The Shame of Changing Your Name

The academy holds a narrow view of acceptable conditions for a scholar to do so, and marriage is not one of them, writes Emily Peterson.

December 12, 2019
 
 
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In my first year of graduate school, my Ph.D. adviser gave me a stamp to mark my books “The Library of Emily M. Grossnickle.” She had a practice of giving a personalized stamp to all of her students in their first year so we wouldn’t confuse our books with each other’s. Along with the gift came her playful quip, “Don’t you dare change it.”

At the time, I didn’t really think about it -- I had no intention of changing my name. Little did I know how it would foretell an important personal decision I would soon face.

In 2014, I earned my Ph.D. By 2015, I was a postdoctoral researcher, engaged to be married and considering whether or not to change from my birth name to my husband’s name. As a scholar, that sparked feelings of shame and an uncomfortable, deep-seated fear of potential long-lasting repercussions to the new career I was intent on building. In the months leading up to my marriage, I initiated conversations with peers about the topic, read any news articles or essays I could get my hands on, and sought the support of my husband.

All the while, the image of the stamp was etched in my mind. It became clear to me that the academy holds a narrow view of acceptable conditions for a scholar to change her name, and marriage is not one of them. I discerned a palpable discomfort and sense of shame around just discussing the topic. The women I consulted spoke either indirectly or in coded terms, much like the gift from my professor.

When I asked colleagues to point out academic women who had taken a new name, they could only identify three conditions where scholars changed their names and went on to have a successful career. The first was in the early years of graduate school. For graduate students with only a few publications or presentations, the decision is often less frowned upon and might even go unnoticed by those looking over one’s curriculum vitae. The second acceptable condition is following a divorce posttenure. The idea here is that a woman is reclaiming her identity and thus it’s viewed as empowering, or at least respectable, due to the circumstances. The third acceptable condition is to hyphenate, joining one’s birth and married names.

As I continued to seek out colleagues’ views on the matter, a respected female colleague openly acknowledged that if she were on a hiring committee for a position, she would negatively judge a candidate for making such a change. I imagine she felt that she was providing me with valuable advice by being candid. Instead, I found her honesty unsettling. Her candid acknowledgment, spoken amid feminist values and her expressed desire for me to achieve in academe at the highest levels, wasn’t universal. At the same time, she was not the only colleague to express that sentiment.

In some ways, I could see where they were coming from. As someone who initially resisted any thoughts of changing my own name, my biases were not so different. But that was then. To be sure, people have different feelings about names and their importance. For me, I realized that my marriage and the name-changing question gave me an opportunity for empowerment: to reclaim my identity with a name of a family I chose rather than the one into which I was born.

Yet as a woman in academe with a Ph.D., senior and tenured faculty members repeatedly told me that the only acceptable, feminist choice was to keep my name or hyphenate. While hyphenating works for many women, that suggestion fell flat. I spelled out what would be an unwieldy six-syllable, 20-character monstrosity that I was convinced would be removed from article citation lists by authors over their word limit.

The perceived weight of this decision preoccupied my thoughts. I felt judged for a decision that supposedly reflected a lack of commitment to my scholarship. Although I was a postdoctoral researcher still early in my career, I had 10 publications under my original name. I was relying on those publications to secure an academic position. For someone putting together tenure-track applications, the idea of changing my name -- and subsequently having publications under a different name than those first 10 in my application materials -- was terrifying.

When I shared my dilemma with people outside higher education, they were surprised. Some questioned why I couldn’t make whatever decision was right for me. Others, such as those from the small town where I grew up, questioned why it wasn’t the other way around: Shouldn’t I only need to justify to others if I wanted to keep my name? Isn’t it normal for women to change their names once they’re married? Some argue that changing one’s surname after marriage perpetuates socio-historical traditions of men owning their wives. But research shows that a majority of women in the United States change their names following marriage.

In fact, I found that academic women did change their names legally but retained their former name for publications and teaching. Yet that forces women to bear the weight of coordinating two identities and requires complex logistics when legal documents such as passports don’t match the name one is always called. That approach is not a solution, either.

In the end, I took my husband’s name, and my birth name became my middle name. That decision has afforded me the opportunity to forge a more complete scholarly and personal identity. I will never know what might have happened if I had dropped my original name entirely.

But I have come to realize that the academy can, and should, make certain structural changes to ease the process and concerns of those who desire to change their name at pivotal career points. Efforts such as training to alleviate biases when evaluating job applicants, tenure cases and awards would be a step in the right direction. In addition to postpublication name changes and having identification numbers to link publications, the option to autopopulate former names, so that readers can see the links more clearly, is needed. Authors can take steps to make such connections clearer for readers, by summarizing work under a scholar’s current name and putting the former name that the cited work was published under in parentheses (“Eccles [Parsons] et al. (1983)”). That said, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Different reasons for name changes require different considerations, and providing former names can be disrespectful in certain situations.

Ultimately, those of us in academe should feel that changing our name is a choice we can make free from shame and fear of repercussions. We should not have to weigh the possibility that taking a new name equates to being taken less seriously as a scholar. We face many challenges and tough decisions in our careers. The decision about changing one’s name shouldn’t be one of them.

Bio

Emily Peterson is assistant professor of education at American University.

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