Marriage names and Google rankings: A feminist 2.0 dilemma

A name is forever, once it’s been indexed in Google. There’s been much buzz about how to juice your Google presence by making your name more unusual, but what is a woman to do when she gets married? A quest for search engine optimization tips about how to preserve your Google rankings when you change your name came up short, so I’m open to suggestions. It’s a feminist 2.0 dilemma.

When I got married two years ago, the whole name change issue confused me. I decided to hyphenate, combining my last name and my husband’s with a tiny dash. That little dash has proven challenging. But changing my name full stop felt dishonest, while keeping my own name felt weirdly disrespectful to both my husband and any of our future offspring. And so I hyphenated, and it’s been annoying because I never fully owned the name change. I don’t always use the hyphen (mostly I stick stubbornly to my own surname; sometimes, like with the car dealer, I use my husband’s last name for sheer convenience) and as such have three different names I use on a regular basis. I thought keeping the maiden name in there would preserve old Google rankings and professional associations, but that the new name would be an adequate nod to tradition and acknowledgment of my new life. But in Google, as in life, my pre and post married selves remain two distinct entities.

In 2004, the writer Katie Roiphe wrote a fascinating history of the name change and notes that 90% of American women change their names upon marriage. But it’s a losing battle for many of us. Roiphe writes, “We might prefer equal naming practices, but how in a practical sense could they be implemented? How can both people preserve the longevity and tradition of their surnames? The truth is there is something unsatisfying about either the bride or groom giving up their name.”

She also notes, “hyphenating is socially irresponsible as well as aesthetically disastrous: What happens when Julian Hesser-Friend marries Tessa Rosenfeld-Cassidy”? No kidding. My son will have his father’s name, which pretty much defeats the lineage issue.

My friend Gina hyphenated, but so did her husband. She says, “Neither of us wanted to give up our names….but we weren’t opposed to the idea of adding a name. We knew we wanted to have children, and we wanted ourselves and our children to have the same last name, so it felt like one family unit. It felt like a symbolic gesture towards combining our lives.

“It’s long, but the benefits outweigh the negative aspects for us.” Gina notes, “I definitely consider myself a feminists but I don’t think I made these choices because I’m a feminist. More like we made these choices because they were fair and right for our family.”

Bu she says, “I think I would feel less comfortable with the whole situation of my husband hadn’t done it. We wanted everyone in the family to have the same last name. Our sister in law’s response was, ‘well what if you get divorced’? But she had taken her husband’s whole last name!! What if SHE got divorced”? Indeed.

A 2005 study found that women are increasingly choosing their husband’s names. I’ve found this to be true in my own group of friends, and frankly it surprises me. On the other hand, we wait so long to get married now, we fully own the process of becoming brides in a way women just couldn’t 50 years ago. Maybe a name (outside of Google) is just letters on a page.

I asked some friends how they made their decisions to change, or not change, their names. Karen kept her name, and her son also bears her maiden name. I asked her why and she gave me three excellent reasons, “Why not? My last name has been a really big part of my identity my whole life, my family lineage would die if I didn’t keep it, and third… my husband doesn’t own me.”

She noted that her husband doesn’t really feel strongly about his last name, so it wasn’t an issue. For my friend Hillary, on the other hand, name changing was a negotiation. She says, “it was something I was not inclined to do at the beginning. One, my husband feels strongly about keeping his name. [But] as a feminist I sort of have inhibitions about changing my name.”

But, she continued, “I think I have enough time in my life to create a new identity- I didn’t have to hold on to my last one. It was kind of a clean break. Most people, and myself included, didn’t think I would change my name. Having said that, I’m phasing out my last name gradually. Part of it is me adjusting to it, and part of it is other people as well. Hillary has different email handles with both her old and new names, just in case a recipient was confused. But she says, “…on Facebook I have both my names. In some ways you can keep your maiden as part of your Internet identity. I get introduced both ways- put the name out there so people get used to it. I have that moment when I introduce myself and literally pause. So I’ve become just Hillary– a Madonna like thing.”

