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Taking my son’s name

Submitted by on June 27, 2011 – 4:49 am2 Comments

Married women who decide to keep their own names don’t really push social buttons anymore. But there’s a limit to society’s tolerance for new conventions for family names, as sociologist Anne Nurse found.

Photo by Kevin N. Murphy via Flickr.

Anne is an associate professor of sociology at the College of Wooster in Ohio. When not thinking about her last name, she researches and writes about juvenile incarceration. Anne is the author of Locked Up, Locked Out: Young Men in the Juvenile Justice System (2010) and Fatherhood Arrested: Parenting from within Juvenile Justice System (2002).

By Anne M. Nurse

I started life with my father’s name, a decision that was a non-decision. My mother, who married a decade before the height of the women’s movement, says that it never occurred to her to keep her own name, much less give it to me. By the time I married in the mid-1990s, however, the world had changed. I knew many women who kept their own names and I wanted to follow in their path. After twenty-eight years of living with my father’s name, it had become my name and I simply could not imagine changing something so fundamental to my identity.

When I got married, I felt that keeping my birth name was a statement of my own equality, but it was more than a personal decision. It placed me squarely in the middle of a social debate, one that had been raging for over a century, about identity, family and women’s rights. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the first American feminists, saw women’s names an issue central to the fight for equality. “When a slave escapes from a Southern plantation, he at once takes a name as the first step in liberty-the first assertion of individual identity,” Stanton said in 1848. “A woman’s dignity is equally involved in a life-long name, to mark her individuality. We cannot overestimate the demoralizing effect on woman herself, to say nothing of society at large, for her to consent thus to merge her existence so wholly in that of another.”

Lucy Stone, the well-known suffragist and abolitionist, was the first known American woman to heed Stanton’s call. Her decision to keep her own name after her 1860 marriage ignited a firestorm of controversy. Feminists in the mid-1800s, however, understood that a woman’s changed name at marriage was an assumption of subordinate status. The new name symbolically transferred ownership of a woman from her father to her husband. Stanton and Stone lived at a time when the law denied married women the right to own property, sign contracts or keep their own wages. After a wedding, a woman’s identity became her role as somebody’s wife. Women, like their children, were considered the property of the male head of household.

Stanton and Stone shot the opening salvo in the battle over women’s names, but it took more than a century for their ideas to take hold. State laws that required the adoption of a husband’s name, along with social sanctions against women retaining their own names, discouraged women who might have wanted to follow in Stone’s footsteps. It was not until the feminist movement of the 1970s that this issue reappeared in public conversation. Once again, women’s names were identified as a key symbol of oppression, and the retention of a name considered a political act. Research by Claudia Goldin and Maria Shim indicates that, starting in the early 1970s, an increasing number of women began to keep their birth names, a decision made possible by changes to state laws as well as a more supportive social climate. Even at its peak in the late 1980s, however, only about 20 percent of college educated women retained their birth names after marriage.

Today, less than ten percent of all women (and about 17 percent of college educated women) keep their names when they marry. This decrease is baffling: women have been making slow but steady educational and professional gains and have continued to marry later, indicators that should point to increased retention. Rising divorce rates make the decline even more mysterious. Why change your name if your marriage is likely to be temporary?

Researchers have yet to solve this puzzle. Some have speculated that the high level of divorce may actually be the explanation. Women could be adopting their husband’s names to symbolically reinforce and protect their relationships. Other explanations could include the rising levels of social conservatism, or the perception that the fight for women’s equality has been won.

There was a brief time before John and I got married that we did consider some alternatives to separate names. One option was to change both our last names to something new. Our favorite was “John and Anne Steele” because it evoked an image of superheroes or secret agents. We also considered combining our names in some way to create a new common name. Just to check the possibilities, I ran our names through an anagram program. The options were not good—most notably our names can be combined to form “on honest rumps” and “hens smut porno.” We considered an option some friends of ours had taken, dropping some letters from the two names and merging them – this resulted in unfortunate combinations like Nurson or Thurse. All of this discussion about alternatives was fun but also reinforced our decision to keep our own names. Unlike a new name for both of us, name retention linked us with past and future generations, and tied us to our heritage and to our families of origin.

