The Nuptial Name-change Balancing Act: Jewish Tradition Versus Feminist Equality

Being a modern American feminist does not mean I should refuse to change my surname upon marriage; but it does give me choice.

The decision to change last names after marriage is a modern-day woman’s dilemma, one that simply did not exist a few decades ago in America, and still does not exist in many countries all over the world. It is a topic of much conversation amongst my soon-to-be married friends, and there are many variables to balance in the equation. Alison Jones recently wrote a great article describing her struggle in deciding whether to change her last name after she gets married, citing issues such as sharing a name with one’s children, making sure your name is easy to pronounce, and other timely questions.

However, for me, the point is, essentially, moot: very soon into our engagement, I knew that I would change my last name to that of my future husband.

At first, I didn’t care that much about the change. While I like my last name, Miller, particularly because it is familiar among Americans, who often unintentionally butcher my first name, I felt as though changing my last name would be a relatively superficial one: my new last name would be indicative of a change of status, like the change from Ms. to Mrs. While I didn’t care too much about changing my last name, my fiancé did (and does) care. For him the change of last name was an important symbol for the coming together of our lives, and he didn’t want to mess with the tradition.

Beyond that, Judaism plays an important role in my decision. Everywhere I looked while researching Jewish wedding traditions – from invitations to the ceremony itself – the coming together of families is emphasized. When I consulted websites and printing shops on how to word our invitation, I was informed that our parents’ names must be on the invitation in order to align with Jewish tradition. And when it comes to the ceremony, both sets of parents stand under the chuppah with the Jewish bride and groom. For me, this emphasis on family goes beyond Jewish tradition and is appropriately symbolized with a woman’s nuptial name change: by taking on my husband’s name, I acquire an additional, new family, whose historical lineage I can continue.

Plenty of my friends care deeply about the choice to change their last names, and some have come up with creative and egalitarian solutions. Two of my good Jewish friends who married each other decided to use a last name that had “died out”, so-to-speak, in the early 1900s, by taking on the last name of the groom’s late great-great grandfather, a rabbi who had only daughters and whose family name was thus never passed down. Both of them changing their name together symbolized a new beginning for the couple as one.

Other friends of mine have kept their last name – for professional reasons and with an intention to stand by an ideal of independence. While I’m a Betty Friedan-reading feminist, I can assure that there is no reason for feminism and marriage to become enemies: the ultimate feminist ideal is that women have a choice, unlike several decades ago, to decide for themselves and for their families what names to take on, to indicate or not indicate a new change in status. The mere fact that I am relatively ambivalent about a last-name change demonstrates a radical shift in our society’s relation to women: many of us, including myself, now have an ability to determine our own names, the most basic of identities.

While in the United States we are far from achieving total equality among men and women, the fact that women today have the luxury of choosing whether or not they will change their last name at marriage indicates the progress society has made in the past few centuries. Thanks to that progress, my fiancé and I were able to make a choice that took into consideration what is important to each of us personally: tradition and Judaism. Together, we made a choice that is both equitable and customary.

Yael Miller is a professional working in International Affairs in Washington, DC.
 

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