Oh, we cackled over that one. I feel exactly the same way. I’m constantly emphasizing my first name and garbling, or even omitting my last name upon introduction, as if I were introducing myself to a five year old instead of a business associate. But sometimes I feel like a fraud when I introduce the hyphenated name and so I swallow the syllables, which Jewish and Italian, vowel heavy names make auditorially challenging for the person on the other end.

But it’s hard to go whole hog too. Three months into her name change, Hillary says, “I feel sort of identity-less. I don’t feel like my maiden name and I don’t feel like my new name.” We talked about the strange anti-climactic role change you experience as a wife (especially if you’re a child of divorce) and then as a mother. Surely giving up your surname introduces a lot of other feelings to the mix?

For me, my new last name is both a professional hurdle and a private source of ambivalence. If I were famous, I’d give them both up entirely and just go by my first name. ‘Til then, I will maybe just have to hire an expert in search engine optimization who specialized in confused, newly married feminists.

Cross posted from the Huffington Post

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  • Dorothy Fuller Polash

    The question for me now is, what to do after divorce and I had taken my husband’s name? I have done a lot of philanthropic and political work as my husband’s name. It was not his work or his involvement. Most know me by that name but it no longer means anything to me. I have not used my maiden name for 27yrs. What now. I continue to do my work but what name should I use. I have started the 3 name thing but it seems cumbersome. Of course the decision is mine but I feel a quandary and would appreciate some other takes on the issue.

    By the way it really throws you when at the beginning of the divorce process they ask if you would like to keep your name!!

  • Frankly if it weren’t for Google I’d have gone straight to changing my name happily. Why?

    1. Page is easier to spell and pronounce than Camahort
    2. Camahort is, after all, just my father’s surname…another patriarchal tradition of kids getting the father’s surname, so why is it more feminist to keep my dad’s surname than my husbands’s?
    3. I like my husband a LOT more than I like my dad, so if a name is about honoring anyone, I’d rather honor the husband

    That being said “Camahort” is unique. And I’m in the Internet business so I have a LOT of Google juice associated with Camahort. I felt I couldn’t lose that. So I went with both, no hyphen. But in personal situations I’m trying to migrate to just Elisa Page.

  • Gloria Pan

    I faced this dilemma years ago, when people barely had email, so there was no risk of forgoing any Google juice had I taken my husband’s name. Still, it was a question for me, though a very brief one. I never seriously considered changing my name, because it would have meant giving up my racial identity, not to mention the fact that Gloria Neuffer is not very mellifluous – it sounds like someone’s spinster aunt, a name on a family tree from sometime in the 19th century. I didn’t want to see how surprised some people would be if they had been expecting to meet someone white and then meet me. For some of my Asian-American girlfriends, however, who also married outside their race, with very little thought they tossed their family name out like a loaf of moldy bread – again, I think, more to do with racial identity than feminism, though the issue of being a female in a patriarchal Asian family could play a subliminal role.

  • Fathima

    I’m not married yet, and am nowhere near close but I have zero intentions of changing my name when it happens. First of all, the amount of paperwork involved with changing your name is enough of a deterrent. Second of all, I happen to be Muslim, and in my religion the name your parents gave you when you were born will always be your name. No amount of legal documents changes that. Third of all, my name is MY NAME. Why should marriage change that? Furthermore, it will be the name that my future-potential husband will have fallen in love with. Hopefully he’ll want me to keep it. I’m still rather young, and trying to figure out how much of a feminist I am, and if that is the reason why I feel so strongly about it. All I know for sure is that I was born Fathima Khan, and I intend to stay that way.

    If I ever have a child though, I don’t mind if his/her name is Baby PerectManAlive, and I won’t care if its teachers at school refer to me as Mrs. PerfectManAlive. However legally, and more importantly, ON FACEBOOK….I will remain Fathima Khan.

