Tradition — and the law — used to dictate that women changed their name upon marriage. Today, Utah women and men are making choices together about what name to use in their families — and often what they choose isn’t what they grew up expecting.
In the five years from the beginning of 2012 through 2016, nearly 105,000 Utahns changed their names after marriage, according to the Social Security Administration. But the agency said it doesn’t track those changes by gender, and no data source can reveal how many women (and men) simply keep their names.
In her research, Claudia Geist, an assistant professor of gender studies at the University of Utah, found that most Americans feel women “should change their name upon marriage as a sign of commitment to the marriage or to sort of eliminate confusion.”
But there is much less support, she said, for requiring women to do it.
The practice is rooted in British common law, which mandated that a woman became her husband’s property, said Andrea Radke-Moss, a history professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho.
She chose to hyphenate after her marriage ”to both keep my own professional identity, as well as to share my husband’s.”
″As a feminist, I respect any woman’s right to choose their last name,” she said, adding that “institutions like churches and governments should make space for all different naming identities.”
As peak wedding season wraps up, The Salt Lake Tribune used the Utah Public Insight Network to ask readers to answer an online questionnaire about their decisions, and dozens of Utahns shared their stories.
One of the ‘biggest perks of getting married’
Brianna Burkitt, 25, Cedar City
From the time she was young, Brianna Burkitt was “dead set” on changing her last name — an opportunity she saw as one of the “biggest perks of getting married.”
When she married Justus Burkitt in 2015, she said, people were surprised to hear she’d chosen to take his last name.
“People know I’m a very independent person, so they were sure that I would keep my last name ... as sort of an independence thing,” she said. “I remember my parents saying, ‘Oh, are you sure this is something that you want to do? That doesn’t really seem like you.’ A lot of people asked if he was pressuring me into it.”
But changing her name gave her an out from jokes she’d endured for most of her life, based on her maiden name: “Purdy.”
“You’re so purdy,” people would quip. “You’ve got a purdy mouth.”
“As a woman, there’s some names that can really kind of push your buttons, and that was one,” she said, laughing.
If her given name had been different, Burkitt said, she likely would have kept it — especially because she was already established in her career in journalism at the time. “About 95 percent of [my decision] was based on what my maiden name was.”
Deciding what name to use is important for all couples, no matter what they choose, she said.
“It’s really great that we’re seeing it where you don’t have to change it,” she said. “We’re having those conversations and it‘s not necessarily the default [anymore] for a woman to take her husband’s last name.”
‘I’ve had my last name the whole time’
Nicole Green, 25, West Jordan
Nicole Green grew up thinking that when a woman married a man, she took his name — every time. In movies, she saw girls doodle their first name paired with their crush’s last name, contributing to her assumption that becoming Mrs. Husband’s-Last-Name was required.
But when she got married in June, she decided against taking her new husband’s last name.
“It’s becoming more common to not change your name,” Green said, and, for her, suddenly changing the name she’d had her whole life seemed “weird.”
“I’m 25 years old and I’ve had my last name the whole time, so it feels funny to say, ‘OK, since we’re married, I’m going to take your name now.’ ”
Besides, she said, the surname of her husband, Dylan Mellenthin, is more difficult to spell and pronounce. Going from a name she never has to spell — other than the occasional correction from “Greene” — to a name she’d have to spell for strangers all the time played into her decision.
They haven’t settled on whether possible future children would have the last name Green or Mellenthin.
“‘This is so hard,’” she said, imitating a child trying to spell Mellenthin in kindergarten. “I know. Sorry. Talk to your dad.”
As long as having a different last name doesn’t complicate everyday life — and so far, she said, it hasn’t — she’ll stay Nicole Green.
‘We’re trying to figure out what the new way is’
Weston Clark, 38, Salt Lake City
As they waited in line at the county clerk’s office with hundreds of other couples on the day same-sex marriage became legal in Utah, Weston Clark and his soon-to-be husband, Brandon Mark, realized something: They hadn’t given much thought to what they’d do with their last names.
“Because marriage wasn’t really legal, I guess it didn’t really cross our minds,” Clark said. “We‘re both men, so traditionally in growing up we always assumed no matter what happened, we would be keeping our last name.”
Untethered from expectations often placed on heterosexual couples, each of the men decided to keep his own last name.
“My husband’s last name is Mark, so the hyphenated version of that is really bad,” Clark said. “We talked about [hyphenating] but it was like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of a horrible combination.’ ”
Though Clark said he has reconsidered their decision once or twice, he ultimately feels it was part of a process he and his husband have grown used to — bucking tradition and forging new paths.
“I certainly have felt that it makes me a little sad that on paper we don’t have that unifying name,” he said. “We’re trying to find new ways to present to the world that we’re a family and I think that used to be the way to do it; is you all became the same last name. We’re trying to figure out what the new way is, and I don’t know that we have.”
A decision ‘about my future family’
Shaela Grange, 30, Tremonton
When Shaela Wall changed her surname to Grange after her 2007 wedding, she felt her new name represented gains in her life — a symbolic way to mark joining a new family.
It also was an opportunity to “designate the new family that I was creating, which is why I chose to get married — so I could have a family of my own,” she said. “I looked at it more about my future family, not giving up part of my family that I grew up with.”
