“What’s in a name?”

Recently I was asked “why didn’t you take your husbands surname, Popescu?” For me, and for my husband, it wasn’t a decision we gave much thought.  Many women in Academia keep their names for professional reasons (publications, contacts and networks, etc.).  So, in our circle, it’s not uncommon and (up until this moment) we have never felt any stigma associated with our choice.  For me, the answer was simple… I like my name.  It sounds pretty and it’s been mine my whole life.  Anything else just wouldn’t feel right.  (And if I’m being totally honest here, my name would have been Bekka Sue Popescu.  Which rhymes and sounds silly!)  Nonetheless, when I had to explain the reason for keeping my surname, the response I sometimes received was, “oh, you’re one of those people!”  Hmm…  Yeah, I guess I am one of those people.  So, this post is about finding out more about those people who choose to keep their surname.

There are many reasons for a women (and even a man) to keep, change, hyphenate or even fuse their name after marriage, and over the years, these reasons have changed dramatically.  These reasons include children, identity, career, culture, religion, aesthetics (like the sound of Bekka Sue Popescu), and hassle.  With the passage of time, changes in social and cultural norms, the weight placed on these reasons has changed dramatically too.

To start my investigation about those people, I asked friends, family, and friends of family.  As an American, and a scientist, its normal for me ask lots of questions.  This time however, the type of questions I was asking were personal… and it was hard to get people to share private information.  When I did receive responses it became obvious that many people, especially women, struggle with the question.  If was clearly great blogging material!!

Mrs. Brodie, Popescu, Brodie-Popescu, Popescu-Brodie, Brodescu?!?!
Mrs. Brodie, Popescu, Brodie-Popescu, Popescu-Brodie, Brodescu?!?!

After my initial survey, it appeared to me that the main reason older generations of women decide to change their names after marriage or, after divorce, keep their former surname was for their children.  From the responses I received women explained, “it cuts down the confusion at school” making it easier for the children because “children that had different names than their parents meant that they were out of wed-lock”.  Fifty years ago, the main reason to marry was to have children and a women’s job was to raise them.  However, with the passage of time and the acceptance of women in the work force, this stigma has been reduced (in places but not everywhere).  Many of my friends and colleagues have kept their maiden name after marriage and children were not a consideration that factored into their decision making.

Some women I interviewed wanted to accept their growth and change in identity (as wife and a mother) and take their husbands name. Even after a divorce one women’s comment was, “I wanted my child and I to be identified as a team” and kept her previous husbands surname.  Many young women, however,  explained to me that they prioritize their identity, independent of their husband and children (or future children).  One of the responses I received was, “I am many things, a friend, sister, scientist…. not just a wife and mother.”  In fact, one women admitted it was silly but that “when mail arrives for Mrs. John Smith (made up name to protect privacy), I do not regard it as having anything to do with me, for I am not Mrs. John Smith, and even get irritated by it.  It’s annoying when people make that assumption.”

Adopting your husbands name is a tradition held in English speaking countries (U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia) and a few others (South Asia and India). European countries seem to be a lot less traditional than North Americans. In most European countries, women keep their traditional surnames, in France “no one may use another name than that given on his birth certificate”.   There is more flexibility, women can adopt her husbands name or men can adopt his wife’s name; and there appears to be no social stigma (which you would most certainly find in North America). Also in Europe, there is an increasing trend for couples to live together in a committed relationship that choose never to get married because they “just don’t see the point.”

The number of women keeping their surname has been on an upward trend, peaking in the 1990’s (Kopelman, R and Prottas, D. J. 2009).  The increase is undoubtedly linked to the feminist movement (1960’s and 1970’s), the increased number of women in the work force, and the diversity of careers they hold.  Career women who have built a professional network don’t want to potentially compromise it by changing their names.   In fact, research has shown women married between the ages of 35-39 are 6.4 times more likely to keep their name (Kerns et al. 2011).  Similarly, the divorced women I’ve interviewed have kept their x-husbands surname because they had already established themselves and their career.  Additionally, although it hasn’t been investigated, I would be willing to bet the increased use of online social media (LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Facebook, etc.), which makes local and global networking (professional and personal) easier, has played a large role in women’s choice to keep their surname… it would be interesting to look for a correlation there.

Lastly, many women explained to me that they kept or changed their name for aesthetic reasons, i.e. it is pretty and they like it (or sound terrible and really don’t like it).  One of my very close friends has an Italian first name and, will only consider taking her future husbands surname if it’s Italian because “It just won’t sound right.”  She said she “would consider fusing surnames” (different than hyphenation) which is becoming a popular trend with young couples. Many women admitted that the whole thing is “just a huge hassle with all the paperwork and fees, it’s just not worth it!”  None of the women I interviewed mentioned religion, culture, or tradition affecting their choice but, undoubtedly, I’m sure they are out there!  (I’ll admit my sample size has been biased thus far!)

There are many reasons for women (and men!) choose to keep or change their names after marriage but, as I learned during my investigations, this is a very personal question.  (Additionally, I realize that asking a subsample of friends, family, and friends of family is rather biased.) It’s one of those topic’s which really fascinates me and, additionally, I’m very curious how the gay population is dealing with surnames now that marriage is legal in so many places. So I invite you all to take a brief (only 8 questions) and anonymous survey, or kindly leave a comment with your opinion on the topic.  The results from the poll will be updated on this post as the data rolls in.

Citations:

Kerns, Myleah Y. 2011. North American Women’s Surname Choice Based on Ethnicity and Self-Identification as Feminists. Names- A Journal of Onomastics, 59 (2) 104-117.

Kopelman, Richard E.; Prottas, David J. 2009. The bride is keeping her name: a 35-year retrospective analysis of trends and correlates. Social behavior and personality, 37 (5) 687-700.

One thought on ““What’s in a name?”

  1. Exactly.

    In my case, Reason # 1 was it would create too many confusions professionally with publications and taxonomy in terms of naming new species. I was already published and had named new species under my maiden name.

    Reason #2 is that most people find my husband’s name unpronounceable. I did not want to have to become “Dr. LeChe…. Dr. LeCheva…. Dr. LeChevali…. etc.” to students. Or worse, “Dr. L.” because people are completely incompetent at both reading and French.

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