Having come of age during the wave of feminism in the 1970s, it’s amazing that I even considered changing my last name when I got married. With respect to that movement, I suppose it’s amazing that I even got married. But I’m glad I did.
Two of my four daughters are now married and are settling into their new last names. They are totally settled; I am actually the one still settling, still stumbling to address envelopes correctly, still trying to associate them with their shiny new surnames. They surrendered “Schultz” without a backward glance. One now has a three-syllable last name, and the other’s is a mere three letters. We women should be more careful with the names we fall in love with, but we are rarely careful in love. Marriage is a transformation for everyone, of course, but the name changing is an additional decision for women. A sampling of my married friends’ thoughts on changing or not changing their surnames follows.
On changing: “I had a name that got mispronounced 98 percent of the time, which made me feel like an odd duck. When I got married, I was ready to switch to an easier name. I was also ready to switch my ‘odd duck’ feeling for one of self-assurance. Somehow, changing my name helped to do that.”
And: “I changed my name so long ago — 60-plus years — I really don’t remember any particular feelings. It was just something that was expected so I did. I like my married name much better than my birth name.”
On not changing: “I almost changed my name when we got married, especially since my husband’s mother wasn’t having any of ‘this feminist crap!’ But I was 40 when we married, and that’s a long time to be using a last name; I’ve never been able to identify as anyone other than me — last name and all … I think, in the beginning, that I wondered what this might be saying about our relationship. Was it not strong enough? Was I unable to merge (or submerge) my identity into his, did I not love him enough? ... [But] we’re a strong team, and the refusal to change my name became a non-issue many years ago.”
On not changing, and then acquiescing to change: “I had two degrees and five credentials as [my maiden name], so it was professionally inconvenient … About five months later, I hyphenated to appease my husband, who was sad that I hadn’t taken his name.”
On changing, and then reconsidering the change: “The excitement of getting married was bundled with the new excitement of changing my name … a few years later, I sort of regret not keeping my last name or at least making it a middle name. There are only a few [X]s left that I am related to by blood and the ones that are the youngest generation are all female, so my last name will be gone. People can actually spell and pronounce my name now! But I do miss the uniqueness of [X].”
I admit I was seduced by the lure of my husband’s monosyllabic name. I grew up with a four-syllable surname, the kind that, when the substitute teacher got to it, I was called only by my first name. My name was actually pretty phonetic, but at 11 letters long, it looked intimidating.
So I got married, took the name Schultz, and went to work for a theater company in Minneapolis. A month later, the company was profiled in the newspaper, and the reporter referred to me as “Schultz” throughout the article. Which is what I told her my name was. But the lack of identity I felt while reading that piece convinced me, when finally filling out the Social Security paperwork, to hyphenate my last name. My maiden name was a mouthful, but it was mine. I missed it, and I didn’t recognize myself with my new name. “Mrs. Schultz” still sounded like my husband’s mother. (As one friend mentioned, “Mrs. [X] was the name of my mother-in-law, and she truly wasn’t a very nice person, so I couldn’t see myself sharing the same name.”)
Decades later, I mostly go by Schultz, but my gigantic name is my legal name, and therefore must appear on legal documents, such as our tax returns, our mortgage, and even my paycheck. In the post-9/11 reality, one’s name must exactly match one’s Social Security number. So now I am an unpronounceable mouthful. Now that my dad is gone, though, I feel like my ridiculous name has kept a little part of him with me. We did not give our daughters a hyphen, so that they would be free to hyphenate their surname to their spouse’s someday, if they liked. Which, so far, they don’t.
But I must stop thinking of my daughters’ name changes as the death of feminism: It is good that their generation can take for granted choices and options that women a century ago could barely imagine. The advantages of feminism belong to all women, even those with new last names.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at email@example.com.