Since the country is facing a national election, which is, among other things, a coast-to-coast argument, I have been thinking about the peaceful image of a joining of hands, a private coming together-a wedding. Which is, of course, not an entirely private act, as it takes place in public with witnesses, and is a cause for local celebration: A new family has been created. This is good.
To love weddings you have to view them with the same attitude you bring to a play or movie, which is a complete and willing suspension of disbelief. This is sometimes hard. But I like weddings because they’re a show: I like to see everyone get dressed up and pose for the cameras. I like to notice the way the mothers of the bride and groom circle each other. I like to see Grandma and Grandpa dance. I like the toasts: the funny ones, the affectionate ones, the drunken ones.
The big change I’ve noticed lately at weddings is someone will say, “She’s taking his name.” And the older people will murmur and say, “Oh,” and nod. They don’t express approval outright, for that would be impolite to women who do not take their husbands’ names. But you get a sense they approve.
It turns out this is happening on a broader scale. A recent Bride’s magazine reader survey revealed that in 1992; 71 percent of first-time brides in their 20s said they planned to take their husbands’ names. In 1996, the number was up to 87 percent. You can even see the new style in the decisions of some young celebrities. When Pamela Anderson of Baywatch married rock star Tommy Lee, she became Pamela Lee. Model Jill Goodacre married singer Harry Connick, Jr., and became Jill Connick.
This could reflect a return to traditionalism in the Age of Martha Stewart. It could suggest a return to simplicity: It’s cumbersome to be Ms. Smith married to Mr. Jones and call your children the Smith-Joneses. It also happens to have a counterpart in the business world. When Chase Manhattan and Chemical Bank merged recently, they picked one name: Chase Manhattan, because it was more well-known. And that was despite the fact that Chemical was the bigger bank. Lesson: In any merger, taking a name is just the first of many compromises.
Or maybe taking the husband’s name marks a return to clarity. The New York Times has what one of its reporters calls “the Ferraro rule.” When Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president in 1984, she used her professional name, which was her maiden name: Ferraro. But the Times didn’t want to call her Miss Ferraro because she was a Mrs., married to John Zaccaro. Except, she didn’t go by Zaccaro. So the Times invented a new formula: A married woman who uses her maiden name gets a Mrs. to go with it. Thereafter, Geraldine Ferraro was referred to as Mrs. Ferraro.
This rule was explained to me ten years ago when the Times referred to me as Mrs. Noonan. I was married; then, to Mr. Rahn but used my maiden name professionally, so at home I was Mrs. Rahn and at work, Ms. Noonan. So the Times, in the name of politeness and political correctness, had chosen to call me the one thing I wasn’t. It was odd, and amusing, and I got to tell my mother she was in the papers.
People have a right to go by what they want to go by. If you would rather retain the name your daddy gave you than assume the name your husband has, go for it.
But when I see young brides change their names and take their husbands’, I think it suggests a kind of bravery. And I suspect at least some of them are saying something through their courage.
A bride in her 20s grew up in the Age of Divorce.
As likely as not, her wedding party consists of her mom and her mom’s second husband, and her dad and his third wife. This bride and her husband know firsthand what the end of a marriage means. And they may have fewer misconceptions than their parents about how important freedom and self-actualization are. They may think other things are more important, like constancy and commitment and loyalty.
Maybe, for these brides, taking their husbands’ names is a declaration not only of intention, but of faith. Maybe they are suspending disbelief. Marriage itself is a marvelously faithful act. It shows that you have faith in yourself and your spouse, and also in life, in the ability of things to stay and grow and endure.
Which is why I suppose I find myself at weddings lately just as fascinated and entertained as ever, but also moved. And, when I hear someone say, “She’s taking his name,” I find myself nodding like the old people, and quietly thinking, Good.