  • I took my husband’s name legally because I wanted to have the same last name as my children. But I never used it. I’ve continued to be known as Suzanne Turner.

    I’ve always gone by my middle name, so taking Wheatley legally has created much cognitive dissonance. Ellen Suzanne Turner Wheatley — or Ellen Wheatley — or Suzanne Wheatley or Ellen Turner or Suzanne Turner — one of them has my medical records, my credit cards and my airline reservations. It’s just impossible to know which one at what time.

    “Who the hell is Ellen Wheatley and why are we paying her all this money?” demanded a PR firm CEO when I was running his Washington office. When I had my second child, no one could find me in the hospital. My father was convinced I had died and no one had told him yet.

    “Suzanne Turner is her stage name,” jokes my husband when an amusing snafu arises. And now that we’ve been married for over a decade — name confusion seems a metaphor for my entirely changed identity. What happened to that cosmopolitan glamazon, Suzanne Turner? She became a mother first and foremost (Suzanne Wheatley), a business owner and professional being second (Suzanne Turner), and myself last…. but what shall I call the real me? My mother’s little “Suzi” “SuSu”? “Matthew’s mom? Andrew’s mom? Will’s wife? Somebody’s boss? (sigh) Just call me Suzanne.

  • Gigi

    I approve 100% of: girls take the mother’s surname name, boys the father’s.
    But WHY is it so important to publish a relationship? Agreed, teachers find
    it easier but children, mostly, do not care. Since getting married is already
    a declaration of “we belong together” what need is there of further proof?

    (OK, my daughter has her father’s surname, despite my protests – the law
    has so much more punch than I – perhaps this should be changed)

  • I wanted to add that my children — of their own choice — have added my last name to their own. For example, my nine-year-old’s signature includes both his middle name AND my maiden name. They know Mommy uses “Turner” not “Wheatley” and want to use it themselves. (Maybe we should try the Spanish system with our children? The mother’s name follows at the end?)

  • If the question is really is how to best retain your Google juice after getting married, the answer is simple: don’t change your name.

    I’m not terribly attached to my last name (although I’ve grown to appreciate its quirky, hard-to-spell-and-pronounce personality) but I am very opposed to the idea of taking my husband’s name or giving it to our kids just by default. It’s simply illogical to me. I’m not any more a Russell than he is a Sinreich, and if anything, the children I give birth to should be more attached to me, right? Then again, my last name is my dad’s, not my mom’s, and you don’t see me changing that.

    I got married over 2 years ago, and after a brief flirtation with making up a new name that we would both take, my husband and I decided to keep our own names until we had kids. Well now I’m pregnant, and we still haven’t come up with a name that the entire family can share. The best option so far is to hyphenate, which will make us the Sinreich-Russell family or something equally non-mellifluous.

    Anyone have a better suggestion?

  • Betsy cg

    The name question was the trickiest part of wedding planning for my husband and me. Three months of extensive negotiation. It had never crossed my mind that I would change my name, but as the wedding got closer I realized that I didn’t want to be the only member of my eventual family that didn’t fit, i.e., Joel Gysan, Child Gysan and Betsy Carlton. I also had a real problem with dropping my name and becoming a full Gysan. To make it a little trickier, both my husband and I are the last people in our generation to have our names so there was a bit of pressure to keep the names going. We ended up going with both of us hyphenating which is a pain but worth it and future children will have my name as a middle name and my husband’s last name for the purely pragmatic reasons laid out by Katie Roiphe. It may not be perfect, but it works well for us. In terms of being Googleable, I hadn’t thought about it before but am currently in the process of shifting careers. I feel confident that there are only two Carlton-Gysans out there and people searching will be able to tell the difference between me and my husband. That can only help, right?

