Men: would you take your wife’s surname?

The news that Jemima Khan is to revert to her maiden name, Goldsmith, has reignited the debate over what women should do about their surnames when they get married. Theo Merz – who has his mother’s name – asks why men are still so unwilling to change theirs

By Theo Merz
The Telegraph (UK)
03 Oct 2014
The husband’s surname, the double barrel, the ‘mesh’, one for public and one for private, one for now and one for later, keep your own. When it comes to women’s married names, it’s a jungle out there – and everyone either seems to have an opinion about how you should do it or a story about how they negotiated the terrain.

The dilemma is back in the news this week after Jemima Khan, ex-wife of the Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan, announced she was to revert to her maiden name – Goldsmith – ten years after the couple’s divorce. “I kept ‘Khan’ originally as my children felt strongly about it,” she said. “But now they’re grown up they don’t seem to care.”

Writing in the Telegraph, columnist Jemima Lewis has used the reappearance of Ms Goldsmith to push the idea that men should be open to adopting their wife’s name when they marry, rather than assuming it will be the woman who takes theirs. “As sexist customs go, this is the most barefaced of the lot,” wrote Lewis, who uses her maiden name professionally and her husband’s at home. “It works for me. I am proud of both identities: the worker and the spouse. I just wish more men felt the same way.”

The suggestion that a man should consider taking his new wife’s name is not a new one. According to Louise Bowers, officer at the UK Deed Poll Service, there has been an increase in the number of men adopting their wife’s surname. “Particularly if the man has a name that is not particularly nice – such as Bogg, Pratt, Willey, Smelly – the woman refuses to take his name so he changes to hers.”

Celebrities such as Kick-Ass actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Jay-Z (Sean Knowles-Carter) have brought their wives names into their own, while the rest of us are increasingly opting for double-barrelled names, a one-word combination of the two or choosing something else entirely. The wholesale adoption of the woman’s name, meaning the abandonment of a man’s own, however, remains controversial.

Around half of Americans apparently believe that women should be legally required to take their husband’s name when they marry, and 90 per cent of them already do. One man was even accused of fraud after attempting to change his surname to his wife’s on his State of Florida driving licence.

When Men’s Health magazine polled their readers two years ago, it found that just 6.4 per cent of them would even consider taking their wife’s name. Readers who were opposed to the idea explained their opinion thus: “I’d like her to want to be a part of my family and be proud of our name”, “Call it pride or ego, whatever, it’s not happening” and “My name is part of who I am.”

Taking another person’s name is difficult: both practically and, I imagine, emotionally in that it alters your relationship with the family in which you grew up. But as Lewis points out in her column, if giving up our name would mean an unimaginable loss of identity for us as men, why do we ask women to do the same? If one family, one name is our mantra, should we not at least consider changing ours?

There are worse things than having a woman’s surname. I have my mother’s and, as those who were subjected to corporal punishment as children are so fond of putting it, it never did me any harm. My dad had two children from a previous marriage with his surname so it seemed like an easy win for gender equality if me and my younger sister got my mum’s. (His is Barr, so double- barrelling was never on the cards: Merz-Barr could be mistaken for a Yiddish exclamation.)

It doesn’t feel like having a woman’s surname because it’s not, really: it’s a connection to my mother’s family rather than just her. It means having a slightly stronger tie to one side of my own family than the other, as I suppose people who have their father’s name have with their paternal side – consciously or otherwise.

I would be loath to give it up and I doubt I ever could. But in the case of my other half’s surname being Power, Extra or Shark, I would at least consider it. We all would, I think. There’s so much riding on our names – relationships, identity, family history – but also so little. As the case of Jemima Goldsmith-Khan-Goldsmith shows, we can always change it back.
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