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