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On changing your name

The issue of women changing their names when they married resurfaced in 2014 when Amal Alamuddin decided to add George Clooney’s surname to hers when she married him. There are questions of professional and personal identity at stake, as well as the troubling history that changing a woman’s name was an act of coverture, where a wife’s legal identity was subsumed under her husband’s. Even if current day name-changes no longer mean a loss of legal status, these are the roots of the social convention.

Lou Heinrich has a beautiful piece over at Kill Your Darlings about how she changed her name when she got married at 22, largely out of naivety, and how she now regrets it. For her, names are rooted in family identity:

It fit oddly, like a too-tight boot, Heinrich with its short sharp letters and quick harsh sound, a painting of his family that holds tight to its serious and blunt Germanic roots. Such a contrast to the flowing curls of Schebella (which I always wrote in cursive), the name I grew up with, with its soft, warm consonants and loose end.

I changed my name when I got married too, when I was still trying to work out what I thought of feminism before I started identifying as a feminist. I didn’t have a strong attachment to ‘Lockery’ as a name in itself, and though I thought ‘Davis’ was definitely more generic, it didn’t bring many more connotations than that. What did matter to me was a sense that Arthur and I were starting something new, a oneness that I think it is appropriate to use an identifiable marker for, like a last name.

In the Facebook comments on Lou’s thread, Tim Hein, the minister who conducted their marriage ceremony says just this.

The basis of unity upon which I married you and your husband in the service that day was not the authority of his masculinity, or the patriarchal strands of our society, but rather drawn from the words of Jesus Christ himself who said, amongst other things, that in marriage, you both came together to form one flesh. … This ‘one flesh’ is complementary, and equal. Like a violin and bow, or lock and key. It does not imply ‘sameness’ but it does imply that you are no longer as you were. Your identity is now part of something greater than yourself.

Tim argues that “an exclusive ‘one flesh’ should rightly be reflected in a myriad of symbolic and tangible ways through your married life together.” Having the same name is a reasonable way to do this, where keeping one’s own name may be “a token act of individuality at the centre of a union which is all about unity.” He doesn’t particularly mind whether you take the wife’s name as some friends of ours did, or the husband’s name, a new name, or a combination.

But I took Arthur’s name. I don’t think we even discussed him taking my name, at least not seriously. I was happy to take his name, and to be identified by it. Partly it was social convention, but it also came from a belief in his headship of me and our family. I think I conceived of that headship differently at the time, but what I’ve come to recognise is that that headship has nothing to do with me losing my identity; in fact, it’s about giving me the space to flourish. It has nothing to do with him ‘owning’ me in a way I do not own him, because we belong to each other. It has everything to do with him being the head of our family, which means he is the first to love, the first to serve, the first to give his rights up, the first to look to my wellbeing.

Does this notion of the husband having this particular role have its roots in patriarchal structures? Of course it does! The New Testament’s instructions to families are using cultural models of the time. They take the household codes, a familiar patriarchal pattern, but then they turn them on their heads.

The cultural expectation is that you will be the leader? OK, be the servant leader.

Everyone expects you to be in charge? Take that as being in charge of your wife’s well being.

The law sees your wife subsumed under your identity? Good then, care for her as you would your most precious possession, your own body.

I’m constantly fascinated that these instructions don’t chuck out cultural constructs so much as they do subvert and transform them. To bring it to the issue before us today:

You’re getting married and she’s taking your name? Let it then be a daily reminder to you of your grave and holy responsibility to love her.

Many would accuse the New Testament writers of not going far enough with their instructions about marriage. Why simply subvert patriarchy when you have the opportunity to overthrow the whole thing? That question is one that can only be asked from our vantage point of history. The things that generations have taken to be self-evident are now up for grabs, and perhaps rightly so. But for me, sharing one name continues to be a beacon of unity, togetherness and belonging to one another. And sharing his name, becomes not about putting myself aside, but experiencing the individual flourishing that oneness provides.