By the time I made it to my wedding day, I had a long list of reasons why it made sense for me to keep my name. I fancied my reasons original, but they weren’t. In a study done by Karin A. Foss and Belle A. Edson, many women reported that they kept their names to maintain their identity and their heritage. Others said that they wanted to symbolize equality in their marriage, or that they wanted to keep a professional identity already established under their own name. Some women said that they decided not to take their husband’s names because they liked their own better, or because they didn’t like the way their husband’s name sounded. Foss and Edson also compared name keepers and changers in terms of their priorities. Changers, they found, are more relational in orientation, and consider the roles of wife and mother as more central to their identity. Keepers tend to prioritize professional identities alongside relational ones.

One naming option that I never considered, probably due to my unusual last name, was using my last name as a middle name. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are well-known examples of women who have made this decision. This choice is popular among women who come from prominent families and want to retain the link to that family. Interestingly, one study by David R. Johnson and Laurie K. Scheuble found that the middle name option was also more common among women living in the south. A middle name retains ties to family and identity but does not tend to incite the same kind of controversy as a last name. For this reason, some feminists see it as a cop-out, a way to get the benefits of both names without much sacrifice. Hillary Rodham Clinton generated this kind of criticism when she was seen as simultaneously playing to the right (by adopting her husband’s name) and to the left (by not dropping her original name entirely).

When I decided to keep my name, a few of my older relatives grumbled about the decision, but it really was all remarkably easy; even the Roman Catholic priest who married us laughingly introduced us to the congregation after our wedding vows as “John Thompson and Anne Nurse…still.” In the early years of our marriage, the fact that my husband and I did not share a name raised few eyebrows. On the rare occasion when someone acted surprised or upset by our mismatching names, I’d shake my head and say lightly “Well, you know, that husband of mine simply refused to take my name when we got married.” Invariably, the person would look confused and there would be an awkward pause. Finally, I would laugh—like I was joking –so they would not have to respond to an idea that had clearly caught them off-guard.

People’s confused reaction to my comment about my husband reminds me of a riddle that was popular in the 1970s. It goes like this: A young boy and his father were out playing football when they were caught at the bottom of a giant pileup. Both were injured and rushed to the hospital. They were wheeled into separate operating rooms and two doctors prepped up to work on them, one doctor for each patient. The doctor operating on the father got started right away, but the doctor assigned to the young boy stared at him in surprise. “I can’t operate on him!” the doctor exclaimed to the staff. “That child is my son!” The riddle concludes with the question, “How can that be?” The answer, of course, is that the doctor is the child’s mother. I distinctly recall my own, as well as my friends’, inability to solve this riddle. Our minds seemed incapable of processing the possibility that the doctor was a woman, even though most of us knew female doctors.

The idea of a man changing his name simply does not compute, even in today’s world.

While there are innovators—like Lucy Stone—who are able to visualize and create new options, most of us are limited to those presented to us. We can choose, but only among prepackaged alternatives. Americans tend to find this idea upsetting because we like to believe that we make unconstrained choices about our lives. For example, I work at a small liberal arts college and I often keep in touch with former students. Sometimes women contact me to tell me that they have gotten married and changed their names. When it seems appropriate, I ask them why. Invariably they say that this was what they wanted to do—that they made the choice that was right for them. Writing in Slate Magazine, Katie Roiphe makes a similar argument. “Today, the decision is one of convenience, of a kind of luxury—which name do you like the sound of? What do you feel like doing? The politics are almost incidental,” she says. “Our fundamental independence is not so imperiled that we need to keep our names. The statement has, thanks to a more dogmatic generation, been made. Now we dabble in the traditional. We cobble together names. At this point—apologies to Lucy Stone, and her pioneering work in name keeping—our attitude is: Whatever works.”

Whatever works is an appealing idea. Of course, this view fails to recognize the choices that don’t occur to us. And while we may be making a choice, we are using a weighted scale, one that’s tilted toward a husband’s name. It’s fairly easy for a woman to change her name after marriage, for example—there is a simple one-form kit that magically appears in the mail. But men who want to change their names usually have to pay legal fees and appear in court.

