Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What's In A Name Change, Mrs. Justin Timberlake?

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Even the cars are fashionable for French weddings

When I was young and so full of optimism and a sense of empowerment I made a decision that I was so certain put me squarely in the world of the new normal. Now I’ve found that I’m living in the world of dinosaurs. Or maybe it’s the world of the Giant Panda – there are some others like me, but we’re in danger of extinction. And we owe it all to Jessica Biel, the new Mrs. Justin Timberlake.

She just announced that she’s officially (as in paperwork and everything) changed her last name to “Timberlake.” She’ll continue to use her original name professionally, though, since she’s created quite an extensive body of mascara commercials under it. Maybe she’ll use her last name to take up the role of backup dancer in The Mrs. Carter Show of another name-changer, BeyoncĂ© (aka Knowles-Carter)

And so I ask myself as part of the measley 8% who maintain their last name after marriage why so many women continue to go down the traditional route when generations of women who came before fought so hard that we could join country clubs under our own name, and own property, and vote without our husband’s permission, and be on the verge of perhaps becoming the first female president. (Alas, I’m aware of the whole controversy when Hillary went from “Rodham” to “Clinton” to “Rodham Clinton.” What a shame.) Why do more than 60% of the people in a poll – men and women – think that women should take their husband’s name when they marry?

It didn’t take much effort to decide to keep my name. When I got married and was spending all my time in a bastion of liberal progressiveism, i.e., the university, keeping my name put me in extensive company. I already had started down a professional life and thought it would be too complicated to notify colleagues across the country or to connect past articles I wrote with future ones. Plus, -- and more importantly – I liked my name. I liked the family it connected me to. It wasn’t any kind of political stand. However, it seemed that by that point in history more women would be staking claims on their own identity.

At first, my husband-to-be tried to convince me to change it, but then I said, “If having the same last name is so important, then why don’t you change yours to Farrar?” That pretty much closed that discussion. I had no problem giving our kids his name without any fancy hyphenation (although in college I knew a couple who hyphenated their names and then both took the new name). All of the friends of my kids called me Mrs. C instead of Ms. F, but I was fine with that. When relatives we rarely saw addressed Christmas cards to Mr. and Mrs. C, I could let that go. However, when telemarketers call asking for Mrs. C, I can honestly say, “There’s no one here by that name.”

However, finding that the women in my kids’ generation are still opting for the traditional route, with only 8% changing compared to 23% in the decade after I got married, I’m confused. This generation does nothing traditional, from the careers they follow to the technology they adopt to the styles they wear. Yet young American women – who are now marrying in their late twenties and have careers of their own – are still willing to do all the paperwork necessary to do what women did back before they had the vote or owned property under their own name. One researcher theorizes that name changing is a symbol of unity and commitment. Since I’ve been married 28 years I don’t think that reason flies. I’m sure actress Demi Moore was envisioning long-term commitment when she set up the now-abandoned Twitter account @MrsKutcher.

This issue of a different last name has stalked me doubly recently. Ever since we bought property in France we’ve had all of the France-related mail showing up in our American mailbox addressed to “Mme. Farrar.” This means “Mrs. Farrar” because the French have yet to develop any word or abbreviation the equivalent of “Ms.” Madamoiselle” is for unmarried women while “Madame” is for married ones, no matter your age or name situation. One rebellious town in that country, however, has passed a law that proclaims nothing but “Madame” should be used when dealing with adult women. It’s not a perfect solution, but at least they’re taking a stand while the rest of their country continues to dither over this language issue into the 21st century.

And so here I remain, a symbol of the Boomers generation, realizing I'm practically extinct.

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So what about you? Are you a name changer? What were your reasons for whichever direction you went? What are your theories as to why young women continue on this traditional path? Talk to us in the comments box about what’s in a name.


Nadine Feldman said...

Well, it's complicated! When I married the first time, I used a hyphenated last name. In my second marriage, I took his name because, well, Nadine Galinsky has a really cool ring to it. Yes, I'm that shallow sometimes.

So, when I married Henry Feldman, I took his name because it felt like bad form to keep the name of a previous husband. I use Galinsky Feldman on books, sort of a John Cougar Mellancamp thing, but Galinsky is no longer my legal name.

I'm done getting married, and I'm done changing my name. If this one doesn't last, God forbid, I figure I have no business being married, let alone worrying about what name to take!

Good for you for keeping it simple!

elizabethfais said...

I married and divorced young, and went back to my maiden name. As the years passed by and I remained single, I've been shocked by the number of women who treat me as if I belong to a lower class because I do not "have a husband". I've come to realize that there is still a certain "status" tied to being married, and it's my guess that the women who choose to change their names want people to KNOW they are married to cash in on the status. Kind of sad, really. When I do get married again, I will keep my name. If my husband wants to change his, that's his decision. ;-)

Siri Paulson said...

Good post, Julie! Having just gotten married last year, I struggled with this very question. Most of my high school friends from a smaller, more conservative city have changed their names; most of the women I know here in Toronto have kept theirs and were surprised that I was even considering changing mine.

Complicating the issue was that I was marrying across cultures: my husband's name was literally foreign to me, though my first name is ambiguous enough that I could well have passed myself off as East least until I was introduced in person!

The idea of confounding expectations did have a certain appeal. But in the end I decided that my name was ME, and I didn't really want to change it. I didn't feel the need to share a name with my husband or take a new name to signify the creation of our family. We're just as much married either way.

Carol in Edinburgh said...

Wasn't a great issue for me - my maiden name was the same as my married name, so I only changed the Miss to Mrs!!!

Would have been interesting to have gone down the hyphenated route though - Mrs Thomson-Thomson :0)

Ellen Gregory said...

It beats me, Julie. I admit those statistics are disturbing. I'm not married, and although I don't know what I would have done had I married 20 years ago, I know for sure I wouldn't change my name now. Our names are our identity. Changing it to match a husband's is certainly a symbol - a symbol of how some women are still allowing themselves to be defined by men. Sad.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Julie. I went both ways. First time I was married, I was so proud and happy I changed my last name to his. Besides, I liked his last name much more than mine. It was beautiful. When we divorced less than a year later, I went through the hassle to change all my documents back. Second time I got married, I didn't change my name - just in case. Unfortunately I was right. There was a second divorce. So my maiden name is still with me.

Julie Farrar said...

I loved reading all of these stories. I didn't even mention people I knew who changed because they liked their husband's name better. I don't think, though, I ever heard anyone who married someone with the same last name, Carol. What a great situation! If I had changed my name, my new name would have sounded a bit like an entree at an Indian restaurant. But that's still not the reason I kept mine.

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,
I've been married for 33 years and we lived together 7 before that. From the start I told him I didn't want his name - I even told him that he couldn't have mine because it was my name. He was quite furious when I held to my conviction after the wedding, while I couldn't understand his unreasonable expectation. He told me that women in his home town would be proud to take his name so I told him he should have married one of them :) As you can see we managed to focus on the things that matter and he's still my best friend. My name is still important to me, it was all that I had from my Dad who died when I was 20. So to me, my name is much more than just a name.

And I grew up through the bra burning, march on Washington for ERA, etc. It was an easy decision.

Thanks - love the topic.


Stobby said...

Did you know that in Canada, if you want to officially change your last name, you have to change it on your birth certificate?!

I have a German friend whose husband took her name. She says it's not uncommon over there.

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