Should Women Change their Surnames?
‘Marrying left your maiden name disused,” Philip Larkin wrote in 1955. “Its five light sounds no longer mean your face, / Your voice, and all your variants of grace.” Larkin’s poem, written about his friend Winifred Arnott, sees the lost maiden name as a symbol of the erasure of a woman’s youthful and sexually desirable self, now swallowed up in domestic duties and motherhood. The birth name, to him, “means what we feel now about you then: How beautiful you were, and near and young”.
Reading Larkin is never a simple matter, and his depicted transition from “maiden” to “married” name invites multiple interpretations. On the one hand, it’s easy to understand the poem as an elegy for a loved person who has been married out of existence. On the other, the narrator admits that the subject of his elegy is “thankfully confused in law” with her husband-to-be. The shedding of the maiden name could be seen either as a tragic sublimation of identity or as a natural and welcome step; an escape from the erotic attentions, perhaps, of such men as the poet himself. But whether the name change means obliteration or maturation, we should not make the mistake of imagining that it means nothing at all.
As my partner and I make decisions about our marriage next year, I’ve found myself thinking about Larkin’s words. If marital surname change was open to ambiguous interpretations in 1955, it is even more so in 2014. Recently, lawyer Amal Alamuddin’s decision to change her name when she married George Clooney was both fervently criticised and heatedly defended. Just a few months earlier, the singer who has announced herself, in the space of a few years, as Cheryl Tweedy, Cheryl Cole and Cheryl Fernandez-Varsini was variously mocked and praised for her willingness to change her “brand” for each new husband. Feelings about these women’s decisions ran high in the press and on social media. Some feminists pointed out that women suffer detriment to their careers when they change their names; that they signal their submission to their husbands, and reinforce to their children the idea that women are inferior to men. (One recent survey found that school pupils thought men taking their wives’ surnames would demonstrate a “weak character” but the reverse would show women were “grown-up”.) Others defended Amal Clooney and Cheryl Fernandez-Varsini, claiming that women’s surnames mean little to them, that the birth name is usually the father’s name anyway, or that their decision to take their husband’s name showed that they were truly committed to the partnership.
Cheryl Fernandez-Versini and Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini. Photograph: Palace Lee/Rex
When this last argument has been made to me by my name-changing friends, I’ve pointed out it implies the man who keeps his name is not committed. “Ah, but it’s traditional for the woman to change,” they might retort: “neither of us really think it’s that important, but we wanted to have the same name, and it just made more sense to go with tradition.” This argument presupposes that “traditions” are worth preserving. But how many of us actually know where the tradition of marital surname change comes from, and what it originally signified? And are we sure it is a tradition we want to preserve? A dip into the history of surname change reveals that, at best, its origins are controversial; at worst, they are deeply unsavoury.
British hereditary surnames are about 1,000 years old. Imported by the Normans, they had stabilised throughout much of English society by the 14th century, with Celtic regions taking longer to adapt. Married women, however, were perceived to have no surname at all, since the Normans had also brought with them the doctrine of coverture, the legal principle that, on marriage, a woman became her husband’s possession. Her state of namelessness reflected this. In the words of one court in 1340, “when a woman took a husband, she lost every surname except ‘wife of’.”
Around the turn of the 15th century, the French doctrine of coverture received a unique English twist. There was another interpretation of coverture available, based on scriptural ideas, which focused not on the husband’s power over his wife but on the unity that marriage gave them. According to the English jurist Henry de Bracton, they became “a single person, because they are one flesh and one blood”. As this idea gained ground, so did the clerical habit of designating a married woman by her husband’s surname. But she could not hold property or go to law – legally, she ceased to exist.
By the early 17th century, the custom of a woman adopting her husband’s surname was sufficiently entrenched in England that the antiquarian William Camden could write: “Women with us, at their marriage, do change their surnames, and pass into their husbands names, and justly. For they are no more twain, but one flesh.” The custom was specific to England. Camden noted with disapproval: “And yet in France and the Netherlands, the better sort of women will still retain their own name with their husbands … But I fear husbands will not like this note, for that some of their dames may be ambitiously over-pert and too forward to imitate it.”