For the first years of our marriage, both my husband and I liked having our own names. Then we found the limits of social tolerance. In the third year of our marriage I became pregnant with our first son. Our family and friends were very interested in our thoughts on names—on first names that is. As for last names, they simply assumed that we would give our child my husband’s name. When I suggested we might give the child my last name, the responses ranged from surprise to anger. Separate names were fine as long as they affected only consenting adults, not innocent children. My husband had concerns too, despite his willingness to give our son my name. It upset him that people might think that the baby wasn’t his, or that his failure to pass on his name would make people question his masculinity.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised by the negative reactions. Americans have a fairly high level of tolerance toward women who keep their names after marriage, survey data reveals. When asked about mothers keeping their names, however, the support drops off dramatically. I would think that there is even less support for mothers who keep their own name and pass it on to their children. Social scientists have shown that people are usually frightened by large-scale social change. We have seen massive restructuring of family life in the last thirty years—increased employment among mothers, widespread use of daycare and rising levels of divorce. Names may be a flashpoint because they symbolize these frightening social changes.

If giving one’s name to others represents dominance and ownership—as feminists as far back as Elizabeth Cady Stanton have argued—a child with a mother’s name might call into question the masculinity of the father. When my husband and I talked about the possibility of giving our son my name, he would grumble—only half joking—“but how would I explain that at the monthly men’s meeting?” The idea of our child having my name also made him nervous because it opened the possibility that people might mistakenly call him “Mr. Nurse,” a particular affront to a masculine image – it suggests that it is the woman who has the identity and that the man is simply her appendage.

For a long time, my husband and I were stymied; we could not seem to find a solution that made everyone happy. In desperation, we considered hyphenating. “Honey, which sounds worse, Thompson-Nurse, or Nurse-Thompson?” But that solution was unwieldy and seemed to push the name problem off to the next generation. What, God forbid, would happen if our hyphenated son had a baby with his hyphenated wife? After months of debate about the name issue, we compromised. Every other child would bear my name, but our first child would be a Thompson.

The decision to give our first child my husband’s name clearly positioned us as typical American married couples. Only about one-and-a-half percent of women passed on their name as a last name, according to a survey of married female employees in a mid-western university system. Another five percent gave their last name as a middle name and about one percent reported hyphenating. As the women in this sample were generally well-educated – women who are more likely to pass on their names – these numbers are surprisingly low.

But we were atypical in another way: the birth of the first child is a key moment when name keepers convert to changers, perhaps because Americans tend to see family as something that starts with the birth of a child, not with a marriage. When someone says that they want to start a family, it is understood that they are thinking about having a baby. We usually refer to a couple without children as “Al and Patrice Brown,” not as the “Brown family.” Even official documents make this distinction. My health insurance lists the plan options as single, single plus one and family.

Some people believe that a shared name produces emotional ties, an argument that assumes women are more bonded to their children, at least initially, because they carry them in their bodies and breastfeed them. Giving a child the father’s name can then be seen as a way for men to establish a similar bond. A woman might also see taking her husband’s name as a way to increase his emotional bond to her. Survey data suggests that it may not. Couples who share names report similar levels of marital satisfaction as those who use different names, Susan Kline, Laura Stafford, and Jill Miklosovic found in a 1996 study.

When Alexander was born, he was given his father’s name. I was excited that we were getting new names too, Daddy and Mommy. I did not expect the arrival of a baby Thompson would bestow on me a second and less welcome new name. I entered the hospital as Ms. Nurse and, as if by magic, left it as Mrs. Thompson, the Mom in “The Thompson Family.” At first, I resisted. I politely, and sometimes not so politely, reminded people of my name, often multiple times. When children called me by my son’s name, I tried to use it as a teachable moment to explain how mommies and daddies do not always have the same names as their children. I wrote notes to the school and to the church when they sent letters home addressed to the Thompson family. I would like to say that I was always successful in my campaign, but in truth my efforts often fell on deaf ears and sometimes I simply gave up fighting.

