Whose Last Name?

March 23, 2007

A story came out in USA Today a few days ago about the increasing number of men who take their wife’s last name when they get married. The story is here in its entirety; see excerpts below.

The newlyweds knew it would be surprising, but they never expected it to go quite so badly.

As Donna and Mike entered their wedding reception, an unwitting announcer told the expectant crowd, “Ladies and gentleman, put your hands together for the new Mr. and Mrs. Salinger!”

Some guests clapped, some chuckled at what they presumed was a joke and most looked at one another in confusion. The couple spent the entire reception and some of their honeymoon explaining to people what they had done.

The groom, you see, had started his day as Mike Davis and ended it by doing something precious few of his brothers-in-arms do: He took his wife’s last name instead of her taking his.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought it would have caused as much of a stir as it did,” says Mike Salinger, 27, of Seattle, who was married in November. “We knew people might be surprised, but we figured they’d say ‘Huh’ and get on with it.

“Three months later, I’m still taking (flak) from one of my college roommates.”

“I’m sure somewhere there’s some anthropologist or someone who has looked at this, but I don’t know of any,” says Nancy Lutkehaus, chair of the Gender Studies program at the University of Southern California. “It hasn’t been a large enough social phenomenon that it’s hit the radar as something to be studied.”

That may be coming. The California Legislature is set to consider a bill this month that would allow men to change their surnames upon marriage as seamlessly as women now can. Only seven states now allow a man who wishes to alter his name after his wedding to do so without going through the laborious, frequently expensive legal process set out by the courts for any name change. Women don’t have to do so.

The bill is co-sponsored by the ACLU of California as a follow-up to a federal lawsuit the civil rights group filed in December on behalf of Michael Buday, a Los Angeles man who wants to take on his wife’s surname, Bijon, to show his affinity for his father-in-law. He accuses the state of gender discrimination for forcing him into the more complex process.

“We have the perfect marriage application for the 17th century,” says ACLU attorney Mark Rosenbaum, who is litigating the case. Buday did not respond to requests for an interview. “Every place Michael went, he had the door shut in his face or he was ridiculed.”

I’m glad to hear about this case in California. In 2000 when I married Alex, I took her last name and have never been sorry. We lived in Texas then but didn’t pay a cent to get the name change accomplished despite the fact that Texas (as far as I know) is not one of the seven enlightened states mentioned in the article. But the woman in charge of the social security office in Austin thought our decision was so awesome, she just pushed it through–no charge.

If you read the whole article and the 60+ comments afterwards, you find that many people are mightily challenged by this change in tradition. In my experience, the people who have the hardest time even *understanding* my name change are older, “liberal” women. My family, some of which I feared would not like the idea, has been absolutely supportive. When I called my grandmother after the wedding and the name change to tell her about my decision, she said, “It doesn’t matter what your name is; you are still you.” I wonder if men feel they will not still be themselves in all their masculine gruntiness if they take their wife’s name.

9 Responses to “Whose Last Name?”

  1. Dave Bonta Says:

    Very interesting. Good for you.

  2. Brett

    When Ginger and I married we both took each other’s names becoming the only Brasher-Cunninghams in the world. When people ask about it, I’m always the one who gets congratulated for being so progressive or “nice,” even though we both did it. We got married in Alabama and they told us there was no problem as long as I made the change when we got married; after that it would cost me. Ginger faced no restrictions.

    My parents stayed mad at me for five years. I still haven’t figured out why exactly.


  3. sheepdays Says:

    Hi fellas,
    Yeah, it is hard to see why people would be mad about this. There was some rumbling from my brother about “carrying on the family name,” something that I do not value. There are things that I do want to pass down from my family, but the name is not high on the list.
    We briefly considered hyphenation, but my “maiden” name (what I like to call my “knight-in-shining-armor” name) was VanVeldhuizen! Quite a mouthful when combined with my wife’s already long last name. But Brasher-Cunningham has a nice sound.

  4. Matthew Says:

    I love that you took Alex’ name, and quite frankly if I’d been a more an enlightened 26 year old would have given serious thought to take my wife’s surname. The world doesn’t need any more Millers, but a few more Cabiracs… that’d be okay!

  5. sheepdays Says:

    Thanks, Matthew. You’re pretty enlightened…it’s just that every family makes choices concerning how they will be identified. I don’t think one choice is better or worse than another, but all of these choices should be legal and free.

  6. adan Says:

    B, I remember that day in Austin. I was blessed to be part of that service and read Scripture. I can’t believe how fast time flies! I can’t lie and say I didn’t think twice about you taking on Alex’s last name. I just though, “that’s Brett and Alex being Brett and Alex.” I thought/think it’s a statement of how you are. You’ve been there for me in some pretty dark times. O-kay enough of that.

    Both my grandmothers died last year. I never met my grandfathers and my uncle (father’s side) died when I was a toddler. I’m my fathers’ only son and Reyna and I don’t have children although we are practicing a lot in making them. My last name is more than likely the result of some Spanish brute raping my Mayan-Lempira ancestors. I wonder. Either way, what could me, or people like me do. I can only back to my great grandfathers in geneology on both my parents side and that’s it. I guess i could change my last name to X or an indegenous symbol (imagine, the Reverend _______ formerly known as Adan, maybe Apocalypto qand I can run around and sacrifice people to Mels’ delight).

    Perhaps for me, and people like me, who have survived rape, pillage, plunder, conquest, and colonialization (o-kay at least my ancestors…we’re just dealing with those things ion other ways) ensuring the last name continues is a decleration that says “hey, we’re still here, and we’re here to stay.”

    p.s. David Jahnke is interviewing in New Jersey outside of NYC. He also has two children.

  7. sheepdays Says:

    Great comment, Adan. You’re very likely right–there’s more to a name than I’m allowing. A lot of history can be tied up in there, some of not so nice, as you point out. I think “Rev. Apocalypto” has a nice ring to it…Sounds like someone on late-nite cable.

  8. Liz Says:

    Brett we have always been so proud that you took our last name. The reaction I have always heard from people when I tell them that our son-in-law took our last name is always, “That is so cool!” -without exception! If people have a problem with it they haven’t said anything to me.

    You are a treailblazer, seriously! Challenging a social custom is a lot more daring than most people realize, too. I always tell my students when we start 6th grade social studies, “Customs are stronger than laws.”

  9. sheepdays Says:

    Thanks, Liz. I’ve been proud to have the last name. I’d be lying to say that I wasn’t partially interested in challenging social custom, but it was mostly just a sensible decision for us.

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