Why I Decided To Change My Last Name
What's in a name, after all?
No, I didn't change my last name to Latte - should I? Image: Supplied.
Any woman who grew up with a shit last name in the 90s and 00s couldn't wait for the day they could change it. Generally, this meant through marriage. I grew up with a last name that is hard to spell, hard to pronounce, and easy to make fun of: Meisels (I'll tell you now - pronounced My-zils). In truth, I grew up hating it. I longed for one of the 'cool girl' last names like a Cameron Diaz, a plain easy Aussie surname like a Zoe Foster, a glamorous surname like an Ava Gardner. I always had to over-explain it, spell it out letter by letter on the phone, and found that some of my best friends still didn't know how to spell it after years of friendship. Sometimes to save time, I would change it altogether and just say Miles to stop the hassle. It was weird, annoying, bad, too Euro, too Jewish-y. But then, I got engaged - and it's funny how the prospect of actually changing alters your perception of what you've got.
When I first met my partner, I loved the idea of his name - Yates. It was everything I wanted - easy to spell and pronounce, sounded somewhat classy and elegant (his Australianisms would beg to differ) and would make me sound 'normal' and 'fit in.' And yet, when the time came - I was suddenly unsure.
Five people, three last names. Let the battle begin! From left to right: my mum, me, my partner the giant, my dad and my sister. Yes, I have only chosen images where my hair and make-up have been professionally done, what of it? Image: supplied.
For our parents' generation of women, changing your name was, you know...just what you did. Even my mum, who I look at as quite a feminist free spirit, buckled and changed to my dad's last name when she married. It was just...what was done, it wasn't really questioned all that much. Women became the 'Mrs.' version of their husbands, like 'Mrs. Thomas Brown,' and revelled in the creation of having 'the same name' as their family unit. The thought of this used to make me want to vomit. I am not a Mrs. Man, I am Ms. Me!
Why do people even change? Originally, there were no last names. But then there were so many Jessicas and Noahs wandering around that they started getting names like 'Jess Blacksmith' by what you did (I'm being a bit liberal here - I would be Jess Holiday or Jess Netflix and Chill). As men mainly worked, women would have no last name except for 'Wife of X'. According to The Conversation, 'The wife was the husband’s possession and right up to the late 19th-century, women...ceded all property and parental rights to husbands on marriage.' So why, with such patriarchal, archaic undertones, do over 80% of women still change their name after marriage, even in 2020?
At 31, I had had time to gain an understanding of what carrying on a name means, and how it has different meanings for different people. For some of my girlfriends, taking on a name was, to them, just what you did. It was tradition, as their mothers had. The act of changing wasn't really questioned, or they 'wanted the same name as my kids.' To that, I still question - why is your kid automatically getting your partner's surname? It is fine if they do, but what is the reason? Sometimes it simply matters more to one of you, and that's okay - personally, I want more say in a first name. I don't think it has to be a super deep reason (you like the sound of it? Cool, done) but I just don't think men should get blanket ownership for no reason. (I know a couple who have decided one parent picks the footy team, and one picks the last name - game changer!) I have some friends who have given their child the mother's surname, which I love, but is still also considered pretty different, even in this day and age. But some women don't want to be different, or seen as 'too feminist' or 'too difficult'. Maybe they can't be bothered with the argument, both names are pretty plain anyway, or just don't care enough. I have friends who aren't in touch with their dads, so the name has zero relevance for them and they can't wait to dump it. To others, their husbands really wanted them to change for some reason, and they did it for them as an act of love. I have others who took a stance that their name is their name, and refused to change - whether it be a generational thing where women don't change, they liked their independence, they simply don't like their husband's surname, or they have forged an identity with their name (e.g J.Lo isn't becoming J.Ro when she marries Alex Rodriguez - I hope!) I don't mean any of this as judgment - it is simply some of the reasoning behind why women still change to a man's name in the age of a third wave feminist movement in a first-world, Western country.*
Yeah you are! J.Lo can never change. That's different. Source: GiPHY
On the other side of the argument though, I thought about what 'keeping' your name actually means - realistically, the majority of us have our father's names, so I guess if you're still carrying on a man's name, what difference does it make, then? Even if you have your mother's name, she has HER father's name, and so on. There aren't any OG female surnames, unless they themselves created them, like Amanda Rogers becoming Portia De Rossi, or Natalie Hershlag becoming Natalie Portman. Yeah, they did it because these new names sounded 'better' for their celebrity lifestyles, but there's something cool about a woman deciding her own name and creating her own lineage from there.
This is what my mother eventually did. Born Annabelle Capek to Holocaust survivors (you can read more of their story here), she married and became Annabelle Meisels, cos you know...that's just what you did in the '80s (that, and wear shoulder pads to your wedding). After their divorce, she didn't go back to her maiden name, nor keep my father's. Instead, she chose her own unique name. After meeting with numerologists and other various counsellors, she came upon the moniker of Annabelle Taylor. It's classy, refined - and it's all hers. And I love it. I will also add here, for all those people who say they will change 'to have the same name as my kids' or 'so it's not so confusing for the kid/teachers'- I have had a different name from my mother my entire life. I can not think of a single instance where this was an issue and people wanted to take me away from her because our last names were different. It's literally...not a thing. Do it because you love the idea of being all the same and prefer your partner's name, but not because you think the school are going to call Child Protective Services when you go to school pick up because - gasp! - your name is different!
