November 10, 2007

The Name of the Spouse

I can’t say exactly when it was I decided that if I got married I wouldn’t change my last name, but I know that by the time I got to college the idea was pretty much confirmed in my mind. I knew a lot of people at that time who were finding creative ways to combine both last names of the couple getting married: hyphenation, a double last name for both, or a combination of two names into one word. There were even some couples who chose a completely different last name to share. While I applauded the creativity of these folks, I knew it wasn’t for me.

So when Joe and I got married, I stuck to the plan and didn’t change my name (for the record, neither did he). Since then, we’ve opened joint bank accounts, signed leases together, filed joint tax returns; all the things that married couples do, and for the most part we had no problems because of our different surnames. Of course, we laughed about the insurance agent who kept sending personalized return address labels to “Elizabeth Kissell” (Elizabeth is my hardly-used first name) and even more hilariously, someone named “Liz Kissell.” Nothing about that name was mine, it was like an entirely new identity I could choose to assume if I ever needed one.

While it’s by no means a universal practice in North America, a married couple having different last names is common enough that large institutions usually know how to handle the situation. As we’ve been finding out, it’s not so simple in France.

To start off with, the French language itself is a bit biased as to how male and female individuals are referred to. Unlike English, French doesn’t have a gender-neutral way of identifying a group of people; instead of “they” or “them,” the group is identified by whether it contains male or female members. If a group is solely male, “they” is rendered “ils,” for an all-female group it is “elles.” However, if there is even one male in a mostly female group, they are all “ils.”

It makes me wonder if that language quirk has any effect on how married couples are identified, because it’s been my experience here that institutions keep wanting to lump us together under one name. For example, our bank here issued me a bank card for our joint account with my correct name on it, but all our bank statements are addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Kissell.” I noticed another example of this when we received our Cartes de Séjour; my card not only listed my first and last names, but also my “Nom Marital,” while Joe’s card had no such addendum about the name of his spouse.

I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything malicious about this, just that it chafes a bit to have a choice I’ve made undermined by social custom. And it puzzles me that a country so devoted to the cause of equality, and so dedicated to women’s welfare and rights in other areas, still clings to this convention. I think language does matter, and it may be that this practice is just the tip of the iceberg on attitudes about men and women’s roles in society. Or maybe not. I don’t know enough yet to say whether it’s just an annoying fact of life, or a sign of something systemic. And I’m very curious to know what French women themselves make of it. Is there some way to maintain a separate identity that I haven’t learned about, or is it just accepted? Perhaps there are bigger battles to fight.

10 Responses to “The Name of the Spouse”

  1. Kirk said:


    Marie-France uses her own name, and we’ve been married for more than twenty years. It is common and fully accepted here in France. Just tell people, “Je garde l’usage de mon nom de jeune fille.” She still gets some mail as Mrs. Me, and I even get some mail as Mr. Her, but in general things work out quite well.

  2. Morgen Jahnke said:


    Cool. Thanks for sharing your experience, that’s really helpful.

  3. Ann said:

    In Cameroon, it’s evidently quite an anomaly for a woman’s identity not to be completely subsumed in that of her male partner! For additional challenge, people tend to introduce themselves surname first, of sometime only the surname. So as far as our church colleagues are concerned, I am ‘Madame Christopher.’ Haven’t yet chosen to expend the energy it would require to reclaim, in French, my own identity…oh, and it cracks me up to think of you as ‘Liz Kissel.’

  4. Jasper said:

    In Italy it is expected that a woman keep her surname after marriage, which is exactly what my Aunt has done.

    When she comes back to the UK the expectation is reversed, and people – including members of our family – refer to her with her husband’s surname.

    I tried to find a webpage that backed this up, but I keep hitting pages about ‘the problems caused by Italian laws and women keeping their name’

  5. Morgen Jahnke said:


    Well, no one has called me Madame Joseph yet, so I guess I should count my blessings 🙂


    I wasn’t aware of that Italian custom, but I like it. Maybe I should move to Italy! Just out of curiosity, do you know if children then take both last names of their parents, or one or the other?

  6. Jasper said:

    Hi Morgen,

    By law, children have to take on the last name of the father. Italians don’t double-barrel their names either, so the wife/mother’s surname can’t be carried through to the next generation.

    The “problems caused by Italian laws and women keeping their name” I mentioned is that mothers would like their children to take on their name. I understand this is an important topic in Italy.

  7. Morgen Jahnke said:


    That’s very interesting. I wonder how this will resolve.

  8. Geoff Foster said:

    My name is Geoff Foster, and my spouse is Katherine (really Katarzyna) Samuelowicz. No problem so far; but when, nineteen years ago, we went to register the birth of our son, we were told, by a somewhat officious clerk in Brisbane, Australia, that if we were married (we are), his surname would have to be Foster, and it would only be possible for it to be Samuelowicz if we were not. So we registered him as Alexander Christopher Samuelowicz Foster (which is, incidentally, over-long for many computer systems). This was OK until Katherine wanted to travel overseas with him; since there was no connection between his and her surnames (the Samuelowicz part did not fit on his passport), she was concerned that she might be accused of abducting a random child. So she made sure she always had his birth certificate with her. To cut a long story short, when applying for a new passport for him when he was about eight (I think), we found out that we could have his name changed ‘by repute’, since the Samuelowicz component appeared on several documents, including school reports. So now he is officially Alexander Christopher Samuelowicz-Foster, with a hyphen, and we leave off the Christopher part so it will all fit.

  9. Ellen Herzfeld said:


    I’m French, and decided to keep using my last name (my father’s name, actually) when I got married. No problem there. However, my tax papers are sent to Mr and Mrs Him, and my social security papers are sent to Mrs Him because I gave my name as “Me, épouse Him”. Now, I’m always Mrs Him for them… At work, however, I’m only known under my maiden name and all papers are in agreement. I think it would be possible to really truly keep my maiden name for everything, but I should have been very careful from the very beginning, which I wasn’t. However, on all official papers, a woman is actually always “Her, spouse Him”. She never really loses her name, it only gets somewhat hidden. The real name is always the maiden name (nom patronymique) and is always asked on official papers, so it never really disappears. And the more official things get, the more the woman will be referred to by her maiden name.

  10. Morgen Jahnke said:

    Geoff and Ellen,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. You wouldn’t think things should be so complicated, but I guess that’s the nature of bureaucracy.