"The Groom Will Be Taking His Wife's Surname"

Irritating that men get patted on the back for changing their names while women get smacked around the “bad feminist” ring for a while.
Publish date:
October 29, 2012
feminism, marriage, name changes

“The groom, 34, is taking his wife’s surname.”

It seems like an odd thing to include in a marriage announcement, but, hey, I guess the idea still seems pretty revolutionary to people. Personally, if I had to choose between Malak (the groom’s, uh, “maiden name”) and Quirk, the bride’s surname, I’d change my name to Quirk in a hot minute too1. I mean, come on, that’s an awesome last name.

So anyway, yes, here we are. Actually, the wedding announcement reminded me a lot of a wedding I attended a few weeks ago between two dear friends, right down to the friend acting as a minister and what sounds like a relatively low-key ceremony.

In a funny twist of events, my friends’ wedding was so delightfully casual that they, er, forgot to apply for a marriage license before the ceremony, which meant that we had to drive over the hill to Ukiah on the Monday following so they could get legally married. Nosy person that I am, I pored over the application paperwork because I was deeply curious, and I noted something interesting. In California, you can apply to change both your middle and last names for free when you get married.

I suggested that now was the chance for D to change her middle name, but she wasn’t going for it. And I informed T that I’d be referring to him as “Mr. G” from now on2. Their names remained unchanged, much to my dismay, the officer of the court mumbled some words over them in a picturesque gazebo wedged into the smoking court, and we were on our merry way to a Thai restaurant to celebrate before driving back over to the coast.

But the form got me thinking. Obviously, it was originally designed with the intent to allow brides to take the last names of their husbands, a practice that is still widespread in much of the US. It’s one that comes with a rather patriarchal legacy, associating women with property that needs to be tagged, so to speak, so there’s something delightfully subversive about a groom changing his name, for whatever reason. After all, there’s a blank for it right there on the form, might as well go for it, right?

However, there is something that worries me when it comes to the way people talk about changing names at marriage. If you’re a woman who changes your name, you’re a bad feminist capitulating to the patriarchy. If you’re a man, you’re making a radical statement. There’s no nuance or between space there.

One of the convenient things about using the marriage license application form, though, is that you can change your name both for free (well, for the cost of the marriage license application fee) and without public announcements in the paper, which is a huge advantage for people who might be trying to evade stalkers and unsavory sorts, or who simply want to strip themselves of last names they associate with abusive, neglectful or absent parents.

Yeah, there is a mechanism for changing your name in court, and in certain circumstances you can have the name change sealed so it’s not a matter of public record, but it’s expensive, time-consuming, and a pain in the butt. And let me tell you from experience, having to pay to change a name you hate really, really sucks. If you’re getting married and you love your partner’s name, maybe that presents a convenient opportunity for you to make the change you were going to make anyway. And, yes, maybe you also want to take your partner’s name as a gesture of love and commitment.

Or, hey, maybe you want to take on a totally unrelated name, or perhaps you both want to take on a new last name together. The form doesn’t actually restrict you when it comes to the specifics of the change. It’s pretty cut and dried, with a line to fill in a new name if you want it. If you’re getting married in a conservative locale, you might raise some eyebrows, but you’re not doing anything you’re not allowed to do.

Irritating that men get patted on the back for changing their names while women get smacked around the “bad feminist” ring for a while. I don’t know why Jason Quirk took his wife’s name, since he didn’t see fit to share the specifics of a personal decision in the pages of the Times, but it’s intriguing to see how much discussion his simple choice has sparked.

Megan and Jason Quirk sound like two pretty ordinary people, except for the whole marriage announcement in the Times thing. They’d be the kind of people I’d invite over for game night, you know? And now they’re the center of a conversation about good and bad name changes, all because their marriage license included one little line.

1. Just kidding, it would take a lot to get me to change my surname because I love my daddy. No, really. I’m proud to be a smith. Although I’ve always said that in the unlikely event I happen to get married and in the even more unlikely event my partner’s surname starts with “X,” obviously I’ll have to change my name. I can’t change it now because that would expose how juvenile I am. The other way makes it look like a hilarious coincidence. Return

2. Hey, people call Lesley’s husband “Mr. Kinzel” all the time... Return

Image credits: Bill S, Matt