  • Well, you can see that I’ve done the socially irresponsible thing! LOL! I’ve actually gone back and forth though. I got married in 1995, before Google juice was an issue. I changed my name and used Stephanie Himel Nelson. Sort of like HRC. But no one would use both names. It drove me crazy, so I hyphenated after a year. My own name is much more memorable and it’s a part of me and my history. I couldn’t just give that up. I do what you do though. I use Nelson for my kids class and when it’s just easier. (No one can pronounce Himel.) My kids have my husband’s last name.

    One of my good friends combined her name with her husband’s to make an original last name. They both use it, there’s no hyphen, and the kids use it too. I love the idea of combining names and lives and histories in that manner.

  • This is an odd coincidence. My name is also Gina, and my husband and I also hyphenated… and our children have both names as well. We did it for the same reasons the Gina in the story did it. Weird.

  • Isabel

    We women will know we made it when we read posts like these in which men spend their time justifying or commenting on why the chose to keep or change their name when they got married.

    Ladies, we are missing the point. As long as women ponder this question and men don’t, we will not be equal.

  • I agree, Isabel, and I really don’t get folks who give their children the dad’s last name “for convenience” like Roiphe in the original post. How is that more convenient than just using the mom’s last name? As long as the default is patriarchal we have to stop being so lazy.

  • I think you are thinking like sukrat, but I think you should cover the other side of the topic in the post too…

  • Thanks for bringing up the many faceted points of this argument. I’ve used in in exploring my own ideas about names:

  • I’m not married yet, and am nowhere near close but I have zero intentions of changing my name when it happens. First of all, the amount of paperwork involved with changing your name is enough of a deterrent. Second of all, I happen to be Muslim, and in my religion the name your parents gave you when you were born will always be your name. No amount of legal documents changes that. Third of all, my name is MY NAME. Why should marriage change that? Furthermore, it will be the name that my future-potential husband will have fallen in love with. Hopefully he’ll want me to keep it. I’m still rather young, and trying to figure out how much of a feminist I am, and if that is the reason why I feel so strongly about it. All I know for sure is that I was born Fathima Khan, and I intend to stay that way.

  • I haven’t changed my last name and at this point I don’t plan to. We both agreed that we would BOTH change our last names as we married each other- I didn’t just marry him. But as time has passed I really don’t see the need to. I just don’t feel like going through the hassle. And that is what it seems like- hassle just to “prove” to people who I don’t care about that I am married. It has nothing to do with loyalty or commitment or love or whatever people say that indicates they have little knowledge on naming history and customs.

    But I might change my mind and go back to the original agreement if it comes up, only because that is what I agreed to.

    Our children will have both of our names, no hyphen. I admit that I am perplexed about women who don’t change their name and then give their kids their husbands name. No offense but anything that grows in me and comes out of my body is having my last name…or I guess at least a part of it. I just don’t get the insistence of giving a child the fathers name other than reasons that directly related to everything being so patriarchal.

  • Susanna

    I was married almost 35 years ago and decided not to take my husband’s name for the usual feminist reasons.

    However, my two daughters and son took his (their father’s) surname largely because having children was more my preference than his and I also felt that since I had the privilege of gestating and birthing them, with that experience denied to the male parent, them taking his surname would be some compensation. Maybe some “equalisation” even.

    In retrospect, perhaps the girls could have taken my last name and the boy his. This would enable some nominal equality between parents and save the hypenation problem for future generations. The last name of the opposite sexed parent could be the child’s middle name, dropped when she or he formed a union with another person in later life.

  • Interesting how the author phrased the issue:

    “When I got married two years ago, the whole name change issue confused me. I decided to hyphenate, combining my last name and my husband’s with a tiny dash.”

    In other words, it was considered a woman’s issue, NOT a man’s. It never is. Ever wondered why?

    There are many reasons given, by both men and women, why women adopt their husband’s names. Most, in my opinion, are hollow. If you really want to then there’s nothing to stop you. However, giving reasons like, “I want to honour my husband” or “I hate my surname” are simply disingenuous (imo). Here is a list of the common reasons I’ve found written on message boards, and my reasons why they don’t stack up: