What's in a name change?

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I just read one of those reverse-trend stories, this one purporting to show how today's brides are reverting to the traditional practice of taking their husbands' surnames. Except that it doesn't.

According to The Daily Beast, Facebook identified 14 million married females from age 20 to 79 who are active on the social media site and were wed in the United States. It determined that 65 percent of those in their 20s and 30s changed their name in marriage. For women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, the percentages rose to 68, 75 and 80, respectively. Which actually shows more young women, not fewer, are keeping their names.

Other studies cited by the article do show a drop. A 35-year retrospective, "The Bride is Keeping Her Name," published in 2009 by the Journal of Social Behavior, looked at some 2,400 wedding announcements in The New York Times from 1971 through 2005. Researchers noticed a decline in name-keeping as early as the 1990s. About 23 percent in that decade retained their surname, dropping to 18 percent in the 2000s.

It also sites a 2011 study from Names: A Journal of Onomastics, which found that women who wed between the ages of 35 and 39 were 6.4 times more likely to keep their names than those who married between the ages of 20 and 24.

No surprise there. At that stage of life, women are more likely to have established a professional identity that they want to preserve. The decision, then, may be as much practical as political.

But there's no denying that sexual politics played a role in the original trend toward maintaining one's name. The notion of married women becoming appendages of their husbands did not sit well with a generation striving for self-determination and equality.

Especially demeaning was the practice of labeling wives as, say, Mrs. Albert Miller, as opposed to Mrs. Jenny Miller. The former wiped out any vestige of the wife's persona. I was reminded of this last week when I came across a 1969 program from the Pittsburgh Symphony. The women's committee read pretty much the same as the all-male board of directors, except with a Mrs. stuck on the front. They had absolutely no identities of their own.

Having said that, however, I wouldn't presume to tell anyone else what to do with her own name. Keep it, change it, hyphenate it -- each comes with pluses and minuses.

Heck, they can even do what Phoebe once did in "Friends" when she realized she could change her name to anything she liked and chose Princess Consuela Bananahammock.

Keeping your name in marriage, as I and most of my friends did, is certainly easy enough. It requires exactly no paperwork, at least in Pennsylvania. Banks, mortgage companies, credit cards, etc. have no problem understanding that people with different last names can still be married and putting both on your accounts if you so choose. And we've never had a problem traveling abroad as a family, either.

If you keep your name, old classmates and others from the past will be able to find you more easily -- which can be good or bad, depending -- and if you divorce or remarry, you're not stuck with the ex's name or facing another round of document-changing.

On the other hand, it probably means having a different last name than your offspring, who still tend to be named after their dad. I do know a couple who gave one child the father's last name and the other the mother's, but that's rare.

When I was pregnant, I told my husband that I was thinking of changing my name.

"To what?" he asked.

"To Rothschild, of course. Might as well pick the best. No, Dr. Einstein, to your name."

"Oh," he said, looking genuinely puzzled. "Why would you want to do that?"

"So I'd have the same name as the baby," I replied.

"You think she won't know who her mother is?"

"No, but it would just be easier ..."

"Fine, if you really want to," he said.

What I really wanted was to stay who I was, and in my case it was all for the best. When I wrote a series about judicial arrogance -- did I mention my spouse is a lawyer? -- our union was not common knowledge among the judges so he didn't catch a lot of hell by association. The choice was better for our daughter, too, since my columns about motherhood employed her as a lead character. Some people knew, of course, but not the entire city.

In her preschool, just about every kid had parents with different last names, making it twice as hard to remember and keep track. As a practical matter, I answered to whichever name people used for me (well, maybe not "idiot" or "knucklehead") and didn't make an issue of it unless there was a compelling reason.

So I completely understand why women choose to change or keep their names. I even understand the middle ground of hyphenation, even though it's a pain for everyone else.

I've always wondered what hyphenated kids think about their names -- especially if they grow up to marry a hyphenated mate. If Tina Cohen-Chang from "Glee" married Freddy Sternin-Crane from "Cheers" and "Frasier," would they couple their hyphens into a freight-train signature? Or chuck it all and change to Smith?

As more states legalize gay marriage, it will be interesting to see what naming trends emerge among same-sex couples. But whether Heather has two moms, two dads or one of each, she's still going to know who her parents are, and that's what matters most.


Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1610).


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