There are some decisions about which everyone is the world is obliged to give a shit, and for women, changing or not changing your name on marriage is one of them. (See also: having or not having kids, eating or not eating a cake.) It’s tempting to throw a strop here and point out that it’s not actually anyone else’s name about which to give a shit, but maybe that’s not quite fair, given that names are a definitively public thing. You don’t go having a name just so you can keep it to yourself, unless you’re engaged in some kind of Lovecraft necromancy action on the side. But as well as telling people what they should call you, your name choice can be taken to betray a lot about your private opinions and political beliefs, and people who think you’ve gone the wrong way are rarely shy of letting you know.
There are some time-honoured ways of doing this – the birthday cheque made out to a person who’ll never exist, for example – but most of them come down to just doggedly calling you by the wrong name. At university, I read (and then disbelievingly re-read a few dozen times) a feminist literary critic declare her intention to use an eighteenth-century author’s birth name rather than the “chattel name” the writer was actually known by, as if simply using the husband’s name constituted a wibbling capitulation to the monolith Patriarchy. And anyway, if taking a man’s name designates a woman as property, why isn’t sticking with the patronym just as chattel-y?
The thing is, most of our traditions about naming derive from a time of things being substantially less than awesome for women. Those who hear echoes of historical misogyny in name-changing have sensitive ears, but they’re not wrong. One answer is to blend the bride and groom’s names into an all-new confection, but giving up your name can still feel like surrendering your identity. The mean age of first marriage for a woman in the UK is 30: that’s 30 years of having the name you were born with, unless you’ve had the gumption to come up with a particularly fabulous alternative in the interim. What would make you suddenly decide that the person you’ve been for three decades should be replaced with a new, more obviously be-spoused version?
The best argument for sticking with what you’re born with, though, is the faff involved in changing. “Oh, you should change your name, it’s romantic,”said one of my friends when I told her I planned to sign the register as “Webster”rather than my husband’s “Ditum” all I could do was fold my face up in an origami of doubt, trying to work out where the romance was in taking my marriage certificate on a tour of administrative bodies. (I did change my name in the end, but it wasn’t for very romantic reasons – it was more about the SEO.) “Oh darling, I’ve never felt so together as I did while sitting in the Natwest back office signing forms in triplicate,” is a thing no human has ever said.
And what if your marriage doesn’t work out and you want to change back? Then you have to do all the paperwork again, with the added piquancy of announcing your divorce at the same time. There aren’t many less fun group emails to send out than the one that goes, “Please add this this address to your contacts as I will be using this name from now on, and don’t ask if I’ve just got married or divorced because it’s the latter, the house sale was pretty stressful and I really miss the dog.”Now we all live online, changing your name feels like a perilously drastic thing to do to your identity –not far off getting a plastic surgeon to carve you a new face. The new you might fit some people’s idea of what’s right, but no one’s going to recognise you.
This is an especially keen issue if you work in an industry that demands some sort of public profile – journalism, say. If your career relies on people knowing who you are, it’s entirely self-defeating to tie your reputation to a name that isn’t yours. That, incidentally, is why my birth name went: when I decided to start working as a freelance writer, it turned out there was already a Sarah Webster working as a writer. Luckily, I had a spare name in my back pocket, and it happened to be an unusual-to-the-point-of-unpronounceable one. You’re probably saying it wrong, but you’ll find me if you google me, and that’s what counts. Less sentiment, more SEO: that’s the future of name-changing.