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Multiple Last Names Breaking Traditions - 2002-10-05

For generations, it was traditional for an American woman who wed to take her husband's last name. Upon marrying James Davis, Mary Robinson became "Mary Davis," or "Mrs. James Davis." The feminist movement of the mid-1900s challenged that convention, pointing out that it gave greater value to a man's name. Some American women, and fewer men, began exploring new combinations of names. Now there are options that may shock and amaze those who preferred the "Mrs. James French" way of doing things.

For 18 years, Bride's magazine has been surveying its readers about their choices of surnames. In 1984, 93 percent of women responding said they were taking their husbands' names upon marriage. This year, the figure was 83 percent, which at first does not seem so radical a change. But if true, with 2.5 million U.S. marriages a year, it means that well over 400,000 newlywed women each year are keeping their birth names or coming up with entirely new ones.

Cynthia Edmunds, an associate editor at Bride's magazine, says "traditionally always the bride had to change her name, because she went from being her father's property to her husband's property. And with that came the last name. Even now, some women do like the fact that they'll be changing their name to their husband's name, because they have found this man that they love and want to spend the rest of their life with. And they want to take his name because they really want to become a family. But now, really, anything goes. We are seeing all these unusual things, and you can actually do whatever you would like."

Those "unusual things", unusual to some, at least, include a wife's keeping her maiden name, or continuing to use it professionally while adopting her husband's last name in social and financial matters. Some women opt to retain their birth names as middle names, as when "Jane Smith" becomes "Jane Smith Brown." Sometimes a hyphen connects the two last names, sometimes not.

Combining surnames according to a set formula involving the names of older relatives has been common in Latin cultures. But it only recently has become widespread in the United States.

"The name game:
"Fee-fi-mominkin. Lincoln! . . ."

What seems REALLY revolutionary to traditionalists is the choice by some MEN to graft their wives' last names into their own, creating a new identity for themselves.

For example, 39-year-old Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, a Washington, DC, broadcast producer, was "Jeff Freymann" until he married Garrett Weyr, a fiction writer, in 1997. "With a long feminist background in her family, and a long feminist leaning in mine, assuming my name wasn't really an option," he says. "And both of us kind of liked the idea of creating a new family name together. As we said on our wedding invitations, we're merging our libraries and merging our names and becoming the Freymann-Weyr family."

Mr. Freymann-Weyr says that, after five years, he has internalized the name change and no longer thinks of himself as Jeff Freymann. "I think there's a kind of optimism that goes with hyphenating both people's names into one unit. Your individuality is still there. Your name is still there. It's just joined forever to the other person's name. You have to decide for yourself if you're willing to share name space with somebody else. It's like joint billing. It's still occasionally confusing for people when we get Christmas cards, and you kind of see who got the message and who didn't, and who's still kind of unsure about it."

And what would happen if a Freymann-Weyr child were to marry the child of another so-called "hyphenated marriage"? Would that person become, say, a Freymann-Weyr-Jones-Gillespie? Mr. Freymann-Weyr says that, thankfully, is someone else's problem, as he and his wife have no current plans to have children.

"John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt
"His name is my name too
"Whenever we go out
"The people always shout,
"'John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt . . ."

An even rarer naming alternative is turning up. Some marrying couples decide to create a new surname that's a combination of their original last names or a brand new name altogether. The latter was the case when a 28-year-old corporate marketing specialist in San Francisco, California, who grew up with the hyphenated name "Paisley Pingree-Hawkins - married Peter Lhamon this March. "When we met, I made it pretty clear to him that I did not want to change my name, and I always said, 'If I meet someone, and he's got a really cool name,' maybe I'll think about changing it.' Not that I didn't like his name. I wanted something more simple," she says.

The couple talked about various options. "We just decided that it would probably be best if we both kind of started over together. We both had grandparents or great-grandparents who were really into genealogy. So we had years and years of names in our families. We were thinking maybe, by coincidence, we would have a name in common. But we didn't. So then we thought maybe we'd just find a name we liked. [But] it's really hard to just pick a last name at random. We were looking and looking and looking, and my mother finally suggested 'Madison,' 'cause I had grown up in Madison, Wisconsin, and my husband had grown up in Port Madison, Washington."

Paisley Madison says it has been surprisingly easy for her and her husband to get their names changed officially, and to get new driver's licenses and passports and bank accounts. She says, though, that so far she's a little more comfortable with the name than he is, because she has such a distinctive first name. Acquaintances can easily figure out who "Paisley Madison" is, but "Peter Madison" takes some getting used to.

There can be other complications with new or hyphenated names. Sometimes the new name is hard to pronounce or does not fit into an allotted number of spaces on forms.

When the decision is made to create a new and perhaps unusual name, Cynthia Edmunds of Bride's magazine says the couple can notify others via the wedding invitation or the announcement printed in the newspaper. "There'll be a line that says, 'Miss Jones will be keeping her maiden name. You'll see that a lot," she says.

Even if the couple is happy with its newly selected name, there can be touchy complications. Older relatives may not approve or feel hurt that an old family name has been altered or abandoned. Almost seven months into his marriage, for instance, Peter Madison has still not told his grandfather of his new name. The conclusion that many couples come to, however, is that each of us owns his or her name and has the right to keep it, modify it, or come up with an entirely new one.