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Should you take your partner's name in marriage?

What's in a surname? As Kylie Minogue says she'll take her partner's moniker, Mary Kenny argues changing names comes down to simple choice

When Amal Alamuddin, a distinguished human rights lawyer, married actor George Clooney and said she would forthwith be known as "Mrs Clooney", some feminists felt this was a betrayal of female identity. Surely Amal didn't need the traditional moniker of a man?

But maybe Mrs Clooney's name choice was a signal of her confidence, rather than of wifely submission? Maybe she was saying: "Look, I'm confident enough in myself not to have to hang on to my birth name."

Perhaps similar reasoning applies to Kylie Minogue and Geri Halliwell. Ms Halliwell became Mrs Christian Horner on marriage, and Ms Minogue has let it be known that when she marries her fiance, she will become Mrs Joshua Sasse.

So what's the rule these days on whether an independent woman changes her name upon entering wedlock? I would say it is this: it's entirely her choice what she wants to call herself.

There has been some confusion over the issue, but surely it's simple. If a woman chooses to use her married name, then respect that.

Theresa May should be called 'Mrs May', because she has chosen her husband's surname (her birth name was Brasier). Similarly, with Arlene Foster. Born Kelly, she has chosen to be called by her husband Brian's surname.

But Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First Minister, has chosen not to use her husband's name (he is Peter Murrell), and so, formally, she should be addressed as 'Ms Sturgeon'.

More complicated is the case of Angela Merkel, who has retained the name of a spouse from whom she is long divorced. In branding terms, she was right to keep 'Merkel', because her name had become her political brand.

This may also have been a factor in Hillary Clinton's decision to drop 'Rodham', and call herself 'Clinton'. It was a better brand (even if it didn't, to her regret, prove to be a clincher for the presidency).

So it's whatever the individual chooses, and for whatever reason. And there can be a number of reasons why a woman either retains her birth name or decides to change.

With Halliwell and Minogue, it could be that, as brides, they are older and more mature than average. They have more confidence and feel more embedded in their own identity - so they can afford to be generous.

It could also be they are rather more famous than their husbands, and so, they feel it pays a graceful compliment to the spouse to take his name. And they may rather like the anonymity of being Mrs Horner or Mrs Sasse.

Some women choose to take a married name for reasons of family unity. It can get complicated if a family is travelling together, and one family member has a different surname - particularly in these days of gimlet-eyed homeland security officials. Any irregularity on your passport when entering the US can prove trying.

There can be misunderstandings if a family doesn't share a surname. My younger son once missed a violin exam because he was listed as 'Edward Kenny', which is not his name. I was furious, but then I should have been more careful about clarifying naming matters.

For a while, it was an article of faith among feminists that, married or not, a woman kept her birth name. But a woman's birth name is usually a patronymic - it is the father's (or grandfather's) surname - so how can it be more feminist to use the patriarchal patronymic?

Altering the naming system would need a radical revolution in nomenclature. Perhaps only the Icelanders can claim to have codified a genuinely egalitarian naming system: if you're Johan's son, you're called Johansson, and if you're Ingrid's daughter you're called Ingridsdottir. But the population of Iceland is hardly the population of Cork: it is only in a small country (with a tight, clan-based demographic) that this system could operate.

In our systems, legally, we can do as we please. Legally, you can call yourself by any name you like: if I wish to be addressed as Baroness Kenny-West of the Islands, I merely have to go and register that name by deed poll. Legally, it is open to choice.

There are cases where a man has taken a woman's surname (although if you inquire closely into such cases, you'll usually find there's a motive associated with money or land). Often the choice is down to the personal dynamics of a couple.

Some women just do not want to be married because they feel their identity is compromised. If they're in a relationship, they'd prefer that it remain a free partnership than the conventional chains of wedlock, as they see it.

All the same, with age and maturity, and especially when the time comes when your solicitor is advising you to make a will and regularise the inheritance situation, older couples often do, finally, choose to tie the knot.

A couple I know who asked their lawyer to draw up a contract which would ensure rights within an equal union were told by said lawyer: "You're trying to reinvent the wheel. Get married."

Same-sex unions have drawn attention to the fact that the marriage contract does copperfasten certain rights.

There is a useful compromise in the name game. You can keep your own name professionally, and embrace a married name in family life. Having two identities can be dead handy - just so long as it's all made clear when you're going through inspections at those passport controls…

Belfast Telegraph


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