Around 90 per cent of heterosexual married women in the UK take their husband’s last name. I know this because of a BBC article which recently began a Twitter storm, thanks to a viral tweet calling the practice “bonkers”. Women who agreed that it’s a bit odd for this patriarchal tradition to have survived so long were treated to smug lectures about how being bound together by a surname makes a couple “a family”, and that a woman’s failing to change hers signifies a lack of commitment. The outraged defence was that in the year 2022 it is “unfeminist” for wives to assume their husbands’ names, and anyone who does so must lack agency. It seems that however a woman chooses to identify herself after marriage, someone will stand up to tell her she’s wrong.
I’ll admit this topic is particularly pertinent to me: shortly after this article is published I will (hopefully) be married. I’ve spent many months fielding questions about how my name will change after the big day, with no small amount of surprise when the answer is “not at all”. The whole debate – and the assumptions that go with it – fascinates me, especially since married women giving up their maiden names is very much a British and American custom. Different countries have other ideas: in Spain, women keep their names and children have the surnames of both parents; Korean women don’t tend to take their husbands’ names either, and in Quebec they are banned from doing so. In Japan, by contrast, married couples must have the same surname, despite multiple appeals to the Supreme Court to modernise the law (they can theoretically choose either, but it’s wives who change theirs in the great majority of cases). Among the Amis people of Taiwan, meanwhile, daughters take their mothers’ names and sons their fathers’. In Iceland, children’s last names are derived from their fathers’ first names – a system that presumably works better in a country with 366,000 people than it would in the UK.
As the daughter of happily married parents who have different surnames, I was always going to be in the keeping-my-name camp. Concerns about it being “confusing” for children are easier to dismiss if you know from experience that kids don’t need a shared surname to understand who their parents are or that they are loved. I’m not worried about issues at airports – the extra admin of travelling with birth certificates pales in comparison to the hassle of switching the name on every bank account, credit card and service I’ve ever signed up to, not to mention coming up with a new signature. And having spent nearly a decade forging a career in media, I’m not about to relinquish the (albeit small) name recognition I’ve built up.
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I like to think I’ve evolved from my knee-jerk puzzlement at women who see things differently. There are a hundred reasons why a newlywed might relish becoming “Mrs Husband’s-Name” – ranging from the sombre (an uneasy relationship with the natal family), to the practical (not everyone shares my blasé attitude to foreign travel), to the joyful desire to enshrine the marriage in one’s changed name. Whether they want to avoid arguments with in-laws or simply like the idea of starting marital life as a decisive unit, all choices are valid. Every friend I’ve known to have made the decision – stick, twist, or double-barrel – has had strong reasons for doing so, and there’s nothing “unfeminist” about any of them.
Still, to me my identity and my name are one and the same. So I am baffled by the insistence, on that Twitter thread and beyond, that since my existing surname came from my father, I should have no issue swapping it for that of my husband. But Cunliffe isn’t just my father’s name, although he uses it too – it’s mine. It has been mine for 31 years, and the fact that it comes via a patronymic custom doesn’t invalidate that. Men are not told that their name isn’t really theirs since their father has it as well – yet with women, so often the perception is that we were merely borrowing our maiden names until marriage. That the traditions we were born into aren’t really ours. My name, and the story that goes with it, is my heritage too.
I am, I should say, just as proud to share my mother’s name: Brandler, an Ashkenazi lineage we can trace back to 18th-century east Poland. It’s my middle name, and if I could pass that on to future generations too, I would. But I think my affinity for Cunliffe is particularly strong because there are now only three of us – my father, my sister and me – whose signatures bear the decision of a grandfather I never met to anglicise his identity, letting go of a name his family had carried over the decades from Ukraine, through Germany, then to Britain, where we’ve been ever since. It’s frequently misspelt (including, amusingly, on the first draft of my marriage notice form) and derives from a part of Lancashire I doubt I’ll ever visit, but there is so much history there. What message would I be sending to any future children I might have if I casually gave that up for the sake of convention?
According to some vocal Twitter traditionalists, my soon-to-be-husband should have spotted the “red flag” when I said I’d be keeping my name and rejected me there and then. Luckily, he thinks the real red flag would be my pretending to be someone I’m not to make him happy. So while I might be in a minority, even in 2022, I’ll be staying Ms Cunliffe. Wish me luck at airports.
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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special