I began my family tree with the clear aim of recording my place in time. I also wanted my children to know their place in a history that began 12,000 miles from where they were born. Unexpectedly, I seem to have lost my name! The name of my childhood; the name that identified me as the child of my parents; the name I shared with my sister.
What’s In A Surname?
In my previous post, A Tangled Web We Weave, I explained how my mother told me about my father’s illegitimate status and that my Aunt Doll, pictured on the right, was actually my paternal Grandmother. The add on that my paternal Grandfather was “rich and famous” gave the story a little bit of Hollywood! When the connection on Ancestry threw doubt on the whole story it became the basis for some family history sleuthing. But, that was a few days ago and I find that my perspective has changed. I realised that there may b a faint prospect that my childhood name was in danger of disappearing, and I didn’t like it. After all it wasn’t the first time my name had disappeared. If you are a married female I suspect you may have experienced the same thing when you “took” your husband’s name.
When Did Changing Surname Start?
Changing a surname after marriage has it’s roots in medieval history and is fundamentally tied to patriarchal marital traditions. The father “gave” his daughter to the man to become his property. The wealthier the father was the more likely the marriage was to be a business transaction. If the father had land her dowry may be exchanged for prestige. Whereas a financially bankrupt Lord would marry in exchange for land. Not to mention of course transactions for politics and war! The legal jargon for this is as follows:
Coverture was a legal doctrine whereby, upon marriage, a woman’s legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband, in accordance with the wife’s legal status of feme covert. An unmarried woman, a feme sole, had the right to own property and make contracts in her own name. Coverture arises from the legal fiction that a husband and wife are one person. Wikipedia
Changing Surname After Marriage
I was twenty years old when I first married and happily volunteered to change my name. Didn’t we all? If you asked any of us why we did we would probably have come up with similar answers:
- It showed commitment to the marriage
- Someone had to!
- Family unity
Psychology Of Surname Changing
It could be a peculiarity of my age but this time my current position has opened up feelings that have probably been stirring around for a while. Finding my paternal grandmother has become very important to me. To do this I need a surname. But, not just any surname. It has to be the right one. With the rise in female emancipation many researchers have looked at the effects of women changing their surname and I am happy to report that I have most of them!
Firstly there is the lose of identity. Imagine if my name had been McIntosh. It immediately announces my Scottish heritage. However, I marry and change my name to Jones…….Voila, I am now Welsh.
Secondly there is a feeling of grief. We now no longer share the name of our parents and unmarried siblings. A psychological death of the person we were
Finally we have to accept we have been victims of moral injustice. Whether of not changing our surname after marriage is now presented as an option we are still left with the unequal burden of making that choice. Double barreled names are only possible for one generation. Imagine if little “Smith-Brown” wanted to marry little “Grey-Jones”!
Conclusion To Changing Surname After Marriage
As far as changing a surname after marriage there is no answer. If everyone wants to keep their surname someone has to change. Fair choice without the risk of censure or inequality should be a mandatory starting place however.
As for my current dilemma no one is more surprised than me. If I find the answer I will share it with you!
If you have an opinion on changing a surname after marriage please leave a comment below
Thank you, a very thought provoking post. I have never thought about this before, but surely emotionally and psychologically the effects you describe on a woman at marriage are very real. My wife is from Nepal, her maiden surname, Tuladhar, marks her as a “Newar”, the original ethnic group who inhabited the Kathmandu Valley. But 47 years ago she “took” my surname, an English surname, and I suppose in many respects on the surface at least she lost her identity. So, now I think about it, surnames should be retained. But …… an awful lot of bureaucratic systems would have to change!
Thanks for sharing your personal experience. Empathy is such an underrated quality.
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Love your story – have a similar one with my father-in-law. Grandma always promised that there was a message for him which he would be given once she had died – there wasn’t! DNA hasn’t helped so far have found contacts with a couple of people who appear to have no known linked DNA but very distant.
However what I wanted to say was Changing Name on Marriage – I chose to because I really loathed my birth surname (and was bullied unmercifully as a child) – none of my friends chose to change their names on marriage (late 70’s/early 80’s) but not one ever suggested I’d made the wrong decision.. most just said .. yes I would have done that too!!
Hi Gina, I will have to add your comment on not liking your own surname to the list……3 of my friends have said the same thing!