Since then, having the same last name as her husband, Tyler, and their three children has helped build a sense of unity and identity, she said. She also likes the simplicity of it.
“I like that my children and I all have the same last name as my husband just for practical reasons,” she added. “It makes things easy.”
Her husband taking her surname would have provided similar convenience and connection, Grange said, but the option “wasn’t really on the table.” Part of the reason was tradition; but it also didn’t make sense because her husband is the only man who can carry on his family name. She has a brother who can pass the Wall name on to future generations.
As it turns out, the Grange line could stop with Tyler and Shaela if their three daughters take the traditional route when they marry.
“I am not opposed to one of my girls one day keeping their maiden name and passing that on to their family if that’s something that they choose to do,” she said. “It is kind of cool to be able to pass that name on. But I will totally leave that up to them, I think, because it’s a personal decision.”
Finding a new combination
Lena AlRayess-Dumas, 32, Taylorsville
Lena AlRayess-Dumas went through a phase of hating her last name, Al-Rayess. People couldn’t pronounce it or spell it.
But when she was ready to get married in 2015, she changed her mind. Her last name had become part of her identity, and she wanted to keep it and the connection it gave her to her Middle Eastern heritage.
Her father is from Syria, and “without my last name, people don’t know I’m Middle Eastern. I don’t look Middle Eastern,” said AlRayess-Dumas, who works in the College of Social Work at the University of Utah.
But also wanting to have the same last name as her kids, she talked with her husband, Kyle, about creating a new name by hyphenating their surnames. He was supportive, she said. “I don’t honestly think I could have married someone who wasn’t at least open to that idea,” she said.
They played around with multiple combinations. They considered dropping the “Al” from her last name, which indicates that her father is the firstborn son of the firstborn son. Ultimately, they landed on AlRayess-Dumas.
“Now, when I start spelling it, I’m like, ‘It’s going to take a while, just so you know,’” she said.
‘Not as dramatic as people would maybe think’
Andria McQueen, 39, Draper
Before she got married, Andria McQueen assumed she would take her husband’s last name. But one day during her engagement, she decided she didn’t really feel like it.
“It’s not as dramatic as people would maybe think it would be or would want to make it out to be,” McQueen said, saying she remembered having one conversation with her fiance during a car ride more than 13 years ago.
The inconvenience of changing her name weighed into her decision, she said. Besides, she liked her last name better than his: Cook.
The way they met is more fun to share: At a party in Virginia, Dave Cook described being drugged and robbed in Istanbul.
“I was listening to his story and I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I was drugged and robbed on a bus in Thailand!’ ” she said.
When the couple married, someone changed her last name automatically in records of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but switching it back wasn’t difficult, she said.
Since the couple moved to Utah four years ago, she said, various clerks in Mormon wards, or congregations, have changed her name to match her husband’s, but have fixed it at her request.
Occasionally, people mistakenly call her husband Dave McQueen — “it just depends on which of us people meet first” — but she said it’s not a big deal. Once, a neighbor asked her how keeping her last name worked, legally.
“You do nothing,” she said. “You just don’t change your name.”
‘Such a messy process’
Kyle Poulter, 34, North Salt Lake
When Kyle Poulter married his wife, Sandra, in 2007, the couple hadn’t thought much about what to do with their last names.
“I don’t care if you don’t care,” Poulter recounted telling her. “It’s totally up to you. You’re the one that’s going to have to go through all this [name change] process.”
For Sandra, a native of Guatemala, the headache of changing her name on her Social Security card, driver license and bank accounts was compounded by the difficulty of immigration processes, so she decided to keep her given last name, Maldonado.
Kyle Poulter said he briefly considered making a change of his own.
“If it weren’t such a messy process, I’d totally take on my wife’s name, like hyphenate or something,” he said. “When I was looking for jobs in the Washington, D.C., area, I had a friend who works in government suggest that I put her last name on my résumé because I speak Spanish and it’s a Spanish last name.”
After seven years, Sandra decided to change her name to match her husband and three children while filling out her citizenship application. But three years later, Kyle Poulter said, most of her documents still haven’t been switched over — and might never be.
Though he said the door is still open on hyphenating their last names, “I just don’t know that we care enough to go through the hassle.”
‘His name was never my name’
Jean Esplin, 53, Salt Lake City
When Jean Esplin married her husband in 1989, she’d known for a long time that she didn’t want to change her name.
But Esplin was afraid of the reaction from her mother, who was “pretty conservative about that kind of thing.” So she took the traditional route — and regretted the decision immediately.
Her regret continued throughout the marriage, because she felt the name was an inauthentic part of her identity. Five years later, things came full circle.
“As soon as I got divorced,” she said, ”I changed it back so fast it would have made your head spin.”
But the name came back to haunt her when she returned to Utah from Arizona in 2014. The Beehive State required her to provide her divorce decree from that state before it would issue her a driver license with her maiden name.
The decree “was so old that they didn’t even have it online. It was on microfiche, so I had to pay a big fee to get a hard copy,” she said, laughing. “I never wanted the name in the first place.”
Esplin said she’s happy knowing she’ll never go through another name change. “I feel a sense of identity. That’s my name,” she said. “His name was never my name.”
This story was informed by sources in the Utah Public Insight Network. To become a news source for The Salt Lake Tribune, go to bit.ly/PINTribune