In her article in Slate, Roiphe argues that the situational use of names can be empowering and fun. “There is, at least for me, an element of play to the whole thing,” she says. “There’s something romantic and pleasantly old-fashioned about giving up your name, a kind of frisson in seeing yourself represented as Mrs. John Doe in the calligraphy of a wedding invitation on occasion. At the same time it’s reassuring to see your own name in a byline or a contract.”

Names allow women to play with their identity in Roiphe’s view, constructing themselves moment to moment from disparate, and even potentially contradictory, pieces. The problem with using our names as part of this kind of personal identity game, however, is that it allows us to ignore the very real political and social effects of our name use. It is troubling, for example, that women and not men are situational users because it suggests that female identity is fluid and changeable, but that male identity is immutable. The use of a husband’s name, even if only on occasion, also implies acceptance of a practice rooted in a history of patriarchy and ownership.

Three years after Alexander’s arrival, I became pregnant with our second son. My husband and I followed our agreement and decided to call him Jacob Nurse. It made me happy to pass my name on to the next generation and I felt good about the message that it sent to our sons. People in the community seemed to have mixed reactions to the decision, with some being supportive, others appearing baffled, and some clearly disapproving.

When I was in college, I read an article in Ms. Magazine describing names as a failed feminist revolution. Yes, progress had been made on married women’s name retention, but even ardent feminists continued to pass their husband’s name on to their children. This could hardly be considered a victory, the author argued, since women’s names were not thought of as important enough to be handed down. Sadly, the article did not make suggestions for actually accomplishing this name equity. I would like to say that my family’s solution is perfect, but it’s not. There are times when I wish I shared a name with all of my sons. I also wish that Jacob’s name didn’t cause John to feel occasional discomfort or embarrassment. At the same time, I sometimes think I should have argued more forcefully for naming our first son Alexander Nurse. Because we ended up having three sons, the Thompsons in our home outnumber the Nurses. This means that John’s name has a greater chance of being passed on to future generations. Wouldn’t it have been a more powerful political statement to give our first son my name?

Lots of smart people have tried to think of fair and equal ways to pass on names. Some suggestions include coin flips, giving daughters the maternal name and boys the paternal, and new last names for everyone. A friend of mine told me that he favors the tradition some Native American groups used. They would send adolescents out on a long vision-seeking journey into the wilderness, only permitting them to return once they had discerned their true names. Practically, the solution to the naming problem requires more than creating new ways of picking names. It requires reflection on how we define masculinity and distribute power.

And now is a perfect time to reopen the debate about children’s last names. Increasingly, it seems likely that laws are going to change to allow gay couples to get married. How will these couples handle their names? In the current absence of socially sanctioned legal marriages, some gay couples share names as a way to symbolize the depth of their commitment or as a way to clarify the parenthood of their children. When gay couples can marry, how many will choose to share names? Rising rates of single parenthood may also challenge our current naming practices, because unmarried mothers are more likely to pass on their own names. Globalization puts us in touch with cultures whose naming traditions are different from our own. Such social changes ask us not only to think about the power of a name, but also to expand our notions of what family means.

Jacob Nurse was born nine years ago. The most unexpected effect of our decision to give him my name was that my family and I again received new names. When I left the hospital after giving birth to him, I became “Mrs. Nurse” and my family became the “Thompson-Nurses.” It was as if the existence of Baby Jacob Nurse suddenly made me visible and imbued my name with a new legitimacy and respect. I would like to think that we are moving toward a world where my name receives this kind of respect because it is my name, not because it is the name of my father, my husband, or my son. But for now, I’ll have to settle for taking my son’s name and calling it my own.


  • My wife and I decided to hyphenate after our non-legal wedding in 2003. (We went through the formal “Legal Name Change” process.) We felt that sharing a common name was an important — if not the only — way we would be easily recognized as a family. Our children share our hyphenated name.

    Yes, that means that when our children marry, if they do, they will also have to make a choice about how to manage names. It might be inelegant. But as you articulated, everyone makes that choice when they marry, although heterosexual men in traditional marriages seem to have the strongest social expectation of what that choice will be.

  • Ivy Ken says:

    What a beautiful article, so thoughtfully done. Thank you for sharing your experiences and analysis.

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