Say My Name, Say My Name

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Last night I almost had a heated debate with my younger brother over the issue of women who don't take their husbands last names. He said that if his girlfriend didn't take his last name after marriage it would be no point in getting married in the first place. 

I had to interject. I asked him if he'd be willing to take her last name. Of course, my brother said "no" and looked at me as if I were insane, as many men would. I went on to say that it's unfair for him to ask his girlfriend to do something that he wouldn't be willing to do and that not having his name wouldn't make her any less of his wife. My brother wasn't hearing any of this and I knew it. So I quickly ended the conversation because I didn't want it to turn into an argument. But I wish I'd kept the talk going so that we could have understood where each other were coming from. 

I took my husband's last name but it's a decision I often regret. Please don't think that statement is a reflection of my feelings for my husband. He is the love of my life and an amazing man. He's an amazing man who says things like "I would be honored if you took my last name, but I completely understand if you decide not to." That statement was one of the reasons I did decide, after nearly a year of marriage, to change my last name.

But I also decided to take his name because having different last names was such a hassle. Things like banking and signing leases were difficult and I grew tired of all the questions and rude remarks from others that I endured during the several months before I did change my name. 

I've always been disappointed in myself for caving under the pressure to conform. 

I completely understand why the notion of women keeping their maiden names seems so strange and perhaps even wrong to my brother. Here in the South it’s not as common. Nor do you see couples adopting a completely new name or both partners hyphenating their last names – which are practices I observed when living on the West Coast.

My brother expects his wife to take his name – "to represent him" as he said during our talk – because that’s the way things have always been done. It’s tradition. Furthermore, many men – my husband included – even see it as a way for a woman to give honor to her man.

But doing things primarily for the sake of tradition can be dangerous. The people who didn’t want women to vote were trying to maintain the status quo. People who didn’t want children of different races to be educated in the same classroom were trying to uphold tradition.

Now I’m in no way saying this name issue is as serious as women’s suffrage or racial segregation. The act of keeping one’s maiden name is mostly a statement, but an important one; it is a statement against the sexism that is still alive and well in our country.

Some people say it’s silly for a woman to try to fight patriarchy by keeping her maiden name because most likely her last name is from her father. Those people are missing the point. Regardless of the origin of your name it’s still your name! It’s the name you’ve been called all your life. It’s the name printed on symbols of accomplishment such as your high school diploma and your college degrees. And for me it was also the byline on a decade’s worth of newspaper and magazine articles I had written.

After being married for nearly 7 years I have adjusted to my new name. As a freelance journalist I’m building a body of work under the name Javacia Harris Bowser. And since I teach high school full time and thus hear “Ms. Bowser! Ms. Bowser!” about 100 times a day, my husband’s last name finally feels like my own.

The writer/English teacher in me has also decided to attach symbolism to this new name of mind. I see it as the mark of a new era of my life, just as characters in the Bible often had their names changed after a spiritual transformation.

Still, if I could do it all over again I probably would not change my name. But this would not make me any less committed to or respectful of my husband.

I recognize that some men feel emasculated when their wives don’t take their name. And some men may think it makes them appear weak. This is, to me, another example of how sexism hurts men too. A man’s worth should not be measured by how much power he can wield over his wife; it should be about how much he loves her.

Understand that this is not a call for all women to stop taking their husbands’ last names. My point is that it should always be a woman’s choice. She shouldn’t feel pressured by her new husband, her in-laws or anyone else. Some women love the notion of taking their husband’s name and see it as a sacred, symbolic gesture. And that’s great. But some women feel as if they’re losing their identity by changing their names and the wishes of those women should not be attacked or pushed aside simply for the sake of tradition. 


  1. Love this Javacia! (And I think we may have the same brother, LOL!) I opted to keep my maiden name, and it makes me giggle still when people call my husband Mr. Keable. You could always go crazy and change it back -- which of course would have people talking about your non-existent divorce!

    1. I actually did think about changing it back. I read an essay by a woman who did just that after 10 years of marriage. But as you said I don't want people thinking hubs and I split up.

      I think our brothers mean well. They just want to feel that their wives respect them. But I just think there are better, more significant ways for a woman to show honor for her man.

  2. It never occurred to me that it would be hard to change my last name . . . until I did. And then it felt really weird. I've gotten used to it, but I completely understand where you're coming from. And then I gave my old last name to my daughter as a first name -- a totally Southern thing to do, but I love the sense of passing my identity to her.

  3. I've given this more thought than is probably appropriate for a girl who isn't yet near marriage. I never thought for a minute that I would want to keep my maiden name, until sometime in my late 20s. What it boils down to is that I just REALLY like my name. I've lived with it for 31 years now, and it sounds good to me.

