Whether to Change Your Surname Upon Marriage or Not

There is a scene in a delightful novel I am currently reading in which the protagonist is arguing with her colleague/boyfriend about whether women should change their surnames upon marriage. The book is called Lessons in Chemistry and is written by the talented Bonnie Garmus. Two chemists, the famous, brilliant Calvin Evans, and the equally brilliant but terribly overlooked and under-valued Elizabeth Zott, are having a heated discussion. The year is 1952, a time when the parents of Baby Boomers were making decisions about careers, marriage and children, a time when women did not become chemists! Calvin has just asked Elizabeth to marry him, but much to his chagrin, she declines, primarily because she does not want to take his surname and all that this implies.

Back in the 1950s most women adopted their husbands’ surname when they married. This was not even questioned in our culture, even though there were many places in the world —Italy, Spain, and much of Asia — where this was not the practice. Whether to take one’s partner’s name upon marriage became more of an issue in the late 1960s and 1970s when the oldest Boomers were entering into marriage.

My cousin and several friends chose to keep their own surname, albeit a name they inherited from the male side of their family. Most of my gay friends have also kept their own names upon marriage. Many of my colleagues chose to hyphenate their surname with their spouse’s. I also have one male colleague who took his wife’s surname, dropping his own altogether, and I know many men who use both their wife’s surname along with their own. I seriously entertained this idea when Richard (Macgregor) and I married. This would have meant that my surname (Macdonald. — NO relation to Canada’s first Prime Minister) would have become Macdonald-Macgregor. Quite a mouthful! Given that we spent our first year of marriage in Scotland and I was serving in a fairly traditional Presbyterian kirk in Edinburgh, there was no way anyone in this ancient town was going to call me anything other than Mrs. Macgregor! (The Scots at that time had not adopted our North American habit of using first names). I felt like a character out of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit! Was my task in life to bake rabbit pie?

Interestingly, before I met Richard I vowed that I would never marry someone with a name like mine, which was constantly misspelled. I would get MC donald instead of MAC donald or folks would make the d in donald a capital. But this problem did not go away when I adopted Richard’s surname, since his surname has the same challenges: Macgregor, NOT MacGregor and not McGregor.

While I have not regretted my decision to take Richards’s surname 37 years ago, I acknowledge that this tradition is highly problematic. Let’s be honest. The practice of taking one’s husband’s surname was birthed in a deeply patriarchal culture where the bride was considered to become the property of her husband’s family. That said, I have never felt like I was anyone’s personal property. Indeed, I have been able to find fulfillment in my chosen vocation both as a married woman and as a professional.

What has your experience been? Did you adopt your partner’s surname or would you do so if you were to marry now? What do you think are the pros and cons? I would love to hear from you!

Now back to reading Garmus’s novel!

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