Categories: Tanzanian culture Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

8 replies

  1. I think sometimes people take changing name too seriously.
    My wife Jo is probably thought of as Joanna Reid by most of our friends but that is in no way official – in every legal sense she is Oh (her maiden name) Boon Chee. She didn’t change her name.
    why didn’t she? Culturally some Chinese women don’t change their name for cultural, not theological or ideological, reasons. You can’t tell her or my theological concept of male and female relations by her lack of change in other words but you can tell her cultural background – she is Chinese and Chinese don’t necessarily change their name like Europeans do. To make so much of the change like some complementarian views do means you consider all cultural expressions of marriage and it’s God given unity the same when they have never been and will never be the same – if in doubt observe the bright red dress bedecked with gold worn by some Chinese brides in contrast to the white of Europeans.
    Linguistically it would have been impossible for her to change her name – there is no Chinese character for Reid and in a legal sense her name is her Chinese characters, not the anglicised Boon Chee. All of her Singapore documentation has both pronunciation and Chinese character.
    Husband and wife can express one flesh unity in many forms. The wife does not have to give up a name to do it (although she can if she wants).
    As an aside I actually appreciate Jo keeping her names for another reason; I have a high view of family and I want our marriage to be about uniting two families not just incorporating one member into another. In my mind , Jo retaining her name shows that. She doesn’t cease to be the daughter of her parents when she becomes my wife.

    1. Thanks for raising the cross-cultural point Dan. Here in Tanzania women don’t change their names either, but their last names are often their father’s first name (i.e. not family name) and once they are married, they are generally identified by their husband’s first name (e.g. people call me Mrs Arthur) or by their children (e.g. I am Mama Eli) — so there’s a whole other kettle of fish to analyse!

  2. I married at 20 and changed my name because I thought Dombroski sounded exotic and I felt like well, I have loads of family history around a whole lot of names and didn’t feel particularly attached to my father’s name (why not my mother’s!?). But i feel vaguely irritated that I am identified as eastern European heritage rather than my own actual roots which are Scottish, Irish, English. I have been spending time with my maternal grandmother’s brother, and recently discovered the my grandmother’s maiden name (and thus his family name) is actually theirs by virtue of their father’s deed poll change to take his stepfather’s name. So my great uncle doesn’t identify with his family name either, at all, as it does not connect him with his relatives.

    Anyway, now my main reason for keeping my married name, rather than reverting, is that I have publications and qualifications in that name!

  3. This is a really nice post. I’m not religious and have no intention of marrying my long term partner, and if I did I wouldn’t change my name. But it’s an entirely individual choice.

    My parents never married either and growing up it did sadden me that I had my father’s name and not my mother’s (they were still together). I do sometimes think it would be a nice symbol of commitment and family unity to share a name – however, mine’s rare(r) and my boyfriend would have to become a Cookman. It’s a funny thing though, as, my father aside, I have absolutely no desire to remain connected to the family it comes from. They were quite vile to me. I guess it’s more a case of the fact that I am who I am, and a relationship strengthens, but doesn’t change, that.

    1. Hi Liz, I feel quite star-struck having a sub-editor for the Guardian comment on my little post! Thanks for sharing your perspective. It’s hard to come up with hard and fast rules on this issue, appropriately so, I think. You’re right that my post is bringing together some of my theological convictions with my feminism. I really appreciate the hospitality I receive from the feminist community to do this kind of thinking. :)

      1. Ha ha! Ex. I should have updated that, I’ve moved to Turkey now although I do write for them occasionally – I’m a freelancer.

        It’s really nice to here a feminist perspective from someone who is also religious – it’s all too often assumed that feminism and religion can not be bedmates. It’s interesting to hear how you fit the two together. I think it’s a well written and well considered piece, and I certainly enjoyed your thoughts on the matter.

  4. That’s very kind Liz. Wow, Turkey! All the best with that. I know how big living cross-culturally is, especially the first year or two. (I’m told it gets easier as you go along!)

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