"I'd never go for that," remarked a co-worker when he learned I was keeping my own name after I got married.
"Why?" I asked.
"It's just not right -- both people have to give up something for the marriage to work," he said.
"What would you give up?"
My co-worker thought about this for a moment, and then he smiled. "Other women," he said.
While this may be one man's failure to leap toward the '80s, many people are still critical of a woman who keeps her birth name after marriage. It seems antisocial. (How do we address their Christmas cards?) It seems rebellious. (She's proving a point at her husband's expense.) It seems unloving. (Why is she doing this to herself/to her husband/to us?)
This is not a new question. When I was in the third grade, I hated my first name. I wanted one with an exotic sound like Starr, or Magdalena or Nancy. My parents refused to call me anything else, so I dropped a 'b' and the last 'e,' and began signing my name Debi. After several months of passing by my own name, I finally went back to being Debbie. This, I tell my mother, is why I have kept my last name -- so I will always know myself.
Like other little girls, I understood that men were allowed to keep their last name when they fell in love, and women had to give theirs away. I watched the movies. I knew that every marriage made in heaven began not on the wedding night, but the next morning when the groom turned to his new bride and whispered, "Good morning Mrs. Darling." The bride would smile proudly. They would kiss. As we watched these endless afternoon movies, my best friend and I would wonder: What will our real names be? We practiced writing our first name wtih the last name of each boy we liked. We imagined our mothers being a little like Nancy Drew when they had their maiden names.
As an adult, I assumed that most women kept their own last names when they married. I thought the battles had been fought and that married couples were welcome to place both names on credit cards, insurance policies and car loans. I was wrong. Most women I spoke with admitted that businesses and even their own family and friends were often slow to accept a married couple having different last names. "I had no idea that I was making a feminist statement," said one woman. "I thought that it was an accepted choice, and I was astonished the first time someone got upset about it."
They were right. I learned not to blink when men told me that they would never marry me if I tried this kind of name nonsense with them. I devised elaborate answers with references to psychology, identity, established credit records, and the impossibility of fitting a 19-letter, hyphenated name on a government form. I learned to answer questions with another question: "How would you like to give up the name that you were born with?"
My husband, Nick, had to be even stronger about our joint decision for me to keep my last name. Most of my friends understood why I kept my name; most of his friends did not. Colleagues liked coming by to remind him that couples who did not share the same name would be audited by the IRS for the rest of their lives.
Relatives would pull Nick aside and ask him, "Why is she doing this?" He was quizzed whenever I left the room. (One week before the wedding: "What are you going to name the children?" his mother whispered when I excused myself for a third helping of dessert. "What children? Where?" Nick asked, hysterically waving his arms around the dining room.)
Feminists everywhere please forgive me, but as I watched Nick having to argue my decision with his friends and family, I almost changed my mind. Was it fair, I wondered, that he had to fight all these battles? Nick understood why I kept my name, but he too had grown up on the same afternoon movies. He admitted wanting to introduce his wife, just once, with his last name.
Everyone was having such fun dressing me up in my husband's name, that I hesitated to interrupt them. Each time someone called me by Nick's name I had to decide: Do I bring it up or do I let it slide? Is it worth a fight? I felt guilty either way.
I discovered that some businesses do not feel obliged to use a woman's birth name when her husband has a perfectly good name that the woman can use. When I arrived for my premarital blood test, the receptionist began erasing my last name from the file. "We only file under one name," she explained. "But I'm keeping my name," I said. The receptionist looked at me and sighed. "You are getting married, right?" I nodded. "Well then," she concluded. It took several minutes of negotiations to get my last name back.
Even cooperative businesses seem uncertain how they should distinguish a married couple with different last names. Although our bank allowed for two names on an account, the loan officer had to attach a note of explanation on each page of our submitted loan request. She was afraid others would think my husband and I were "just" living together.
I have learned to be adaptable and patient. My favorite matron aunt gently explained that my decision might be "a phase -- just like whe she was five and she wouldn't eat corn."
People who disagree with my decision enjoy quoting "What's in a name? A rose by any other name . . ." It's hard to argue with Shakespeare. But he was a man, and to my knowledge, he did not sign any of his works William Hathaway.
Like Lucy Stone, I believe that "My name is my identity and must not be lost." Ms. Stone made that statement in 1855. This is not a phase.