Why I Chose My Own Last Name
The right to change one’s name in the United States for any reason, by court order, isn’t something that we usually think about. We remember monumental court cases around civil rights, and nearly everyone can point to Roe v. Wade. But changing your last name? Sure, Prince changed his name—but he’s a celebrity and for them it’s commonplace. Why would I change mine?
At the age of 30, after my divorce had been finalized for six months, I legally changed my last name by court order. My brief marriage was one of those that left a woman wondering, “Will I ever remarry?” So keeping my ex-husband’s last name was out of the question. I could not wait until I remarried—if I ever did—to change my name.
However, I did not want to go back to my maiden name. My maiden name is difficult to pronounce and even more challenging to spell.. It’s also one of those names that, when you hear it, you have no idea of its origin.
In short, I wanted a last name that was beautiful and that suited me, and that I was content to keep for the rest of my life.
Because I was not going to change my name a third time. I changed it when I got married; I was changing it now that I was divorced. And I was not up for changing it again.
This, for some reason, is difficult for many people to understand (more on that in a moment). For me, it was extremely practical. I am a writer and a networker with a career. Frequent name changes are not only confusing but impractical. I have been published as a writer under three different names, and I’m sure my LinkedIn network has lost track of who I am. (Continuity in publications is, in fact, a main reason why many women in academia do not change their last names). I just needed one name that I could keep for the rest of my life—the same as any man would expect.
I had other criteria for my name. It had to be a good writer’s name. It had to sound good after “Ms.,” “Professor,” and as a complete name with my first and middle name. It also had to hyphenate well, because I wanted my future children to have both my name and their father’s name. And, it had to sound good with the boys and girls names I keep on an ever-growing list.
I spent a year thinking about what name to choose. I went through the last names in my family by generation, on both my mother’s side and father’s side.
I would have liked to have picked a woman’s name. However, I realized that women in my family—as in most families—do not have their own names. We are named after our fathers; then we are named after our husbands. Even a woman who keeps her maiden name is just keeping her father’s name. This made me deeply sad, as I wanted to be identified as a woman, part of a lineage of women. But as I looked over the centuries of my family tree, I saw no women with their own names. We have first names and middle names—and I considered taking one of those as a last name. But nothing seemed quite right.
I wanted to break the cycle of women not having names. If I chose my own last name, it would be truly mine, and I would be able to give it to my children, just as I gave them my life and blood and DNA. Once they turned 18, they could change it if they wanted to: that was their right. But I wanted to give my children a chance that I never had: I wanted to give my children a chance to have their mother’s name.
So, I began scouring maps. I looked at cities and regions across Italy, England, France, and Spain. I didn’t want a name that had a lot of historical baggage or too much cultural association—like Bordeaux. However, I thought by choosing a name that was a place it would be at least recognizable and pronounceable.
For quite a while, “Novella,” was the forerunner. But could anyone take me seriously as a writer if my name were Novella?
I narrowed down on Syrah, the French version of Shiraz—the wine. I wrote out what my full name would be and counted out the accented and unaccented syllables as if my name were a line of poetry. I had written down and considered a new last name in second grade, with the last name of my first crush. But now I was doing it for myself, for my identity, and for my future and my kids’ future. I looked at how the name looked with and without the middle name. I thought about how Syrah would look on the spine of a book, in all capital letters.
After a year of deliberating, I decided, “Today is the day.” I filled out the short paperwork and dropped it off at my city’s courthouse. A few weeks later, I got a letter from the court with my new name on the envelope, and the signed documents inside. The mailman wrote a question mark on the envelope next to my new name, then put the letter in my mailbox.
To be fair, my name does still get mispronounced. However, I can now say, “It’s Syrah, like the wine.” I have, for the first time in my life, been complimented on my name. It is ethnic without being alienating. My name captures who I am: an American, but also a first generation immigrant. American, but still slightly ethnic. I am American in this sense of the word: multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural. And because I live in America, I have the right to choose my own name.
My name is now a litmus test in my dating. I simply say, whenever it comes up, “I picked my own last name that I wanted to have for the rest of my life,” with a smile, and I see how the man responds. I know what response I’m looking for: curiosity and interest. “That is so interesting. Why did you decide to do what? What name did you pick?”
Interestingly, I find it is mostly my female friends, and not men I am dating, who have a curious response. These women confide that they wished they had changed their last name, but never did, either because they were waiting to get married or because their parents disapproved.
Very rarely does a man think the fact that I chose my own name is interesting. (And, in fact, my grandma disapproved, too). I find this to be true among both liberals and conservatives. My first response to these men is this: “If you feel that strongly about having the same name, you are welcome to change yours.” (I am waiting for the man who will say this in response—“You’re right. I hadn’t thought about that.”)
One man said that his family wouldn’t believe that I loved him if I didn’t change my last name. I asked, “What would your professional contacts think if you had four different names in the space of 10 years?” He didn’t answer the question. Another said he wouldn’t marry me if I didn’t change it. Another said, “I think you should have gone back to your maiden name.”
The most common response from friends and family is, “I understand that you wanted to change your name to something that is better for a writer, but does that mean that you have to legally change it?”
For whatever reason, people think it’s acceptable for me to change my last name if I change it to a man’s name when I get married, but unacceptable for me to change it to a name that I choose. Moreover, they think they have a right or are entitled to decide what my name is. Implicitly, they don’t believe that I have a right to my own name. However, the laws in the United States say otherwise.
I am happy with my new name. I find it beautiful. Every time that I see it written down, it fills me with joy. By choosing my own last name, I exercised the right to have my own identity, an identity that belongs to me regardless of who my husband or father is. I exercised my autonomy. And while everything else in my life may change, I will at least have stability in my name.