to me to read about the different marital structure in other countries, as well as my own.

I also took to the web to search successful, empowered women, who did and did not change their names. My conclusion was that there was no evidence that one choice over the other led to more or less success within their chosen fields. For women such as Amal Clooney (nee Alamuddin) and Hillary Clinton (nee Rodham), they both went on to be wildly successful in their fields, and nothing substantial has changed since taking the names of their husbands to affect their personal careers in any way. Both are feminists, both took their husband’s last name (Hillary later on in their marriage, Amal directly following their wedding), and both continue to be extremely successful women. There are those like Sophie Gregoire Trudeau who hyphenated roughly ten years post-marriage, and again, are still very successful and happy. Whereas others, such as Angelina Jolie, Gloria Steinem, and Jennifer Lopez, chose to keep their last name upon getting married and, again, are still completely successful with no difference in their careers. Mary Wollstonecraft (who you will know I adore if you read this post), was known to have written “femme Godwin” after her full given name to insinuate that she was married, and suffragette Lucy Stone was quoted saying, “A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers.” to those who marched with her, and advocated for women to have a choice in the matter. 

Following all of this research, I’ve still come to the same conclusion that I had initially; I believe no choice is ‘more right’ than the other; all options are entirely the choice of the woman who is to be wed, and I do not think it to be ‘more feminist’ to not change your last name – which was something I was initially concerned about. My husband has always been of the opinion that it is entirely my choice to make, and while he personally does not want to change his name in any way, he is completely comfortable with whatever decision that I make. This made it significantly easier for me as I certainly would not feel comfortable if my husband were to force me to change my last name and not give me the chance to talk about it together. I believe it is a choice, and something to discuss as a couple to determine which option best suits the woman, and works for the couple. As of now, I am of the opinion that I am going to keep my own last name. I do not wish to change it or hyphenate it. However, there is always the possibility that somewhere down the line I may change my mind, and wish to change it or hyphenate it when we have children. I am very lucky to have such supportive family on both my side, and on my husbands’ side, who are so encouraging towards my husband and I to make our own choices in these matters.

Moreover, my consensus is that it is a personal choice, and for women who are currently going through the debate, do not let anyone else’s opinions cloud your mind. If you and your spouse are comfortable with whatever arrangement you make, that is all that matters. Do not let anyone belittle you for changing your last name, or for not changing your last name. The choice is yours, always. The point I really want to make, is that women have the right to choose, and neither choice will make you any more or any less of an independent woman or successful woman. You will be the same person whether you change your name or not, it does not define you, you define you. Simply do whatever feels right for you! Hopefully this will help those who may be going through the same debate that I was, and encourage them to make the decision that they feel most comfortable with – there is no right or wrong in this scenario, regardless of what some people on either end of the spectrum may think.

Here are a few more articles to puruse for those who are interested!

The Guardian

Today

Stylist 

Huffington Post 

BBC

Refinery 29

Maclean’s