As a kid, I played with toy dinosaurs and dolls alike. At 13, I insisted that a female rabbi perform my bat mitzvah ceremony. I didn’t shave my legs during high school and much of college, in protest against sexist and generally pain-in-the-rear beauty norms. I have a career I love — and no plans to leave it.
So how did a modern woman like me end up changing her name?
I am now Emily Alpert Reyes, instead of Emily Alpert. The decision took friends and family by surprise. My bemused and wonderful husband told me, “You know you don’t have to do that, right?” My editors found the decision so baffling that they prodded me to write this column.
“She was the last person I would expect to go along with what really is a patriarchal tradition,” a college friend wrote in an email she later forwarded to me. She added, “I am routinely surprised by the number of my well-educated, feminist friends who still change their names without question.”
Why did I do it? Not because anyone made me. Not because I disliked my old name — it’s still there in plain sight, sandwiched between Emily and Reyes. And not out of worry for any future children. I myself was raised by an Alpert and a Marx without apparent incident.
My reasons are small and perhaps even silly: I changed my name because I wanted to. I like the ring of it.
It has a National Public Radio kind of sound, as if I am suddenly going to drop in with an incisive report from Bogota or Beijing. It telegraphs that I’m part of a Latino family, telling people something more about my identity. It also guarantees me a whole new and entertaining world of hate mail.
But when I sat down to write this column, I wondered whether I had simply sold out. There is still a nagging voice somewhere in my skull about being a Good Feminist, or at least a Good Enough Feminist. (I started shaving my legs, after all, so the goal posts have moved a bit.) Twentysomethings like me tend to wave off the question as to-each-her-own. Want to change your name? Then do it. Don’t want to? Then don’t.
But making the first choice is still to be bathed in approval, while making the second is somewhat shunned. A Pennsylvania State University study found that in 2006, more than a tenth of Midwestern college students thought women who kept their names were less committed to their marriages. Changing names is still the norm for married women, a string of studies suggests.
To women who fought to keep their names, this looks like madness. Brides who change their names are reinforcing a patriarchal tradition that should be a relic of bygone times, an older co-worker argued to me. Shouldn’t women maintain their hard-won independence by holding on to their names? she asked.
Besides, if women keep changing their names, she added, it makes it easier for men to never think about it. I do know men who have changed or hyphenated their names, but it is still greeted with surprise and even snickers. Nobody ever asked my husband whether he would become an Alpert, after all.
I threw open the question to friends on Facebook and was flooded with responses, not only from women, but from gay men and lesbians who are newly able to marry.
Their reasons were as singular as my own: A male friend said taking the name of his husband was a way to separate himself from the family that disowned him. A female scientist pointed out that hanging on to her name would preserve her publishing record. A friend with Indian roots said she added the surname of her Brazilian husband to reflect both heritages in her name.
Many of us are trying to have it both ways: to keep our names and change them at the same time. Academics dub us “situational name users.” Using one name at work and another at home. Changing your name on Facebook, but skipping the visit to the Social Security office.
Think of it as yet another way that women — and not just women — are still trying to have it all. If I’m Emily Alpert Reyes, I’m still Emily Alpert, with all the personal history and professional accomplishments that entails. But I’m also Emily Reyes, part of a new and chosen family.
I understand why that frustrates other women. And I know all our battles aren’t won. But it’s a name that feels like me. And it’s a name that looks like my family — part Jewish, part Latino, part inherited and part chosen. At the end of the day, that doesn’t feel backward at all.