Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2022 Writing Contest Honorable Mention!
“Wife of Lappidoth” or “woman of flames”? Which would you rather be? The biblical Deborah, prophet and military leader, is described in Judges 4:4 as eshet lappidoth. Rendered by translators as “wife of Lappidoth,” the phrase could just as legitimately be “woman of flames” or “fiery woman” because eshet can mean “woman” or “wife” and lappid means “flames” or “torches.” Lappid is unattested elsewhere as a man’s name, simply assumed here. “Wife of Lappidoth” or “woman of flames”? Who decides, and how?
Women marrying today, at least in some countries, must make a similar choice as they decide whether to take their husband’s last name or retain their own. Presently, 70 percent of women in the United States change their names, according to a recent BBC article, with researchers attributing this tradition to the lingering effects of patriarchy or the appeal of signaling unity and commitment. Other reasons to change one’s last name include convenience, indifference, and not liking one’s birth name or its associations. Plenty of strong, empowered, self-described feminist women change their names; to do so isn’t necessarily a signal of subservience.
I just couldn’t.
When I became engaged, I didn’t particularly like my first name, but I felt attached to my last name, and I felt a dread in my stomach over the idea of changing it to my fiancé’s. How does it work in a marriage of equals, I wondered, for one party to lose something so profoundly identifying as their name, enacting the “male head of household” paradigm, seemingly absorbed or swallowed by another in the loss of their name? What does that communicate about identity or personhood? But whereas my fiancé had theoretically affirmed a woman’s right to retain her name while we were dating, it turned out that in practice he did want us to share a name, and he didn’t want to be the one to change either.
At first, strong words were spoken. We then tried to compromise with hyphenating but found it too cumbersome. In the end, he just let it go. “It’s okay,” he said. And it really has been.
That was thirty years ago! I’ve been married thirty years to this man, moved seven times, bought and sold three homes, buried a cat and a frog, and raised two precious children with him. At this milestone, with thanks to God, I can testify that—it worked for us. I mean both the specific choice to keep my name and, more importantly, the foundational commitment that this choice symbolized: marrying as equals, listening, and respecting differences.
Engaged couples still face this decision of what to do about their names. Some experience minimal trepidation or disagreement, but others no doubt feel that same ambivalence and concern that we did. Allow me to share my answers to questions I know may arise when thinking through what to do about your last name.
Is it inconvenient to keep separate names?
In some ways. Meeting new people may occasionally involve correcting as to our names. Dentists’ offices or airlines may not automatically link us in their systems. A return address label may look awkward (we hyphenate those). These incidents are uncommon, usually fixable, and easily absorbable into our routines of living.
But what about the children?
Seems like no big deal to them as well. We gave them my husband’s last name, with mine as their middle. They like both but are attached to their “own” last name as “theirs.” I understand the feeling!
Does it send the wrong message?
Certainly, having different last names cannot convey the same message as sharing a name. I’ve concluded there is no perfect choice for saying all I would wish to about personhood and relationships: that we are equal yet united and linked to two family trees. Accepting this, I just chose the option with the benefits that were most important to me. Yes, it is nice to communicate unity and commitment through the sharing of a name. But I felt, in light of the power of patriarchy in church and society, which hinders and harms both women and men, that it was more important to assert individuality and equality. Since my husband was unwilling to change his name to form a new one for the two of us to share (my preferred though still imperfect option), then each of us retaining our own name formed an acceptable second best.
But won’t people think we aren’t married?
Yes, people who don’t know us at all could very well think that. But anyone who actually meets us will get the right idea quickly. We wear wedding rings. We say, “My husband” and “My wife.” I am not bothered if people I don’t know think something incorrect about me or even judge me negatively for my choice.
Will it cause stress in the relationship?
It could. If you disagree with your prospective spouse on this topic, then how much stress depends on how important your position is to you and whether you can accept your mate as different from you in this way.
I am glad I did not go along with what my fiancé wanted simply to avoid tension. That’s not my personality, nor is it how a marriage should function. I felt it would set a horrible precedent for navigating conflict in the future. Too much “going along” would have left me depressed and bitter.
In fact, this difficult conversation got us thinking about how to deal with other conflicts throughout our marriage. A published list of biblical methods for conflict resolution helped us a lot. Among its suggestions: engage in parts reversal, jointly research the issue, pray, wait, and let the person most affected have the most say.
So, for us, the “name conversation” was a productive stressor. My husband did sacrifice his desires in deferring to me. But we have reaped a thousand-fold reward in my appreciation for the respect that he showed me, my confidence in his consideration, and my admiration for him setting aside his own wants to meet my need. For us, it formed an even more secure foundation upon which to build our marriage than the symbolism that having one name would have supplied.
Is it unbiblical?
I suspect views on this matter will correspond to one’s overall understanding of God’s intention for women and men. Does a person believe they were created to be equal partners in mutual service, or that men were created to lead and women to support them? Numerous texts can be seized upon to argue that women either should or shouldn’t change their last names upon marriage.
I’m drawn to Genesis 3:20 where Adam names his wife, “Eve, because she was the mother of all living.” While I esteem motherhood, I also find it sad to witness Adam here, after the Fall, now relating to his wife as he formerly had to the animals. He has become the actor; she, the object acted upon. I don’t want to imitate that disparity.
Would I do anything differently?
Yes, looking back; I would relax more. In the beginning, I was so anxious about losing my identity that I was hyper-aware of whether my name was known. I insisted we assert my name in situations where it really didn’t matter. Working our way through a military reception line: “. . . this is my wife, Amy Chase. . .This is my wife, Amy Chase.” Really, if we were never going to see these people again, why did we burden them with the extra details?
In my mind, I will never “be” Amy Loudermilk, but I’m fond of the Loudermilk name for its connection to my loved ones. It belongs within the inner circle of my family, so I am, in fact, associated with it, too.
I’m Amy Chase, writer, teacher, mother of Benjamin and Jane, wife of Brian Loudermilk, and eshet lappidoth.
Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash.
Bilezikian, Gilbert G., Beyond Sex Roles: A Guide for the Study of Female Roles in the Bible. (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006), 212–214.
To Change or Not to Change: How Egalitarian Couples Navigate Last Names
How I Submit to My Wife: Why a Feminist with a Hairy Chest Chose to Take His Beloved’s Last Name
Reclaiming Submission: Mutual Love and Service in the Egalitarian Marriage