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What's in a Surname? Unity, Individuality, And Political Correctness

More and more couples thrash out the issue of married names

WALK into any swanky restaurant these days and you'll hear the usual noises - soft music, clinking glasses, and conversation. But chances are you'll hear another sound coming from the booth behind you: sporadic smooching.

Mark Robinson, a Boston jeweler, sells 60 percent of the year's engagement rings in the three-month period between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day. Like it or not, he says, it's the season for proposals.

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But according to an informal survey of marriage-licensing bureaus across the country, many of these lovebirds will soon have to turn their attention to a less romantic matter - namely, talking about their married names.

The consensus is that anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of today's couples will choose an alternative to the tradition of a bride taking her husband's surname. While the concept is nothing new, state officials and scholars say the percentage of couples wrangling over the issue is rising.

University of Washington sociology professor Pepper Schwartz says that what began as an idealistic movement by ``ardent feminists'' has grown more mainstream. ``Nowadays,'' she says, ``people make the decision according to how they feel about their own families.''

Professor Schwartz attributes the surge in alternative naming to high divorce rates and the growing ranks of career women. She says women are reluctant to change their names because they are daunted by the number of marriages that fail, or are already established professionally under their maiden names.

Leonard Ashley, author of the 1991 book ``What's in a Name?,'' says that whatever its roots, the trend is beginning to cause widespread social confusion. ``People introduce themselves as `John Stuart and Mary Brown,' and you don't know if they're married or living together or what,'' he says. ``The biggest complaint I hear is that you can't tell if people are married. In an ideal world, everyone would choose one solution and stick with it.''

But Mr. Ashley is quick to admit that his wish is not coming true. The most common alternative, he says, is for both husband and wife to keep their names.

While this solution is easy at first, he points out that children bring complications. ``Some of these couples give male children the father's name and female children the mother's,'' he says, ``but others don't want their kids marching off to kindergarten with different names, so they wind up settling on one.''

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An example is Sandra Morgen, director of the Center for the Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon. She kept her own name, then agreed to give her children her husband's surname while using her last name as their middle name - a choice she says she's not entirely satisfied with. ``Sometimes I get a little twinge,'' she says. ``If my daughter should marry and take another name, then mine may fall out.''

On the other hand, Professor Schwartz, who also kept her last name, gave her children both her own and her husband's names, joined by a hyphen. ``My concern was to get my name in as part of their birthright,'' she says. ``When they get married they can get rid of it if they want to.''

Other couples are taking a more radical approach. After their engagement in 1991, University of Michigan graduate students Laura Aberbach and Barry Martin coined an entirely new last name: Arbreton. It's a composite of all their parents' surnames and the couple's love of the woods, among other things.

``We did it largely because the current system is unfair, and we thought it would be nice to have a name for our own family,'' Mr. Arbreton says.

In changing their names, the Arbretons ran into a common roadblock: state law. Under Michigan law, only a woman can change her name in marriage without a court hearing, so Barry had to change his name before the ceremony to avoid additional legal red tape.

Arbreton says there was only one other significant inconvenience. ``Northwest Airlines wouldn't change my frequent-flyer miles,'' he says. ``I had to write a lot of letters.''

Nevertheless, the large majority of women still take their husbands' names. Women who follow this approach laud the benefits of being one family unified by a common name and the elimination of explanations, misunderstandings, and raised eyebrows.

Julie Mathews, a recently betrothed law student from Boston, says she never gave much thought to the choice.

``I always thought I'd take my husband's name,'' she says. ``I don't see it as a loss of identity - it's a tradition. I suppose if I had been further along in my career, I wouldn't have done it. But I want people to know I'm married. I think it's important.''

While the debate goes on, more and more people are becoming exasperated by the whole issue. ``It gets kind of tedious trying to figure out what name is appropriate,'' says Schwartz. ``People are defensive about their choices, and they're fed up with political correctness to the extent that it's involved here. There's a strong vein in this society to let people do what they want to do.''

After tiring of the circularity of hers and everybody else's arguments, Ms. Morgen concludes that ``people can get too far off the cuff with this name stuff.

``There are so many issues that get embedded in our names. How can there be any one way when there are so many [varieties of] couples in the world?''

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