Marriage: Whose name to keep?

MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 05:00 20/01/2013
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CANDY CAPCO

PERFECT PAIR: Michelle Duff and husband Johnson Witehira kept their names and are still "their own people".

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It was the day after our wedding, and washed-up guests were strewn around my parents' lounge, sprawled on the deck, gingerly cracking open fresh beers.

My new husband and I walked into the kitchen, a little worse for wear but enshrouded in the kind of happy fug that only 24 hours dedicated entirely to the celebration of your love can create. You could even go so far as to say we were starry-eyed.

At the table, I bent down for a hug with Grandma. "Hello, Mrs Witehira," she said, giving me a proud squeeze.

My husband looked at me sideways. "Hi," I hugged Grandma back cheerfully, letting the moment slip past.

The thing is, I wasn't Mrs Witehira. After months of hemming, hawing, tossing, turning and generally driving my husband-to-be crazy (Me: "What do you think I should do?" Him: "You've asked me a thousand times. I've told you, it's your decision. Now go to sleep already"), I had decided to keep my maiden name.

At the beginning, it seemed like such an obvious choice. Of course I wouldn't be changing my name. Why would I?

Being married wouldn't make me a different person - I'd still be myself, only with guaranteed snuggles with my best friend for the rest of my life. Changing my name seemed old-fashioned. Stuffy.

In 2011, 20,231 couples were married in New Zealand. It's impossible to know how many of these women took their husband's name, because formally registering a name-change isn't necessary.

But given the modern age, and the fact women are even allowed to wear trousers now, I figured not changing your name would be fairly commonplace.

International statistics suggest otherwise. A survey of 19,000 women by wedding website TheKnot.com in 2011 found that 86 per cent took their husband's name, with 8 per cent keeping their surname. In America at least, the trend towards women keeping their maiden names after marriage peaked in the 1990s, when about 23 per cent of women did so. By 2009, a study in the journal Social Behaviour and Personality had the rate clocked at about 18 per cent - and dropping.

At her home in Auckland, celebrant Mary Hancock has just opened a chain email from a group of close female friends.

All eight women in the email, who married the same time as second-wave feminism crested in the 1970s, kept their own last name.

In a similar sample of young women today, you'd be more likely to find a haphazard combination of those who had kept their name, changed names, hyphenated names, or increasingly, chosen completely new names, Hancock says.

A founding member of the Celebrants Association of New Zealand, Hancock has been tying knots for more than 25 years.

She was married in 1971 at the age of 19, the same year New Zealand's marriage rate peaked, with 27,199 couples getting hitched.

In the past three decades she's seen a shift from women keeping their own last names, like she did, to a hyphenation craze in the late 80s and 90s and a more recent move back towards tradition.

But she warns trainees at Auckland University's celebrant school never to make assumptions when talking to couples.

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"Around 2000, I observed lots of women were taking the man's name again. Very occasionally I would get the man taking the woman's name, and increasingly couples will make a new name. But there's a lot of diversity out there, and people don't want to be judged.

"It varies incredibly. There is probably more diversity in the 30-plus age group, and anyone who marries in their early 20s is likely to be more traditional."

She thinks the variety seen nowadays reflects the change in the nature of marriage, with more people opting for civil ceremonies over religious and the woman's role inside the marriage no longer assumed to be that of homemaker. The feminist statement she and her friends were making by not taking their husband's names doesn't really exist anymore. "I think New Zealand encourages freedom of choice much more than other Western countries, and I think making your own decision is seen as what men and women do.

"Although some men still struggle with it [women not wanting to change their names], I notice."

'So, are you going to change your name?" became the oft-repeated refrain in the weeks leading up to my wedding. From my hairdresser to colleagues and close friends, it was asked with impunity. (OK, so it was often accompanied by lesser queries like: "So, are you getting a spray tan?" and "Will there be a band?")

But, pretty soon, I began to realise reactions to my keeping my own surname were largely negative.

Some people just nodded, lips pursed. Others wondered what my husband thought. One male friend just asked, bluntly: "So why are you getting married then?"

Why was I getting married? Good question. Until Johnson asked me, unexpectedly on a clear Lyall Bay morning, I'd never really envisioned it. I hadn't spent hours imagining my dream day, had never lined Barbie up with Ken at the altar, and my first choice of wedding dress colour was green.

But, as surprising as his proposal was, the thought of saying "no" didn't enter my mind. I loved him, we were happy, and why not acknowledge that in front of all of our friends and family?

When we discussed it later, that's what it meant to us; a celebration of our relationship and commitment to each other in front of the people who meant the most.

But the more people asked about my last name, the more it seemed to matter.

Maybe I did want to become Michelle Witehira? It has a nice ring to it. It sounds pretty. A thousand times more romantic than "Duff", which - combined with my first name - had won me the high-school nickname I was still trying to shake. Not that there's anything wrong with being affectionately named after a lady-part, of course - until you're 29 years old and your hometown friends are yelling it out at the pub in front of all the new workmates you're trying to impress.

So that would be an advantage.

Another one, as a married friend who had changed her name explained, was the tangible recognition that you were now linked together. "I felt like we were way more of a team," she said.

"I changed my name without even thinking about it, my sister changed hers and my sister-in-law changed hers," another friend wrote. "It didn't even cross my mind to keep it. I love my husband and am proud to take on his name."

But others were less convincing. "I surprisingly hated changing my name. I gave it no thought, but after it happened I felt like I'd lost my identity," another friend, who works in finance, said. "I'm used to it now, but when I meet new people I feel like I want to tell them my maiden name so they know the real me. Seems silly, really."

