I am and always have been unmarried. While I don’t plan to get married any time soon, I cannot begin to imagine changing my surname just because I got married. I have given this a lot of thought over the years, never really confronted with the reality of having to choose one path or the other. The controversy of it (as if there should be a controversy around something so simple, so tied to one’s own choice about personal identity) came to mind today when I read about Air Canada’s recent kerfuffle about refusing to allow spouses to transfer tickets to each other if they had different surnames. (Referred to on Twitter as #SurnameGate.)
This might be a new issue in North America, but having spent a good portion of my life in Iceland with Icelanders, whose naming conventions dictate that people take their father’s first name plus a –son or –dottir suffix as their “surnames”. When a typically quite mixed Icelandic family travels together, there can be a lot of questions asked because everyone in the family has a different last name.
Aside from the world’s different naming conventions (lots of countries do it differently; Iceland is just the most obvious, near-and-dear-to-me example), the idea of personal identity comes to mind. While it has been historically common and expected that women in much of North America change their names when engaging in matrimonial activities, feminism and women’s liberation put a small dent in that. The hyphenated surname also has grown in popularity. I even know a few couples who decided to choose whole new names, unrelated to either of them, to start their new lives together. Non-traditional options aside, apparently, most Americans still choose to take their spouses surname; most Americans seem to feel it should be legally required to enforce marital name changes?!
I met a funny, personable American woman in the Keflavik airport in the late autumn of 2013 who told me that she decided to keep her maiden name not just because she had worked hard to get her PhD just before her father died but because it was a part of her identity. Getting her doctorate was the only time in her life that she saw her father cry. He commented, “It’s just too bad that the only doctor to ever have our family name won’t have it much longer.” She realized she wanted to keep the name – to honor her father, her family, herself. It echoes the same kinds of feelings I have always had about my name. I never loved the surname I was born with, but the longer I live, the more I do, the more accomplishments I rack up, the more pieces of official ID I collect, the more I am cemented in this identity. It has absolutely nothing to do with some future spouse’s identity or name. (Some argue that it has nothing to do with one’s father either – but it has more to do with one’s parentage than it does some random person you fell in love with – but that too is a matter of perception, choice, how you live your life and want to be identified.)
Leaving aside the personal attachments and bureaucratic and legal issues attached to having a name, where the issue becomes even more contentious is where a person is actually prevented from doing something because they have made the choice not to toe the name-changing line. One friend was not able to do anything with bills or bank accounts because her name was not the same as her husband’s. When she explained to the customer service agent that she did not have to change her name, the agent seemed surprised that one has a choice.
And in Air Canada’s case, although they had a clearly stated policy in place that addressed this issue, the customer service issue went viral because of social media and one man’s determination. When he was prevented from transferring a ticket to his wife, he elevated the issue to become one that transcends a customer service faux pas and becomes something bigger. As the man stated in his exchange, ““You can see how this institutionalizes a lower quality of service to women who kept their maiden names, though, yes?””