Mary Wollstonecraft. Photograph: UIG via Getty Images
So even in 1605, Camden identified a woman’s desire to retain her own name on marriage with “ambition”, “pertness” and “forwardness”. Perhaps this was because he saw the surname as an especially important component of the name: surnames were, he declared, “especially respected as whereon the glory and credit of men is grounded, and by which the same is conveyed to the knowledge of posterity”. But by the middle of the 18th century, as print culture expanded and literacy increased, some of those most preoccupied with “glory”, “credit” and “posterity” were wealthy, powerful or famous married women who resented that their names would die with them. In the words of the aristocrat and writer Mary Wortley-Montagu, women desired “that Fame which Men have engross’d to themselves and will not suffer us to share”.
The pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, had a vexed relationship with the surnames of the men with whom she was romantically involved. She adopted the surname of her lover Gilbert Imlay in order to pretend to American citizenship – an advantage in revolutionary Paris, where British citizens were being persecuted and imprisoned. But when Imlay abandoned her, she wrote to her friend Amelia Alderson that she “earnestly desired to resign a name which seemed to disgrace me”. She subsequently married her fellow philosopher William Godwin in 1797, but immediately after their marriage, she still signed herself “MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT femme [or wife of] Godwin” – perhaps reflecting uneasiness at some of the implications of her new wedded state and the prospect of another name change. Both the monument to her in St Pancras, and the grave in which she currently rests in Bournemouth, bear her birth name.
More conservative 18th-century women might have hesitated to take such a radical step as retaining their name after marriage – Camden’s accusations of “ambition” and “forwardness” were still damaging, and to sign a different surname to one’s husband or children could suggest that one was living in sin. But in many cases, these women found other ways to perpetuate their own surnames, thus cheating the companion tradition that had arisen from that of the wife taking her husband’s surname: that of the children inheriting the paternal surname, too. The most popular of these “cheats” was the royal licence.
In the last 40 years of the 18th century, nearly 700 people petitioned to change a surname by royal licence – and almost a sixth of the name changes were instigated by women who wished to see their birth names continue to posterity. Hester Piozzi, one of the most influential literary women of the era, petitioned for a royal licence for her husband’s nephew to take her birth name of Salusbury. The fact that he had adopted it, she wrote – even though she herself had abandoned that name on her marriage, made him “my Son at last – in true Earnest; my Son by Adoption, inserted into the Pedigree of my Descent”. Other women would do the same, or even petition parliament to pass a private act ensuring the continuation of their birth names.
This 18th-century vogue for women keeping, or perpetuating, their surnames was controversial. The novelist Frances Burney plotted her second novel Cecilia: or, Memoirs of an Heiress, around the problem of a man who had to take a woman’s surname. In Burney’s narrative, the middle-class heroine Cecilia Beverley and aristocratic hero Mortimer Delvile must choose whether or not to marry, since, due to a clause in Cecilia’s uncle’s will, doing so would mean surrendering either Cecilia’s inherited fortune or Mortimer’s cherished family surname. Cecilia ultimately marries Mortimer and takes the Delvile surname, losing her inheritance and temporarily her sanity along with her own name. The novel ignited impassioned debates in drawing rooms across literary London.
But the royal licence and the private act of parliament were solutions for only a few very wealthy English women. As the 19th century dawned, the majority continued to take their husband’s surnames and see their own die out. During the Victorian era, however, several English women braved fierce criticism to obtain landmark court decisions that confirmed their right to call themselves the name they chose. Florence Fenwick Miller won the right to be elected to her school board under her birth name in 1877, and two of the first married women to stand for parliament, Mary Macarthur and Violet Markham, did so under their birth names. Often they still had to deal with officials who maintained that it was the law for women to take their husband’s names. But the barriers came slowly down and, in 1924, Helena Normanton, the first female barrister in England, succeeded in getting the British Foreign Office to issue her a passport in her birth name.
One of the first things Normanton did after receiving her passport was travel to the US to mentor a group of women who were fighting for a similar right: the custom of marital surname change had taken on a global life. During the 19th century, it had spread to Scotland, Ireland and Wales, as well as overseas to British colonies and former colonies, and to parts of mainland Europe. As the legal restrictions of coverture were gradually abolished, its symbol lived on – and in some other countries it became law.
