This Is How They Take Your Name

I’ve was getting coffee with a law-school chum today, and somehow I got going on the topic of name-changing. I can think of several contexts for when an individual’s name would change: most commonly, a woman, upon marrying a man, changes her last name to his. Presumably, this has been going on for many years, at least in the Western world, and has become something of a societal norm, though more and more we see hyphenations and even women who keep their names.

The second circumstance in which we see the name-change is when an international student, often Asian, studies stateside, and takes on an American name in order to be better understood.

The third situation in which we’ve historically seen name-changing is among Native American communities. When the United States census swept through the countryside, government workers were unable to pronounce, or even find the letters to spell Indigenous names phonetically, and so they renamed people John and Charlie and George and Vernon, and gave the women the names of the men. Historically, many Native tribes operated under a matriarchy, such as the Navajo people, wherein the children took the mother’s last name – but I digress.

The point is that name-changing is something important, something historical, and something that still goes on today, and I want to examine why this is such a common American trope, and, for some people, even, an American value.

The Wedding Name Change

I looked into the history of name-changing inasmuch as marriage is concerned, and found that there are a couple reasons why women historically changed their names. The first, according to, was that when Sarah, of the Old Testament, married Abraham, she no longer existed as Sarah, but as wife-of-Abraham. The second is that the son inherited all, and having the father’s name proved he wasn’t a bastard child. This was before paternity tests.

Obviously, the second reason is far from convincing and is almost obsolete at this point in time. The first is more problematic. In the church, there’s this concept of husband and wifehood, wherein the family dynamic takes on antiquated gender roles that seem like they came out of the fifties with the husband as the head of the house and the wife as submissive (yes, this is a direct quote from the Bible – don’t believe me? I wish I were joking) –

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

That’s Ephesians 5:22-23. It goes onto say “Husband, love your wives.” Within this “submission” is the concept of “covering.” In the church – and I’m coming out of, and by coming out of, I mean to say, leaving, a very republican tradition – there’s this idea that women need to be covered by a man.

a la game of thrones

When a woman marries a man, she comes under his protection, apparently, and as such, she takes his name. It’s part of the two-becoming-one thing. And I get that. I really do. Except that, for me, this is problematic. I get that it’s romantic. Even I sit around thinking about changing my last name when I have a random, rogue crush (a rare event, in any case). I wonder what I would do – already having publications, presumably with a novel coming out at some point in the next couple years, and building a professional basis for myself as Misty Ellingburg, of course I get curious about what would happen if I had that Cinderella moment and was swept off my feet.

But here’s the thing: I sweep myself off of my own feet every single day. I’m incredibly brave and super strong and I am constantly lifting myself up. I don’t need another person to put a ring on my finger – if I want a ring, I’ll go buy one for myself. And I don’t need a prince or princess type to save me – because along with my mom and dad, my brothers and sisters, my friends, my favorite rock stars, actors and actresses, novelists and poets, and who can forget the Big Guy Upstairs, I’m my own Prince Charming. I don’t need anyone’s protection and I certainly don’t need their covering. I worry that the very idea of covering is rooted in deep, patriarchal values that are obsolete, and I wonder if women aren’t somewhat deceived when they feel a moral obligation to their religion or partner to change their names.

i’m my own fairy godmother

Furthermore, I come from the Native American culture, in which name-changing served as an act of forced colonialism, a kind of cultural genocide akin with forcing children not to speak their languages or practice their cultures. And when my students, who have beautiful, foreign names that I butcher with my American tongue, ask me to call them an American name, I think, okay, that is their choice, but I want to call them their own name, that is a part of who they are.

Yet, they’re forging new identities, too. As international students. As English-speakers in an trade-English-speaking world. So maybe my international students are becoming more than their birth names. Maybe their second name is a kind of super power, a status-booster, a symbol of the new, multi-cultural beings they are becoming.

And maybe when a woman changes her name, she is saying, look, I’ll never stop being (insert maiden name here), because that’s my past, but I’m molding myself into this new future, and this new family, and that’s okay, too.

But for me, I don’t see it happening. I remember when I was engaged, and I planned to change my name, because I really thought I had to. My mom would say I was excited to change my name, but I don’t think I was. I remember seeing my fiance writing Misty S. in his notebook at church. Misty S. Misty S.Misty S. And something in me said, No, that’s not me. I’m Misty Ellingburg. M.E. My very initials spell out me. But within this new set of initials was the idea that I was becoming a new person – someone’s wife, perhaps, in time, another person’s mother, and a whole new family’s sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, granddaughter-by-extension, and I could not be that person, with all those expectations, and the weight of that family’s past, and their needs, and their dreams, their hopes. It was burdensome, and I wanted to be Misty Ellingburg.

And I am happy to say that I still am, to this day, and even though I have sometimes-pleasant daydreams in which my name is change, I think I’ll be Misty Ellingburg for a long time. Maybe forever. Or maybe there will be a hyphenation, or we’ll both change our names. I would rather we both did. Because then it’s really two becoming one, and us both covering, and taking care of, and protecting each other, and forging that same new identity, but on equal footing, one with the other.

4 thoughts on “This Is How They Take Your Name

  1. Great article Misty. For my own (male) experience, I am very unhappy with the patriarchical society prevalent throughout most cultures. I believe having an equal share of power & responsibility to women would make a significant improvement in the way we all live. And I wonder about the reasons we are where we are today. Has it always been like this (apparently not) or are we just fed stories to reinforce that this is perceived as the way it should be (by men in power)?

  2. i apologize first for my bad English..
    may i add option number 4 to the list of reasons for changing family name? It is not applied here in states or west but in more limited atmosphere and in the societies that can not bear other opinions/religions, some people whose family names are kind of telling who they are or what their religion is or how they have been politically-historically inclined to, to escape from having trouble with people/governments they prefer (have to) change their family name, and i guess it is very sad when you think about it that it is happening in 21 century.

    your reasons about why women historically had to change their family name are very rigid and reasonable. Just to comment about what was going on in the east (at least what i think): between people being satisfied with each other and marriage itself have not been always a one to one relation and have not gone along each other. in the past ,and in the east, sacrificing yourself was the main criteria for getting married. It means that you have to neglect your own wishes to be in a castle of marriage. And by living in a culture which assumes women to be always submissive, it is not hard to guess it is the women who has to neglect her own root in a sense of forgetting her own family name…..

    your idea of getting a new family name for both parties is really great and makes sense

  3. Personally I like the idea of a woman adopting her husband’s name upon marriage, in a society where we have legal last names and marriage licenses and all the kind of jargon and technicality that we have today. I see it as another way to symbolize the union of marriage in the modern day. That said, the way I understand gender roles in marriage is more so that each party has a role to play – a different role, but neither is superior to the other. Two souls that compliment each other but are different… Each with something unique to offer. The Bible also speaks of both husband and wife submitting to each other… So clearly each has something to offer the other. If either has the mentality of exercising power over the other, it doesn’t work. That’s not what the Creator intends… He wants both to serve each other in love.

  4. Love this article! I totally relate to it, because I got married 3+ years ago and have been dragging my feet to change my name. I finally decided I won’t. I may get hyphenated in the future, to have a connection to my children, who will have my husband’s last name. But I have always been Rachael M. And I don’t think getting married should change that. I wish we had more conversations about this because your name is directly connected to your identity. Great writing!

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