A Married Name Without The Hyphen

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Family Relationships

A Married Name Without The Hyphen

ForbesWoman
published in ForbesWoman, Oct. 19, 2009.

She fought to keep her maiden name. Armed with a choice, her newly married daughter is taking her husband's.

"A woman's name changes automatically upon marriage." Newly married and ready to register to vote in 1971, I was told that if I wanted to use my maiden name, I had to go to probate court and change my name back.

The Newton, Mass., registrar opened some thick books and showed me the legal cases that supported his stance. I went to a law library and was surprised by how irrelevant those cases were. Apparently, no one in Massachusetts had challenged any of the court decisions. I met with the city's lawyer and told him that if I was not allowed to vote in my own name, I'd sue the city. Months of research later, he decided that I'd win.

I became the first married woman in the state to vote in my maiden name without going to probate court to request that right. I wrote a newspaper article and told readers to contact the organization Name Change for information. Name Change was really just me at home diapering the baby who had time to gestate and be born by the time I was allowed to register to vote.

My message to callers was, "Don't go to probate court. Stand your ground." On a more personal level, "My mother-in-law refuses to use my maiden name," and "My husband also has to justify it to everyone."

The questions and complaints were so similar I was able to answer them on a single fact sheet: There is no law stating that a woman must take her husband's name upon marriage. Your "legal" name is the name you use vis-à-vis the state--driver's license, car registration, deeds to property. I spelled out the rules and regulations.

So many women found my fact sheet useful, I sent it to a new magazine, Ms. The response from readers was enormous. In every state, married women met opposition. The Center for a Woman's Own Name, incorporated in 1973 by my cousin Terri Tepper of Illinois, became a national clearinghouse for thousands of name-change information requests.

Some of the cases were heartbreaking, like the woman from Tennessee who was told by a judge that she had to get signed permission from her children if she wanted to return to her maiden name. The papers from the center are now at the Library of Congress, a revealing history of that era.

It takes time for radical ideas to become mundane--38 years if you judge by the Name Equality Act, effective in California as of Jan. 1, 2009. On the marriage license, you can choose "the new name that each party will go by after marriage."

Claudia Altman-Siegel, the first non-Spanish child in Massachusetts to be given a hyphenated combination of her mother's and father's surnames, phoned me from San Francisco. "Mom, you won't believe this. There are two spaces! One for the groom, too!"

She was 16 months old by the time the state issued her birth certificate. The press was at Newton City Hall flashing photos of Claudia in her snowsuit. Having a hyphenated surname was so new that on her first day of kindergarten the teacher loomed over her and asked, "What will happen if you marry a man with a hyphenated name? Will your children have four last names?" I wondered that too.

Ironically, the minute my child entered public school, I was called Mrs. Altman-Siegel by neighbors, friends and even relatives. I could correct until I was blue in the face, but I was Diana Altman-Siegel for all the years my children lived at home. It was impossible back then for anyone to imagine that a woman who was not divorced would choose a different name from her children. Was I traumatizing my daughter as some people claimed?

I knew the answer when Claudia went off to Barnard College and took a Civil Rights course. While her classmates wrote about Selma and sit-ins, she wrote about her mother's struggle to keep her maiden name. Far from traumatized, Claudia was proud!

Hyphenated names may only last for one generation. The point of the whole fight was not how lasting the names are. The purpose was to give women choices. Should a woman keep, hyphenate, change? When a child is born, the question comes up again: his surname, hers, hyphenated combination or an altogether new name? Deciding what name to use is an exercise of intimate self examination.

Claudia, like so many women of her generation, decided to take her new husband's name. It feels more family-like to have one name, she says. Her husband feels privileged to share his surname with his bride, and sees it as an honor.

But her double name has not disappeared. It has become bigger. It's on the door of her art gallery in San Francisco: Altman Siegel SF, the name of an international business.

Related New York Times Article

Reader Comments
Posted by christinabanina | 10/20/09 04:13 PM EDT

I'm glad this "broad" had the intelligence and the hutzpah to challenge the system to give a woman the choice to keep her name. It's refreshing to read about people who think out of the box and create change in this world!

 

 

Diana Altman

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