Then there's the question of kids. If you keep your name, whose will they take? If you have a different surname, will your kids even know they belong to you? Or is it entirely likely they will still be able to identify their own parents?

Karl and Leah Merewater of Wellington decided to tackle the issue by changing both their last names to Voltron, the super-robot from the 80s anime series created by individual robots who fused together to defend the galaxy from evil.

"Leah being a staunch feminist said she was not going to take my last name, and I thought, 'Fair enough, I'm not particularly fond of my last name either'," Karl Merewater, 31, says.

"So we thought why don't we make something new, something different, and eventually we settled on Voltron. So we told our friends and started making up a cool handshake and stuff, but once we ran it past our parents they weren't too happy.

"They thought we were taking the piss, I think, taking it a bit lightly, and I guess, in hindsight, they might have been right."

Eventually they settled on Merewater, a fusion of her last name, Bywater, and his last name, Meredith. It was a win-win - their parents were placated, they avoided the convolution of hyphenating, and their kids would end up with the same last name, he says.

Meanwhile, I diligently ploughed through my list of pros and cons.

As a writer, everything I had ever had published was under my name. Not that I was exactly Virginia Woolf, or even someone who could be played very well by Sarah Jessica Parker, but changing your byline after years in journalism seems a little silly.

And it appeared I would be judged. A 2010 study of 2400 women by researchers at Tilburg University in Holland shows women who are older or have established careers are more likely to keep their names than younger women aged 20-24.

Women who take their husband's surname are thought to have more stereotypically feminine characteristics, with a focus group of 90 students labelling them "more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, less competent, and less ambitious in comparison with a woman who kept her own name".

The woman who kept her maiden name "was judged as less caring, more independent, more ambitious, more intelligent and more competent, which was similar to an unmarried woman living [with her partner] or a man". These assumptions transferred to the workplace, where women who kept their names were judged to be more competent and earn an average $500,000 more over a lifetime.

Freelance journalist Emma Horsley, formerly Goodwin, nee Patton, has now worked under three surnames.

While her reasons for changing her name were different for both marriages - the first was under pressure from her ex, the second was her choice - both times it has taken time and investment to re-establish her name recognition.

"I don't believe my name defines me or who I am, but as a journalist it does become your brand, and that takes time to rebuild."

That's part of what made stylist Kathryn Neale want to keep her name when she married Sam Shaffer in Wellington in 2006.

The couple, who live in New York, were married in a glitzy ceremony - after they held a softball match to determine whose last name they would take.

The groom, whose stepmother is the famously formidable American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, and his family played the "Kiwis" for naming rights. Neale's side won and she kept her name. Despite the deal, Shaffer, after making a joke about not wanting to be mistaken for actor Sam Neill, ended up keeping his name too and it was "never mentioned again," Neale says.

"I was never comfortable taking Sam's name for a few reasons. He has a sister named Kathryn. Although she is [nicknamed] Bee, I still thought that it would be odd for us to have the same name," Neale says.

"I was already quite far in my career as a stylist and I felt that changing names would be like starting over professionally. And when I looked at all the women I respected they seemed to keep their own names.

"At the back of your head you wonder, if I take their name do I become their property? It all feels very archaic."

There is the unavoidable fact that historically, a woman changed her name because she became the possession of her husband - with no legal identity of her own.

"By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing," decreed English politician William Blackstone in 1765.

While women's rights have no doubt evolved since Blackstone's time, surely the origin of the tradition is relevant?

Auckland University head of women's studies Professor Maureen Molloy says if you don't take on your husband's name because of that logic, it could be argued that you remain the property of your father.

"I don't think it's part of it anymore. I doubt there are many women these days who would consider they are giving up their rights and becoming the property of their husband by changing their name.

"These traditions become unhinged from their roots over time. It certainly doesn't have much to do with how strong-willed you are as a woman. There are more important things happening that we have to consider, like equal pay and equal rights."

With the marriage rate in New Zealand dropping steadily, Molloy says the swing back to tradition could be a reflection that people who married are more conservative, with many other couples perfectly happy to live together in long-term relationships without tying the knot.

Either way, it's an intensely personal choice. "It seems very strange that people should comment on it."

Like a monstrous, revolving wedding cake, the arguments spun in my head. I lost sleep. I asked my future husband. I plagued friends. I Googled like crazy.

Most frightening was the webpage instructing how to defend your (subtext: horribly misguided) choice to keep your last name. Wikihow's "How to tell people you're keeping your maiden name" contained encouraging tidbits like: "Recognise that keeping the name you were born with goes against many years of tradition in certain countries", and suggestions to create joint business cards to hand to family and friends to avoid confusion. What?

In the end, it was a snippet from a book in the secondhand store that solidified my decision. A woman wrote of how she was packing up her stuff before she and her fiancee moved house, including her university degrees and diplomas. "I just thought, if I changed my name, what would happen to the woman who worked so hard to get all those qualifications."

In the days after our wedding, in the euphoria of hugs and congratulations and heart-fluttering smiles between my new husband and me, I still wasn't sure if I'd made the right choice.

Now, I am. I'm glad I'm still myself. I'm glad the name I've had my whole life is still mine. I'm glad we can be in love and still be our own people.

It may just be a name, but to me it was a representation of much more than that - it was part of my identity. And, in the end, I wasn't keen to give that up.

But you know what? I still haven't told my Grandma.

- The Dominion Post

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