I recently changed my last name from Danley back to my maiden name Uhler. When Brent and I got married in 1995 I changed my last name to his family name without considering the significance or history of the tradition. Brent initially suggested that I go back to Uhler. I was resistant at first because I liked the name Danley. No one ever pronounced Uhler correctly (properly pronounced “yoo-ler”). I also liked the convenience of our family members all having the same last name. These concerns quickly became trivial, however, when I began examining the tradition. I now believe this custom is outmoded and misogynistic. My name represents my individuality, identity, and autonomy.
Under Christian doctrine the Bible made the husband the “head” of his wife—his wife’s superior—as Christ was head of the church. The common laws turned the married pair legally into one person—the husband. The husband was enlarged, so to speak, by marriage, while the wife’s giving up her own name and being called by his symbolized her relinquishing her identity. This legal doctrine of marital unity was called coverture, which meant the woman turned all her legal rights and obligations over to her husband.
–Nancy F. Cott, Harvard professor
Many women continue to take the last name of their husband when they decide to marry. Most of us are given a surname to connect to our progenitors. Under this conventional Western naming convention we are linked to our fathers; however we have no connection by name to our mothers. Many couples are now combining their last names.
I also decided to drop my first name, Jan, because I have never used it. My mother liked the name Kirsten (this was her music teacher’s name); however my dad did not. He thought it sounded like a metal alloy, such as tungsten. My parents compromised and named me Jan Kirsten. The fact that Kirsten was not my first name did not deter my mom from addressing me as such–right from the beginning.
It’s a funny story, but being called by my middle name has always been a hassle. Every time I deal with businesses or institutions I have to clarify that I am known by Kirsten. The confusion has created many problems. For a long time the administration at my elementary school thought my parents had twins: Jan and Kirsten. When I traveled to Mexico two years ago I was initially denied a boarding pass because the name on my passport did not match the name on my drivers license (one being Jan K. and the other J. Kirsten).
The steps to changing my name were fairly straight-forward. I had to bring copies of my birth certificate, marriage license, and letters of notification to affected parties to the county probate office, fill out a Petition for Change of Name, and pay a fee of $112. I was assigned a court date for several weeks later in which I would appear before the probate judge.
On April 1, 2009 I finally had my day in court. Brent and I drove to the York County Superior Court in Alfred, Maine for the hearing. When I stood before the judge and she asked me to raise my hand, saying “Do you swear…,” I thought “Nobody had better hand me a bible, because I will not swear on a book of theological folklore.” Fortunately the judicial branch has moved past that. :-) The judge confirmed that all my paperwork was in order, that the necessary parties were notified, and asked me why I was changing my name. Of course she mispronounced Uhler.
The judge closed the folder and said “Kirsten Uhler, your request to change your name is granted.” It was at this point that the reality of having a new name really sunk in. I am not a subordinate of Brent. I am my own person.
I was excited to receive my official Certificate of Change of Name document in the mail a week later. I have begun the process of changing my name with the people, businesses and institutions with which I have a relationship. I am very happy to be known as Kirsten Uhler.
We need to question our cultural traditions. This practice of the woman taking the man’s name is completely outmoded, archaic, and misogynistic. I’ll take my autonomy.