The XX Factor

Taking My Husband’s Name Is No Threat to My Sense of Self

I have to introduce this piece by telling you about my name. If you look at my New York Times wedding announcement, you will see the well-known line, “The bride, who is keeping her own name …” And indeed I did. I was Emma Gilbey for about three years after getting married. My two daughters have Gilbey as a second middle name-not because I love it so much, but because, if I were to travel alone with them, I wanted us to have the same names on our passports. It was only when we were all checking in for a plane trip sometime after 9/11, and I heard the check-in assistant say, “Keller, party of 3,” “Gilbey, party of 1,” that I decided to change. What if the plane went down? I didn’t want to die alone on a manifest. And that was that. I turned my maiden name into a middle name because for 20 years it had been my byline. (Or as I like to put it, the name of my act.) But for everything else, I’m Emma Keller and very happy that way.

When I read Allison Yarrow’s piece, below, I felt a little envious. I now wish I had changed from the start. But like her, I love both my names, although I agree Emma Gilbey Keller is a bit of a mouthful. I look at it this way. We have such an abundance of choice these days. Sometimes it’s OK to take a little too much.

I was a 25-year-old new Mrs., the average age in this country for getting hitched. Peers and coworkers in a city full of young singles thought I was crazy, but getting married was the easiest choice I had ever made. My most difficult decision was sidelined in the madness of wedding planning, and mysteriously cropped up when I least expected it. One day, cocooned in a mess of tulle and silk chiffon in the dressing room at Kleinfeld, I decided to change my name.

I had, long before the moment of dressing room epiphany, given the name change topic considerable thought. My Jewish mother from upstate New York dropped Schwartz to marry my Cajun Catholic father. She took his name, Gaudet (Go-day), and he converted to her religion, teaching me early on that when it came to marriage, everything was negotiable. Growing up in nearly Jew-less middle Georgia, nobody could pronounce my name, and I could hardly wait to trade up for something phonetic. In a landscape of Williams, Smith, Johnson, and Jones, my name-Gaudet-stuck out. I dreaded roll call. I became Gaw-dette, Gaw-day, and Gaw-dit, and though I was a likable and outspoken kid, I preferred a quick “here” to a disruptive correction. In my native south I rarely encountered a woman whose surname differed from her husband’s. I knew there were women out there who kept their maiden names; I just hadn’t met any yet.

I warmed to the idea of correcting people who fumbled pronouncing my last name, but mostly just when they asked. Answering Craigslist ads for my first New York apartment, I said my full name stronger, and usually without waiting for the question. As a young professional forging my way in a city far from where I grew up, I knew my name was the best branding I could get. Working in network television, I saw for the first time married women in droves who had kept their own names. Out of the five women with whom I worked, only one had taken her husband’s name. Katherine went from Cheng to Chan. Judy was proud to keep her Cuban name Artime, and made it her daughter’s middle name, too. Lisa was Mandel at work and Cashman everywhere else. I wasn’t exactly looking for a spouse, but I began thinking that if I found one, I might like to keep the name I fought so long to love.

I met my future husband on the telephone. Ben was working for the William J. Clinton foundation, and I wanted an interview with his famous boss for my NBC health show. I never got my interview, but eventually acquired a husband instead. Ben wanted me to take his last name, but he didn’t pressure me.

A schooled daughter of second wave feminism, I have embraced and fought with old and new to develop a strong sense of self. I realized that taking his name is not a threat to my individuality. It is not submissive. It is an act of love. In an age of “I” and “Me,”-of MYSpace and IPod -“we” needs a lifeline.

College educated brides were five times less likely to take their husbands’ name in 2000 than they were in 1975, according to the Journal of Economic Perspectives . I have plenty of career-minded, female friends who have earned maiden name recognition and balk at the idea of jeopardizing their professional identities. An activist friend berated me at a bar one night, “You’re taking his name?” she intoned, like I was being naughty.

I still miss my given last name. Gaudet is rare enough to spark conversation, old friends still call me by it, and it has a nice spot in the alphabet. About 5,000 people in the United States call themselves Gaudets. The name I officially took last year is also uncommon. In fact, only about 1,250 people in the country share it with me. Yarrow (like borrow), though a serious alphabetical demotion, is a fabulous last name. It invokes the melodic activism of Peter, Paul, and Mary. It is a free spirited, flowering medicinal plant. And it is comfortingly difficult to screw up (though some manage). I had tried on plain Yarrow at my corner coffee shop before having it printed on all my legal documents.

“I’m Allison Yarrow,” I said to the woman behind the counter. She smiled blithely, and handed me my muffin.

Becoming a full-fledged Yarrow hasn’t been easy. When they called my name at the post office recently, I thought they were talking about somebody else. I introduced myself incorrectly at my husband’s work event. I decided to include both Gaudet and Yarrow in my byline, admitting to everyone that I’m afraid of Gaudet just going away. Ultimately, taking my husband’s name is a gesture that is bigger than me. I’m choosing family, which doesn’t make me any less of who I am. Call me the backlash to the anti-patriarchy backlash. I am proud to be “we.”

Allison Gaudet Yarrow is the assistant web editor at the Forward , where she blogs regularly . She is at work on a memoir about growing up Jewish in the Deep South.
Wedding photographs of Allison Gaudet Yarrow by Inward Studio.