Hitched: What’s In A Name?

Last month, my boyfriend Patrick and I drank a bottle of Jim Beam at the lake and decided to get married. When we peeled our faces off a sticky, half-deflated air mattress the next morning, we asked ourselves two questions: first, did we still want to get married, and second, how about some Taco Bell? Yes to both, thank you.

Eventually the time came for parental phone calls, and mine were excited and curious: where would our wedding be? When? Several minutes into the call, I heard my mom muse, almost absent-mindedly, “Andrea Hislastname ….” She didn’t ask if I would be changing my last name; she simply said what she believed my new name would be, just to see how it rolled off her tongue.

Patrick’s family did ask about changing my name, at least. And I told them: no, I’m not changing my name. For that matter, neither is Patrick. Of course, most folks would never think to ask if a guy might change his name upon marriage. It’s just not done in this country — and once I learned why, I became more sure than ever that I would never be anyone but Andrea Grimes.

That wasn’t always the case. Nearly every name of nearly every boyfriend I had in junior high and high school and even into college suffered the fate of heart-and-squiggly doodling on notebooks, church bathroom walls, imagined email signatures. For a long time, Andrea Grimes was pretty anxious to become Andrea SomeGuy, initially because Andrea Grimes hated being called “Greasy Grimey” by the kids at school, and later because she decided having a boyfriend was one of the best possible uses of her time and energy. Over the years, that changed, largely due to my discovery of beer and writing, which so far have proven to be as fulfilling a companion as any.

As I got older, with pen in one hand and trusty Miller High Life in the other, I figured hyphenating was the way to go. Andrea Grimes-SomeGuy would be a put-together woman in fantastic designer boots, decking out our adorable Brooklyn condo (where the f**k did we get the money for a condo?) and attending workshops on, I don’t know, writing my memoirs, because 24-year-olds really should be writing memoirs.

I looked up to a number of older women writers, and I loved how they wrote under their maiden names, but legally took their husbands’ names. It seemed so loving. So supportive. So giving. Why it never occurred to me that I didn’t consider their husbands any less loving, supportive or giving for not taking their wives’ names, I don’t know. But it didn’t.

And then somewhere between securing a career as a professional writer, enrolling in grad school and dabbling in stand-up comedy, people started calling me Grimes. Or Grimesey. I got used to hearing my last name. I got used to answering to it. I started to really love this name that had always kind of made me think of dirt and grossness. And then I learned what a privilege it is, as a modern lady, to be able to keep it.

I was well into my feminist awakening when I first heard the term “coverture.” That’s when loving my name and loving my brand became, for me, more than just a personal preference or good business move. It became a political decision. In the barest terms, it’s a legal practice that in America stems out of English common law, whereby a woman, upon marriage, is no longer an individual person or citizen but one entity with her husband. Under coverture law, women have no need for their own names, because they are, legally, their husbands. Under coverture — a practice that took hold centuries ago but blossomed in the 19th century —married women couldn’t own property or enter into legal contracts. One of the reasons women had to fight for the right to vote was because women’s votes were seen as redundant: since their husbands were already voting, presumably in their best interests, what would be the point? Horrifyingly, women also couldn’t be raped by their husbands, because hey, you can’t rape someone whose body legally belongs to you. (Fun fact: this was true in the United States until, in 1975, South Dakota became the first state to make marital rape an actual crime. Nineteen-f**king-seventy-f**king-five, people!)

To sum up: coverture is some horses**t, and the practice of women — and only women! — taking their spouse’s names is the continued symbolic representation of a practice that was explicitly designed and used to subjugate, oppress and silence women whose identities were wholly subsumed into that of their husbands. It’s worth noting that this is hardly a universal practice — in a lot of ways it’s unique to the United States and England. Somewhere along the way, women’s effective loss of citizenship and autonomy became kind of romantic.

Perhaps that’s because advancements have been made, big ups to our feminist foremothers. Married women today can own property and have lines of credit on their own (they couldn’t, as recently as our mothers’ generation, in many states.) They can own their own businesses, or enter into and break contracts of their own volition. And hey, in 1993 North Carolina finally got with the program and made marital rape illegal! Looking at it that way, coverture doesn’t really seem archaic or obsolete at all. It seems like a thing that was still happening in 1993.

Today, my married ladyfriends are making all kinds of decisions about what to do with their names. There’s Jessica, who’s taking her maiden name as a middle name, and taking her husband’s name as last. (After more than a decade together, she says, “I felt like I earned it.”) There’s Mandy, the lawyer, who only changed her last name on Facebook. (She “wanted to prevent potential employers from e-creeping on [her].”) There’s Tiffany, the hyphenator, who’s trying to make it easier to get benefits from the U.S. military, which employs her husband. (“They’re already easily confused.”) And there’s Lauren, who wholesale took her husband’s last name. (“To be honest, I didn’t put a lot of thought into it and am happy with my decision.”)

More than I loathe the history and practice of coverture and its many continuing cultural implications, I appreciate the fact that women no longer have to do any one thing with their names. Do I wish more women would keep their names, or more men would change, hyphenate or morph their names? Absolutely. I think it would be really exciting if more families and couples felt empowered to decide for themselves what’s best, to decide what makes their marriage or family real for them, instead of simply doing the easy or traditional thing — especially when that easy, traditional thing is steeped in some pretty seriously misogynist history.

For me, staying Andrea Grimes is both politically important and personally exciting. Sure, I’ll probably continue to deal with some passive-aggression, some teasing, some raised eyebrows. I’ve already gotten a fair bit of that. But it feels like a small price to pay for the privilege of being “Greasy Grimey,” no matter my “happily ever after.”

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