Marriage means being open to change — but should that include your name? 

With no real societal pressure today on a woman to take her husband’s name when she marries, four women talk about their decision to change to their partner’s surname
Marriage means being open to change — but should that include your name? 

Why do women decide to take their husband's name?

Before ever she met her Scottish husband, Geraldine McLean knew she’d change her name when she got married.

One of five girls, Geraldine recalls her mum throughout her childhood urging her daughters to keep their name when they married. 

“She felt there were no boys in the family to carry on the Dargan name. Every now and then she’d put it to us. One day, in my early teens, I said ‘when I find a man good enough to marry, his name will be good enough to take’.” 

Geraldine understood her mother’s perspective, but changing her name just felt right. 

“I felt when I found someone to cherish me, who appreciated my values, I’d take his name,” says the mum of four, who also loves that her married name sounds like that of Die Hard protagonist John McClane.

Geraldine McLean with husband John
Geraldine McLean with husband John

In the UK, a 2016 YouGov survey found most women (59%) would still like to take their spouse’s surname upon marriage. It might seem surprising in the 21st century, considering there’s no wider societal pressure on women to take their husband’s name, unlike a couple of decades ago. But it doesn’t surprise Irish-based wedding planner Sharon McMeel (https://sharonmcmeel.ie/).

 “Most brides I meet — about 65% — still take their husband’s surname or a double-barrelled name,” she says, estimating the choice probably splits evenly between husband’s surname and double-barrelled name.

McMeel says the issue of ‘name after marriage’ is always an interesting conversation. 

Sharon Mc Meel. Picture: Tarmo Tulit
Sharon Mc Meel. Picture: Tarmo Tulit

“It normally comes up around how they want to be introduced when they come into the room for their wedding meal. Much of the time they may not even have had the discussion. You can see them go ‘oh oh’. Or they’ve had the talk and he really wants her to take his surname and she doesn’t. It might be a conversation they’d been putting off.” 

For secondary schoolteacher and S-Mum blogger Maria Rushe (www.instagram.com/maria.rushe/), there would have been no issue between her and her husband if she’d decided to keep her maiden name. She knows a lot of teachers who keep their maiden name in the classroom, but in their private life take their husband’s name.

“I saw the tradition of taking my husband’s name as normal, the natural thing to do,” says the mum of two, who feels if she hadn’t taken her husband’s surname immediately she’d have done so when their daughters were born. 

In a certain sense, Maria doesn’t feel anything has changed. “My maiden name’s Maria Gillespie and I’m still that. I’m a proud Gillespie woman and I always will be. That’s who I am. But I’m also Maria Rushe — our family name is Rushe.” 

Gillespie’s a beautiful name, she says. But coming from a huge family, she knows there’s no chance it’ll die out. “If I was an only child, it might have been different.” 

Maria Rushe and husband Emmet
Maria Rushe and husband Emmet

And she likes the name Rushe. “Maria Rushe works. And Uí Róis is quicker to write in Irish than Mac Giolla Easpaig when you have to sign school reports!

“Many people would say there’s a connotation of ownership when you take your husband’s surname. To me, that’s not what it’s about. Emmet and I got married and I’m proud to take his name.” 

In Ireland, you earn your name by ‘use and repute’. If changing your name to your partner’s name or a double-barrelled name, you simply start using your new name. For official document changes — passport, driving licence — you can use your marriage certificate as proof of your name change.

Cork-based Nóirín Hanlon, mum to five-month-old Jack, married two years ago. 

Nóirín and husband Dane
Nóirín and husband Dane

“I took my husband Dane’s name straightaway. I’m very organised, so as soon as I got married I changed everything over, like my passport. I’m one of those people — if I’m doing something, I’m doing it.” 

Nóirín didn’t think too much about changing her name. “It was just something I naturally did. Murphy’s such a common name and I like Hanlon — it’s a nice name.” 

It wasn’t until returning to work after getting married that she really thought about having a new surname. 

“Some people were surprised — a couple of girls at work hadn’t changed theirs. ‘Welcome Nóirín Hanlon’ was coming up on my computer and that was a big change. I’d been Murphy for 36 years.” 

Nóirín recalls her mum often saying she half wished she’d kept her maiden name. “I used to say ‘oh what’s the big deal?’ Now I kind of get what she meant. But for me, I’m glad I changed my name. We’ve a son and I like we’re all the same name. But there’s definitely a bit of me that’s Nóirín Murphy in my head.” 

For Leonie Lynch, who describes herself as “a bit traditional”, there was never a question about taking her husband’s name. “I was sick of everyone spelling my maiden name [McMeel] wrong! And also I’m quite confident my first name’s unusual, so I was ok to give up my unusual surname. People still knew it was me. Maybe if I was Mary Lynch, I’d feel I was losing some of my identity.” 

Leonie — who trained as an artist and signed her paintings simply as ‘Leonie’ — thinks a big issue for women getting married in their 30s is that their professional identity is bound up with their maiden name. 

“When you take someone else’s name, you have to start building your professional identity again. Sometimes it’s not necessarily a feminist thing, it’s a practical thing.”

Sometimes it comes down to convenience

Hilda Burke
Hilda Burke

London-based psychotherapist and couples counsellor Hilda Burke both is and isn’t surprised that many women take their husband’s surnames today.

“It’s surprising when women have their own separate identity and career — it goes a bit counter to that.”

She understands why women change their name when children start school. “It simplifies things from an admin point of view. Lives are complicated enough without throwing in another potential complexity. Sometimes it’s not about principle, it’s just convenience.”

Occasionally, a woman’s maiden name is the surname of a parent no longer on the scene or with whom she has no relationship.

“She can really welcome the opportunity to change the name. It’s not necessarily about taking on the husband’s, but about getting rid of the other.

“And just because a woman keeps her name doesn’t mean she’s an ardent feminist.”

Ms Burke, originally from Wexford, also sees a hearkening back to tradition. “The wedding day’s big on Instagram, the whole package. For some women, taking their partner’s name is part of the ritual.”

If a decision to change your name is driven by what other people will think, you’re not asking the right question, Ms Burke says.

The right question would be: ‘what’s important to me and what do I want?’

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