    So, I'm not sure what I'll do if/when I get married. I really love the symbolism of sharing a name (whether that's mine, his, some combination--though if I adopt this particular symbol, I'd be inclined to take his). It seems part of the "leave and cleave" process. And yes, it would be easier to share a name rather than explain that I kept my name, or explain to possible future children why my name would be different from theirs. (I must note, though, that I think "because I liked my name" would be an adequate response.) Of course, there's always the option of keeping "my" name professionally but changing my name legally. It sounds cumbersome to me to have two names, and I do have great SEO right now.

    Ultimately, I don't expect to make this decision until I'm actually faced with it. And if I married a man who would be hurt if I didn't take his name, then I'd absolutely change mine. I don't feel strongly enough about this issue to hurt someone's feelings over it. (But I reserve the right to change my mind. Not just my name.)

    1. I kept my maiden name professionally for years and I know several other female journalists who have done the same. But as you said it was quite cumbersome to have two names. Freelancing was especially difficult as some companies would ignore my note to make checks payable to Javacia Bowser and send a check for Javacia N. Harris, who technically no longer existed, making it pretty hard for her to cash a check.

    2. You'd have a quadruple name if you combined your and his last names, Miss CJW!

      As a kid, I didn't like my last name because no one could ever spell it correctly. Come to think of it, my first name was much the same way. Now, I love my name. McLafferty is extremely distinctive, and it'll be difficult to adopt any other name or combination of names.

    3. I really enjoyed this post and relate to Carla Jean's comment, especially the SEO part. I've been trying to brand "Mariam Williams" for quite some time now, and if I ever get married, I think whether I change my name will depend on 2 things: 1) How well-known I am (and thus, how much a re-branding effort would cost), and 2) My husband's last name. I always said I would gladly drop "Williams" for a last name that's in the first half of the alphabet. It sucks to always wait around for your name to be called or to sit in the back of the class.

    4. Clair, there is absolutely no way I would go for four names! I'll either stay CJW, or I'll become CJ-whoever. Four names or hyphenating are not options in my mind. Just too dang much.

    5. Mariam - I was in the same boat!! It was actually on my list of husband requirements to be at the beginning of the alphabet.

      I was THRILLED to move from Z to C. It was quite the step up!

      (Also, I no longer get the question EVERY TIME I say my last name, "What nationality is THAT from??")

    6. I agree with Carla Jean. Hyphenating was not an option for me either. My first name is already too much for people to handle. I wasn't going to make things even more complicated.

  4. I'm coming from a somewhat similar situation--my middle name, which I'd been using since college, somehow disappeared when I came to Alabama, and it was a weird feeling to be "Ann" again socially and professionally. She just feels different, and it was jarring to be addressed by a name only my family really used. (Plus, there were all my Facebook friends who were confused that everyone was calling me by a different name.) And now that I'm pushing to use "Caperton" again, it's both a relief and a further jar. It's a weird identity crisis, and it's not something I'd want to do with my last name.

    Names are a sensitive thing. They're so often used, in a way, as a way to assert possession or control. In the Bible, when Adam is put in charge of all the animals, his first assignment is to name them. Slaves were given new names by new masters. Historically, children have been given the last name of their father, and then when a girl is handed off from father to husband she takes the name of her new custodian. When we care about someone, we take their name away and give them something affectionate; when we're trying to hurt someone, we take their name away and give them something cruel. I completely understand that the name thing isn't a big deal to a lot of people; it kind of is to me.

  5. Well said, Jai! I kept my name, I am still keeping my name, and damn the people who think I should be "Mrs. Hitesman." I was born Amy Elizabeth Crawford and I will stay Amy Elizabeth Crawford until the day I die, thank you very much.

  6. I have gone both ways on this. My first marriage was a nightmare; I was also in publishing for 15 years, so I kept my maiden name. It had alliteration, and I loved the way it sounded. My birth name was in more than 100 books and magazines. But I went through so much trauma with my divorce and job loss, when I finally met my soulmate, I took the Biblical approach you mentioned. God often gave people new names when they were given a second chance, a new life—so that's what I opted to do. In fact, I dropped my maiden name altogether and go by my given first and middle name and my married last name.

  7. I always thought I would love changing my name until I actually got married in 2007. I've ALWAYS been known as my father's daughter and I wanted something that was mine. So I changed my name. And it felt like losing part of me. It was extremely difficult for me to give it up - like, cried more than once over frustration. And for about three years, I introduced my self as Ruth Saxon Douglas. No hyphen, just more like a double first or last name. Well, 5 years later, and I'm stuck with a name that isn't mine after divorce. I don't want my old name, and I REALLY don't want the new name. So. If I could just go by Ruthie that would suite me JUST fine.

    LOVED this piece. Thanks for writing it.