“Well, Miss Hughes, you can call back in a few months to change your surname; that’s no problem at all.” This was Miriam, the nice woman at the call centre yesterday afternoon. I’d only phoned to renew my home and contents insurance (that’s my home, and largely my contents) and thought I’d add my boyfriend to the account while I was at the front of the queue. Miriam had asked me the nature of our relationship, been told that Dan was soon to be my husband, and within seconds was planning the change of my name and telling me there was no problem.
Except there is a problem. I have absolutely no intention of being anything but Ms Sali Hughes, just as I hadn’t in my first marriage, and I can’t understand how, in 2017, this is still an assumption that comes automatically to anyone under 90. According to a study by York University in 2013 (which, one might fairly imagine, would show an even higher figure now), around a third of women are choosing not to change their names after marriage, compared with almost all women who married 30 years ago, who did. The authors of the study cited “feminist ideals” as a key factor in the trend and I think this is still the pervading opinion – angry feminists overthinking things again, getting offended, making life needlessly difficult.
But anger and offence are no more my motivation than passivity and subservience is a factor in many a feminist’s free decision to take her husband’s surname (I have several – though not heaps – of friends who changed their name and they’re hardly subsumed under domineering husbands). I’m not going to lose it if the odd piece of junk mail arrives wrongly addressed to “Mrs Maier”. But I agree that, at least for myself, equality certainly is a factor – if my partner doesn’t have to change his name, then why do I? Why should I even declare my marital status when engaging in unemotional bureaucracy, like booking an eye test or renewing a railcard?
I’m keeping it because it’s who I am. Not someone’s wife, nor someone’s mother. But myself. And I’m enough, whether I catch a man or not
But beyond that, I’m not sure political opinions aren’t a bit of a red herring. It seems to me that the trend for maintaining one’s own legal identity is less about stating my feminism, more enjoying the self-worth and maintaining the individual status that hard-fought progressive feminism has given me. I’m not keeping my name to make a point. I’m keeping it because it’s who I am. Not someone’s wife, nor someone’s mother. But myself. And I’m enough, whether I catch a man or not.
Other women tell me they wanted to change their names so they could share a name with their children. I understand and respect this reasoning entirely, but this was one of the many reasons I didn’t want to change mine. I love and adore my children, but felt an unequivocal desire to hang on to a part of the old me, albeit a symbolic one. I wanted to retain a piece of myself that had nothing to do with my initially all-encompassing role as a mother, but represented the fully formed person that had existed before them. I was very happy for them to take their father’s name, because I had no desire to cause upset and, crucially, it would be my sons’ only name from birth. It’s the switch later in life that seems so alien to me.
I’m told some women simply have no emotional attachment to their old names. But how, I always wonder? Hughes is the name that was called out in class registration, sandwiched between the same two pupils for years on end. It was the name on my first paycheque for £40, and the one on the fake ID I used to blow it all on the first night. It was the name on the pass certificate handed to me in the driving-test-centre car park at one of the purely joyful moments of my life, on the passport that took me on my first, vodka-soaked, menthol-smoked, Teletext-booked £170 girls’ holiday to Mallorca. It was the name I first saw in a magazine, under a 100-word review of a forgettable film called Drop Dead Fred, that told me now I’d really made it. It’s the name I’ve seen spelled Sally Huges at least a thousand times and the one that’s compelled me to take on any idiot who’s accused my legitimate Welsh name as some media affectation. Sali Hughes is the person who worked her socks off, through thick and thin, through abject poverty and financial comfort, who shouldn’t have to skulk away and let Sali Maier reap the benefits. How can there be no emotional attachment to it? It’s my name. It’s who I’ve been since birth. A lovely man with a lovely name will never change that.
And, ironically, the man who gave his wife that name, and ultimately gave me the same, is the person who knew that I’d never give it up. On the first wedding day, my father – not an outwardly emotional man – made a speech that, in about seven minutes flat, told me that he knew me better than anyone. “Even if Sali was marrying a man called Hughes, I know she’d bloody refuse to change her name,” he said, with visible pride. I’m sad he won’t be here to see my obstinance again. Because it’s not just my name. It’s ours. And, like he did, I’ll take it to my grave.