I Said ‘I Do,’ Do I Change My Byline?

Illustration by Tracey Berglund

The media frenzy over actress Portia de Rossi seeking to change her name to Portia DeGeneres is sure to infuriate long-standing feminists who have fought long and hard for women to keep their maiden names. Or not?

The issue of marital name change can strike near to the hearts of women journalists who often struggle when they marry with whether to give up the bylines that they’ve worked hard at establishing.

De Rossi, 37, recently filed a petition in a Los Angeles court to legally take the last name of her famous same-sex partner, Ellen DeGeneres. California Assemblywoman Fiona Ma introduced a bill that would make California the seventh state to give married spouses and domestic partners equal opportunity to take their surname of choice. Ma says the proposal is really about “equality in relationships.”

But would pioneering feminists like Lucy Stone agree?

As a 19th century women’s rights champion, Stone advocated for women to retain their own names after marriage. The Lucy Stone League carries on her work. Its view: “A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers…my name is my identity and should not be lost.” When women take their spouses names, it is considered “name-abandonment,” but it’s such a big part of U.S. culture, few recognize it for what it is: A powerful instance of sex discrimination that has a major effect on women’s lives and work.

The issue of sex-discrimination is obviously erased when referring to same-sex couples, but it can still be similarly damaging to one’s career.

Journalists, for example, build their careers, reputations and even brands based upon their bylines, so changing one’s name can cause much confusion, particularly in today’s new-media world where content is shared at lightning speed, with little or no time for consumers to read the fine print.

But it doesn’t stop there.

According to the recent European study, “What’s in a Name? 361.708 Euros: The Effects of Marital Name Change,” women who took their partner’s name appear to be different from women who kept their own name on a variety of demographics and beliefs, which are more or less associated with female stereotypes.

A woman who took her partner’s name or a hyphenated name, for example, was judged as more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, less competent, and less ambitious compared with a woman who kept her own name.

Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi

A woman with her own name, in contrast, was judged as less caring, more independent, more ambitious, more intelligent, and more competent. This assessment was similar to how unmarried women and men (married or not) were judged in the study.

Perhaps most significantly, a job applicant who took her partner’s name, in comparison to one with her own name, was less likely to be hired for a job and her monthly salary was estimated €361.708 lower, or $1109.32.

But somehow, for Portia DeGeneres, I don’t think this will necessarily be the case.

— Lori Sokol is president of Jersey City, N.J.-based Sokol Media Inc., publisher of NY Residential, Green Matters and Work Life Matters magazines, and host of the weekly radio show, Juggling Act, on 1490AM WGCH.

— When you said ‘I do,’ did you change your byline? If you aren’t married, do you plan to? What went into your decision? The upshot?

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