I’m surprised – and more than a little sad – to learn that women are still being pressured to change their names when they marry. I had hoped that my generation had put an end to the entire issue and it was now entirely a matter of personal choice.
When Trish and I proposed to each other simultaneously in my dorm room at Simon Fraser University, we both had a condition: she wouldn’t change her name. We both considered ourselves feminists, so it wasn’t even a question we needed to discuss. We would stand firm on the decision, and be example for couples in the future – or so we imagined in our naivety.
What we hadn’t imagined is how much we would be pressured to change our minds. “It is a woman’s pride and privilege to take her husband’s name,” a female co-worker told Trish, and stalked away angrily when Trish said she was marrying a partner, not a husband.
“Can’t you change her mind?” Family and friends asked me repeatedly, apparently unable to believe that the condition had been mine as much as hers.
“Won’t your children be confused?” Everyone said to both of us. Then they accused us of flippancy when we suggested that any children would somehow muddle through.
In the months between our engagement and marriage, we must have heard every argument imaginable against our decision. It showed a lack of commitment, we were told. It showed that Trish had reservations about becoming part of my family. We would have trouble checking into hotel rooms. It would be awkward socially. People would assume we were immoral. People would talk.
Of course, the reaction was worse because Trish had been married before, and had already changed her name. She had been reluctant, but the idea of continuing the family name was important to her first spouse, so she had gone along with it. But after he had died in an epileptic seizure, she had never got around to reverting to her original name because the paperwork was a nuisance. She had come of age with her married name, and it was something to remember him by, and she was not going to accustom herself to another name when she had become comfortable with the one she was using.
For reasons I have never understood, I was supposed to find her decision a deeply personal insult. Her first spouse and I might have been rivals had we ever met, but we hadn’t. We obviously had similar tastes in women, and Trish’s ten months with him had helped turn her into the woman I met, so why should I care if she kept her name as a memento? I don’t believe in existence after death, but I was so comfortable with the fact of him that I even had a dream in which he encouraged Trish and I to marry.
I couldn’t help noticing, too, that, her first husband’s family welcomed our marriage more than either of ours did. I couldn’t help but sympathize with him after Trish’s mother told me, somewhat grudgingly, “Well, I like her second choice of husband better than her first.”
But throughout all this, we kept to our original intention. By the rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding, we thought we had weathered the worst.. Then, after the dinner, family members on both sides told us privately that, if Trish didn’t change her name, scandal would result, and we would never be accepted by anyone – never mind that we were legally married.
I spent a sleepless night before the wedding, not worrying about whether I was making the right decision, or about the ceremony, but about the emotional blackmail with which we had been ambushed. Finally, I gave up trying to sleep and wrote a long letter explaining out decision which I planned to ask the priest to give to our parents at the reception after we had left.
To this day, I don’t know whether he ever did as he asked. But he was a bit of a diplomat regardless. As we left the church, he announced us as, “Mr and Mrs Byfield,” a form of address that gave both of us a start, but which he rightly judged wouldn’t disturb us unduly and would placate the families long enough for us to get away on our honeymoon.
Soon enough, everyone found out that we had done as we had planned all along. And for a few years, the conversation got a little frosty any time Trish’s last name was about to become relevant. But the families grew used to her choice of names, and none of the prophesied inconveniences or disasters came anywhere near to happening.
At the most, some strangers might have disapproved of us, but, if they did, we never heard their disapproval. Most likely, even such passing disapproval was rare, because by that time common-law relationships were becoming acceptable.
Our story amuses more than angers me now, although enduring it was an exercise in self-control while I lived it.. But when I remember the unfairness of the reactions to what we considered a rationally reached conclusion, I want to leap up and shout at any new couples facing the same pressures today to hold firm. None of the difficulties predicted for you will actually happen, and you’ll have the advantage of starting your lives together by having stood up together to emotional bullying. You’ll have learned that you can trust each other, and that will help your relationship to be a long one.