US reformer and advocate of women’s rights Lucy Stone battled for her birth name. CSU Archives/Everett Collection/REX
The battle for the birth name was particularly fierce in the US. Lucy Stone, a 19th-century American suffragist and abolitionist, was inspired by African-American customs to keep her birth name after her marriage, signing her correspondence “Lucy Stone (only).” She faced challenge from legal officials who wouldn’t let her buy land without signing her husband’s name, which inspired her to seek legal assurance that there was, in fact, no law in existence that dictated she must do so. When this was confirmed, Stone made a public announcement that her name had not changed and never would. Her fellow activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote: “Nothing has been done in the woman’s rights movement for some time that has so rejoiced my heart as the announcement by you of a woman’s right to her name. It does seem to me a proper self-respect demands that every woman may have some name by which she may be known from cradle to grave.”
In 1921, Stone’s example inspired the journalist Ruth Hale to found the Lucy Stone League, an American organisation supporting women’s rights to keep and use their birth names. The “Lucy Stoners” challenged in federal court any government edict that would not recognise a married woman by the name she chose to use. Their slogan was “My name is my identity and must not be lost.” During the 1920s they succeeded in getting real-estate deeds, passports, bank accounts and voter registrations issued in the names that they chose.
But various American states countered their success by passing new laws compelling women to take their husband’s surname. One attorney general told a women who wished to keep her name that she was “an oddball”, a “sick and confused woman”, whose need was “not for a change of name but a competent psychiatrist”. It was only in 1972 that a succession of legal cases confirmed that women could use their birth names in whatever ways they pleased.
Some would say that the fight is now over. Both in the UK and the US, the restrictive provisions of coverture have long been abolished and women are, at least in law, equal to their husbands. They can now make a free choice about what to do with their names. Most of us, it turns out, still take our husband’s surname, but the proportion is declining. A Eurobarometer survey conducted in 1994 suggested that 94% of British women took their husbands’ names when they got married. But recent smaller-scale research suggests that this proportion has shrunk significantly over the last two decades, especially among highly educated and younger women. In 2013, scholar Rachel Thwaites found that 75% of respondents took their husband’s name. And just last month, the Discourses of Marriage Research Group found that only 54% did so. In Britain it has always been legal to call yourself whatever you like (as long as you’re not committing fraud), so it is hard to get a definitive figure. But, as a rough guide, we can estimate that after the confetti has fallen, half to three-quarters of married British women still sign documents using their husband’s surname or introduce themselves using it; they apply for new passports and credit cards, or they change their handles on social media.
The debate about marital surname change continues. While some protest that the question is unimportant, it still provokes strong feelings. Now seems a good time to reconsider why we do what we do with our surnames: in the wake of last year’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, a custom that depends on a gender-normative idea of marriage – a woman automatically sacrificing her name to take that of a man – is starting to look more outdated than ever.
Every woman must make this choice for herself, and it’s important not to let the conversation be hijacked by judgmental accusations about who is, and is not, a true feminist. I can see why a woman might wish to change her name in order to leave certain aspects of her past behind; why she might, after seeing her husband’s displeasure at the idea of her keeping her name, opt for an easy life; and why, for instance, in 1924 a certain Emily Smellie might have rejoiced to change her name to Emily Hall.
But we don’t live free of history, and I can’t bring myself to ignore that. In my own case, were I to look at the form you need to fill out to change your name, I would see instead the medieval script, “she has lost all surname but wife of”. I’d see the royal licences bought by aristocratic women desperate to transmit their names to posterity. I’d see the legal judgment of the American attorney general on the “sick and confused woman … in need of a psychiatrist”. And I see the signature of “Lucy Stone (only)”.
Larkin’s poem “Maiden Name” concludes that the old name “shelters our faithfulness, / Instead of losing shape and meaning less / With your depreciating luggage laden.” He saw a woman picking up most of her “luggage” after marriage, and suggested that this luggage – children? wrinkles? wisdom? – would “depreciate” her value. He doesn’t consider that the woman about to get married might have picked up quite a bit of “luggage” that she is fond of, and proud of, already.
To abandon my surname and take that of my partner would mean abandoning Sophie Coulombeau, along with all her luggage – the errors, achievements and resonances created over 30 years. I would become, first and foremost, my husband’s wife. And that’s not the whole of me. So when it comes to my own wedding day I will be “ambitious”, “pert” and “forward”. I will keep the name Coulombeau, and its luggage. And as I sign my unchanged name, I’ll think of all the women who made it possible for me to do so.
• Sophie Coulombeau teaches at Cardiff University. She is writing a book on the history of naming and identity in Britain.