This did not happen because of his last name, just making that abundantly clear. Source: GiPHY
If I had a last name I liked, personally, I wouldn't dream of changing. I would stay me, my partner would be him, and for the child, we would have to come to an agreement - perhaps a double-barrel, or we also do love a good trade-off (e.g. daily massages for the rest of my life, etc.) I also don't understand why women become like property in the modern era - in an ideal world, I reckon couples should combine, and each family becomes a new blended name - e.g, Yates and Meisels become Yatesels (you laugh, but think how much easier it would be!) No wanky-ness around carrying on a name, each family creates their own. That said, my partner wouldn't want to change (and to be fair, hasn't asked me to). Men don't even think about this. That's annoying. But I'm getting off track.
For me, my last name had been a headache most of my life - but when I had the opportunity to become Jessica Yates, I suddenly felt a real loss of my identity. The one thing I do love about my name is that Europeans know. If I am in Eastern Europe, they can see from my name - I am one of them. If someone tries to pronounce it, they always try to guess or are intrigued by which country it is from - and I like that (It's the Czech Republic, by the way). In school, they would always know if my sisters and I were related (not sure if that was good or bad). In a way, my annoying last name has been a tie to my roots - shitty spelling, pronunciation and all. I like finding other Meisels' online (in a super creepy way) and wondering how we are related, because the name is so weird we simply must be. I like all the websites coding what Meisels actually meant, where it comes from, what the traits of Meisels' are. It really is a link to your own lineage - on one side, anyway.
When it came around to deciding, I took time. I really thought about 'what's in a name?' The truth was, I thought that by getting married, I could look to the possibility of a new beginning. I had gone 31 years as Jessica Meisels. I liked that it sounded Jewish and European (what I am), but hated the mispronunciations to 'Measles', the same jokes about having measles and having to grimace for the millionth time (good one...) the spelling, the effort, the annoyance, the fact that it was still a man's name no matter what. The thought of making my own children go through that did not fill me with pride or glee, but made me think about how I would probably be met with disdain and annoyance from my own surly teenagers down the track. So like Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn't help but wonder...what should I do instead?
I get commentary on both sides (not sure why other people care, but I digress). On one, that it's just easier to all be the same, it's not a big deal, just take the 'good' name and move on. The other that flies the flag for feminism, stating that it's other people's problem if they can't spell or say it and I should own my last name, or make it whatever they want.
I thought about my partner's surname, Yates. It is Irish, which is not me, but I love my husband, and I love his family. Also sidenote - when travelling, we came across a bar in Washington D.C which brought the Irish and Jewish people together, which we just loved - maybe I could do the same with my name?
The Star and Shamrock, D.C. "It's US!" says every Jewish/Catholic couple ever. Source: DCist
It's not that he is a man, or that I 'should.' It's not to be 'the same as my kids', that he asked me to, or that I want the same name as others. It's because I love the fact that my husband's name has carried on into such loving households and big families of wonderful people. I love my husband's love for his dad and family, and have felt so welcomed that I decided that I wanted to show my love by taking it on too. Also, I'll be real - I'm superficial AF, and I just love the sound of it.
So I took it.
In the middle of my name though, I made an addition: my mum's chosen last name.
I figured if I could carry my dad's for 30 years, I would fly the flag for women and my mum for the next 30. Also, it would help me feel a little more feminist about my decision to change, which I had been grappling with as a Modern Woman. With this, I found I was honouring two of the people I love most in this world: my mother, who gave me life, and my partner, who I have chosen to share it with.
Unsurprisingly, my dad was upset. In some families, Jewish in particular, last names have a legacy - with so many of us wiped out, he only had two daughters to carry on the name, and I was getting rid of it. He took it personally. But then, hadn't his mother, sister and wife done the same? After a long chat, in which I indicated it in no way erased my family history, love for my dad or wants for my children to have a Jewish identity and know their ancestry, he relented - and conceded it can be a pretty annoying surname to carry!
I still came out looking like you Dad, so it's okay! L'chaim! Image: supplied
I still feel different, married, feminist, and like myself. I am an Australian-born, third generation Czech Jewish woman, and am happy that I still 'look' pretty 'Euro'. I still have a Hebrew name, Batel or בַּתְאֵל, which is all mine. My children will have Hebrew names as well - and probably some daggy Jewish or family middle names that I used to make fun of, but now recognise the importance of, just for good measure. Maybe we will give our kids both my surnames, maybe we won't. All I know is that it has been the right decision for me and me alone during this time.
So for everyone who keeps asking me, 'Taylor? What's that? Is that your middle name? Why did you change? Where does that come from? You should keep your own name!' - now you know the story. I have not kept my old name. I have chosen my new name.
I still think women should take all aspects into consideration before changing, that a woman and child should not automatically have a husband or partner's surname unless it is a real choice the female wants and has consciously made, and that making your own name is cool AF. I also have purposely changed my questioning from asking women when they get engaged, 'Will you change your name?' to, 'Will either of you be changing your names?'
Sometimes I think maybe I would like to be Jessica Capek, my mother's maiden name, or have made a new name, like Jessica McFly (Back to the Future forever!) Other times I think I shouldn't have changed at all. But, I suppose the point is that we have the freedom to choose at all, and right now, I choose to be known as me: Jessica Taylor Yates.
*I am aware that this article relates to first world Western women, where we are lucky to have freedom of choice. There are plenty of places around the world where this is sadly not the case. You can read more about the erasing of women from history in this insightful four part series here.