Should women trade in their surname when they get married?
As the newly married Rebekah Wade becomes Mrs Charlie Brooks, Clare Dwyer Hogg examines the politics of trading in a surname
Thursday 25 June 2009
So Rebekah Wade, former Sun editor and now News International bigwig, has reportedly decided to change her surname. Following her wedding to horse trainer Charlie Brooks, she is now to be called Rebekah Brooks. This seems surprising. But why? It's still the norm: many women walk down the aisle with the family name they've had since birth, and go off on honeymoon with a completely new identity.
And it isn't unusual, even now, for married couples to receive correspondence that cuts out the female's first name for good measure as well. The subject has all the hallmarks of feminist issue - when are men under pressure to take on their wives' names? - and yet Rebekah Brooks, by all accounts, is hardly a pushover.
Does this turn of events suggest that taking on your husband's name is not, after all, a deletion of identity, but rather a cosy indication of togetherness?
When I turned up to get married I already had two surnames. My mother comes from a long line of sisters who kept their maiden name as well as adopting their married one. With the two-name mantle already bestowed upon me, I didn't feel like taking on a third (this didn't stop amusing acquaintances writing 'Dwyer-Hogg-Ferguson' on subsequent invitations). My husband-to-be didn't mind, although suggested that it might be nice for us to have the same name since we were creating our own unit. So I told him I'd keep my real name for 'business' - yes, I used that word at the time, with all its connotations of briefcases and conferences - and change my name on my passport for everything else. I believed I would, although obviously not very fervently, because four years later nothing has changed. This period of time includes one passport renewal (in my own name). Really, he knew it would never happen when I was bridesmaid for a friend soon after we got married. He came to the top table to say hello, took one look at my name place and said "Here on business?"
Really, I didn't want to lose the identity that, over the years, I had built up with my family name. And - perhaps more ridiculously - didn't really want to be a 'Mrs' either, because that felt like the title for another generation. Professor Ben Fletcher, Head of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and a specialist in family relations, is equivocal. "Taking your husband's name could indicate a very together person," he says. "In a sense, your name is your public identity: you can call yourself Ronald Rabbit but you still are who you are." The issue of name changing should really be neutral territory, he says, no more than a token of commitment. On the other hand, "there are a lot of very traditional men who believe that when you get married that's what you do - this kind of sexism still does operate."
Celebrities are making a career choice when they decide on whether or not to 'take the name'. Would the Beckham 'brand' be as powerful if they were Victoria Adams and David Beckham? And when Ashley Cole was getting into trouble for alleged infidelities, did Cheryl's 'Mrs Cole' tattoo on the back of her neck make the perceived betrayal all the worse? The Mrs Beckhams and Coles of this world are independently rich and powerful within their own celebrity - but probably richer and more powerful as part of a celebrity unit. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, meanwhile, has it both ways, while Jennifer Aniston kept hold of her maiden name during her ill-fated marriage.
As a non-celebrity, I didn't have to worry about whether converting to 'Ferguson' would dent my chances of coverage in OK!. But there is a lot to think about if you change your name. Bank account, mortgage, insurance, passport, email, driving licence, doctor records, dentist information, National insurance...not forgetting Facebook account, Twitter details, Amazon, iTunes. There can't be half measures: if you get around to changing some but not others, you could be in trouble when it comes to identifying yourself.
"One of the reasons I didn't change my name was laziness," admits Lucy Wright, a publisher. "Also, my partner was married before, so there was another Mrs Jaspers knocking around and I didn't fancy being the second one. It was a combination of laziness and independence." Headhunter Debs Johnson, née Watkins, however, was happy to change her name. "I much preferred it to my maiden name, which I'd never really liked. Also, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to completely reinvent myself." This wasn't an option for Helen Micklewright, a civil servant who knew from the off that she wasn't letting go of her unusual surname. "I have investigated my family tree and I hate the way the women's name dies out when she marries and in some cases she becomes untraceable," she says. "I think it's an old-fashioned thing to do."
It all depends on the significance you imbue a name with. The choices Rebekah Brooks makes about her name could be a canny way of dividing her professional persona from her private life, a public declaration of love or merely a fleeting fancy. No-one knows what goes on behind closed doors. "It may be a feminist issue," says Professor Fletcher, "but perhaps the husband does all the ironing – we only know that the woman has changed her name, nothing else."
I'll stick with the 'business' reasons, and think about again it in 10 years' time, when my passport is next up for renewal.
Were you proud to take your husband's surname? Did your wife refuse to take yours? Tell us your stories Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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