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Women keep their names after marriage for more than feminist reasons

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Leah Mary Allen Christensen and Walker Bennett in Sedona, Ariz. (Courtesy of Leah Mary Allen Christensen)

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Shauna Rae Foster and her husband Domingo Contreras, one of the growing number of mixed-name couples in the United States. (Courtesy of Shauna Rae Foster)

Cara August has always enjoyed her identity as a self-described “mutt.” On St. Patrick’s Day, August says, she embraces her mother’s Irish ethnicity. On Casimir Pulaski Day, a holiday observed in Illinois to commemorate a Polish Revolutionary War soldier, she’s “very Polish,” paying homage to her father’s culture. August boasts that she can also curse in German, Greek and Spanish, and that she even has a bit of English and French blood in her.

But when she is married next year, August will not be embracing an eighth ethnic identity. She has agreed to take her Dutch fiancé’s last name--sort of--by taking just his last initial. After their wedding day, the bride will be called simply “Cara B.,” and not Mrs. Buikema.

“If I kept his last name, I just know it would bring with it ideas about me that are not true,” said August, 23, from Orland Park, Ill. “There are cultural and religious implications – for example, I don’t want it to be assumed I’m Christian Reform because I have a Dutch last name. Their personal belief system differs from mine. I just really want to be me.”

In the past, women who declined to take their husbands' names might be considered careerists or feminists. Today, a new breed of women who cling to their maiden names is emerging, and it’s one that did not grow up with Gloria Steinem as a symbol of female independence. It is a generation of women who have been raised to be proud of their ethnic identities and are reluctant to sacrifice the strong cultural connections they feel to their family names.

In medieval times, people took the name of the higher-status spouse when they married, according to Stephanie Coontz, historian and the author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage.” If a wife was wealthier than her husband, he took her name or they kept separate names. By the time America was settled, this tradition became unusual, Coontz said. The majority of women changed their names right up until the 1970s women’s movement encouraged women to seek new roles outside the home.

Coontz is not surprised women in recent years are keeping their names for ethnic reasons rather than feminist ones.

“Once you cease from being a man’s property, you lose the need to assert it,” she said. “We now have this tremendous diversity in America and there are advantages to celebrating your identity.”

Cristina Lucia Stasia, president of the Lucy Stone League, an organization that defends a woman’s right to keep her name, agrees. “Unfortunately, most weddings revolve around picking the perfect flowers and dress,” she said. “People lose sight of how difficult it can be for a woman to change her name and to feel she’s losing her cultural identity after marriage.”

Leah Mary Allen Christensen, 26, wasn’t born with her Danish last name, but that didn’t stop her from taking matters into her own hands. At 19, she reclaimed her mother’s Danish maiden name, Christensen, as her own, and shifted her father’s last name, Allen, to middle-name status. Following her name change, she wrote a Danish cookbook and started learning to speak Danish.

“I resented the fact that when my mom got married she dropped her Danish name,” Christensen said. “Because of tradition, my sister and I lost out on an identity.”

The Ontario-born writer, who currently resides in Sedona, Ariz., didn’t waste time letting her future husband, Walker Bennett, know she had no intention of taking his name. After meeting through an online writing group, the couple became intrigued by each other’s cultures. Bennett, an American who speaks fluent Russian, introduced Christensen to Russian singers like Alla Pugacheva. Christensen inspired her husband to decorate one of their house plants with Danish Christmas decorations.

The couple wed six months ago and is planning a second wedding in Canada, where a Danish kransekage, a cake made of baked marzipan rings, will serve as their wedding dessert. Christensen says Bennett was supportive of his new wife’s decision to keep the name she had worked so hard to acquire.

“He is proud of me,” Christensen said. “It upsets us both greatly how many women toss their ethnic names aside, for the sake of tradition.”

Like Christensen, Karena Aslanian was saddened by the loss of her mother’s Italian maiden name. In 2006, the 36-year-old student from Davis, Calif., didn’t just legally change her last name to di Benedetto, in honor of her Sicilian ancestors. She also replaced her first name with a more Italian-sounding one: Chiara.

“I went through all the time and expense to change my name,” di Benedetto said. “It would be a shame to get married and just drop it!”

She says her fiancé of two years, a Briton whose last name is Brown, is thrilled that she’ll be keeping her name--and adding his with a hyphen. When they marry, the couple’s wedding feast will be Italian. They watch Italian movies and plan to travel to Italy. But di Benedetto is willing to compromise. A student at the University of California, she is studying to become an Italian teacher and, afterwards, plans to pursue a PhD in Italian–in Brown’s native England.

“It’s not a charged issue for us,” she said. “If all goes well, our kids will spend their early years in England and learn his culture as well.”

In some relationships, one partner needs more time to get used to a departure from tradition. When Shauna Rae Foster told her Dominican-American fiancé, Domingo Contreras, she didn’t want to give up her Irish, Danish, and Czech last name, he seemed annoyed, she said. He feared they wouldn’t have the same attachment as other married couples unless she took his name.

“I couldn’t imagine life without my name, but I didn’t realize how important it was to Domingo,” said Foster, 23, a student from Omaha, Neb.

For this couple, compromise was the solution. Contreras relocated from New York City to Nebraska for his fiancé, and Foster is taking Spanish classes. She said she has become more open-minded about Latin music and incorporating Dominican foods into her corned beef and cabbage dinners. When they get married, Foster has decided to add his last name to hers.

“As a girl, I would always write my name with my current crush’s last name,” Foster said. “But as an adult I feel that, without my maiden name, I would lose a piece of my individuality and a piece of myself.”

E-mail: lc2444@columbia.edu