What's in a name?
Ask Gwendolyn Malone Rhodes. She's had a lot of them.
Born Gwendolyn Malone, she took her first husband's name and became Gwendolyn Smith. After they divorced, she kept her ex-husband's surname because she wanted to share a last name with her two daughters. When one of the girls asked why she hadn't changed her name back to Malone, she did just that.
When she entered her second marriage, to Dr. Robert Rhodes, 17 years ago, she decided to go by her maiden name and a combination name.
At work, it's Malone. Socially, it's Malone Rhodes.
"It's not clean at all," the West Bloomfield, Mich., resident admits. "My travel name and my social name is Gwen Malone Rhodes. And my e-mail is Malone. My driver's license says Gwen Malone Rhodes. Social Security card is Gwen Malone."
She figures she'll straighten it all out before she retires.
When it comes to names, couples have a lot to think about. While it is still common for a woman to take her husband's last name and drop hers, these days, there are all kinds of other possibilities: The wife keeps her name and adds her husband's name; the wife hyphenates the two names, making it one long last name; the wife just keeps her original surname, or the husband adds the wife's surname to his last name.
Getting the name — or name combo — just right can have major implications for the relationship, experts say. If a woman decides to stick with her original surname, hubby might see it as a snub. Change to the husband's last name, and the woman might feel like she's lost her identity.
According to the Knot Wedding Network's 2009 Real Weddings study, which surveyed more than 21,000 U.S. couples who were married that year, 86 percent of brides are still taking their husband's names.
Amy Eisinger, editor for WeddingChannel.com, says name blending — when the couple combines their last names — is gaining popularity, however.
Sharon R. Williams, 54, has been married for 25 years; she never took the surname of her husband, Charles L. Jackson Jr.
"It was not necessarily a political statement, but a personal statement," says Williams, who is the CEO of a health care plan. "I didn't need to change my name to show that someone loved me enough to marry me and gave me their last name."
Over the years, people have questioned whether Williams and her husband are really married. Others question her commitment to her husband. Williams has learned to use humor in dealing with the inquiries: "If he had some fabulous last name like Ferrari," she'd change her name in a heartbeat.
Still, women who think it's just easier to keep their own name might be in for a surprise. Williams sure was when she had to take her marriage license to an IRS office to prove she and her husband were married.
"So, I can't be legitimately married because I didn't change my last name?" she asks. "That's when it becomes political, because folks are challenging you because you aren't going along with the norm."
Jackson, 54, a restorative justice specialist, says he wanted his wife to keep her last name.
"It means something," Jackson says. "The name Sharon Williams had some meaning in the community, and I'm sure in her family. She had her own reputation."
Jackson says the person who spoke out the most about Williams not taking his name was her grandmother. He says the grandmother, now deceased, made checks out to "Sharon Jackson."
In the case of divorce, the name game gets trickier.
If the woman takes her husband's name, gets divorced and wants to go back to her original surname, she'd better be sure to ask for it back during divorce proceedings.
Malone Rhodes learned that the hard way. The day after her daughter asked why she hadn't changed her name, she went to a Secretary of State branch with her birth certificate and divorce decree.
When she was told that she needed to have proof that a judge said she could have her name back, she was angry.
"We kept going back and forth at the counter," Malone Rhodes recalled. "It was a Friday afternoon, very crowded, and she decided she was not going to fight with me and she processed the paperwork."