Maiden Name or Married Name?

Now, here’s a controversial topic. I usually stay off them on this blog, since nothing is more likely to get the green ink brigade going. However, this time I’m going to stick my head above the parapet. What’s the beef? By which name should married women be addressed officially?

Legislating for equality

French MPs have recently voted for government bodies and other state organisations to address women by their nom de jeune fille (maiden name) by default in official correspondence. If the woman wishes to be addressed by her married name (nom de mariage) she must specifically request it.

This move is part of the male-female equality law that the Assemblée Nationale adopted this week following its first reading. (It does, of course, contain other provisions).

For several years, the French tax return has included a box that a woman can tick (I do) if she wishes to use her maiden name. But our tax bill still arrives addressed to ‘Monsieur ou Madame E’. In fact, a rule already exists that women can choose to be addressed by their maiden name. I even had a copy of it but now can’t find it.

Retaining your maiden name

I have a particular interest in this. I have never used my husband’s name. People no doubt think I’m daft and rabidly feminist but I have a practical as well as a principled reason for this. Having been married before, changed my name on marriage, jumped through numerous hoops to change it back on getting divorced, had to change bank accounts, mortgage documents, insurance policies, etc. and provide extensive proof of change of name each time – phew! – I decided to stick to what I was born with second time around.

This doesn’t stop the French authorities persisting in addressing me in my husband’s name. My French ID card (carte de séjour) has my maiden name – but it’s followed by ‘épouse E.’ My husband’s does not include a similar mention, i.e. ‘époux C’. And my fury’s uncontrolled when the Mairie writes only to my husband about matters to do with the house – which happens to belong to me. I know France is a bit behind in these matters but I thought married women were allowed to have their own property these days.

A good thing or not?

So you might think I would welcome the French parliament’s move. But actually, I don’t. Like a lot of French legislation, it’s a knee-jerk measure that goes too far to the opposite extreme of what it is trying to rectify and it’s probably unworkable in practice.

Official bodies in France should in theory have a record of a woman’s maiden and married names. But, in practice, can you imagine the administrative hassle of checking they have the right name and then transferring it to correspondence that has previously been in another name? The potential for confusion is huge. Who’s going to police this scheme and how? And what are the sanctions if official bodies get it wrong?

More important than that is the principle. Why can’t women choose how they want to be addressed from the start? Most women do still use their married name and don’t expect to be addressed by anything else. If you want to be addressed by your husband’s name (and always have been), why do you then have to make a special effort to ensure that this continues? Where is the liberté in all this?

In my view, this move was a solution looking for a problem. And it draws the focus away from the real issues to do with equality such as equal pay for the same job and, above all, culture and mind-set. They aren’t going to be solved by insisting that everyone is addressed by their birth name. But then the French government rarely neglects an opportunity to regulate every aspect of our lives.

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  1. It’s similar here too. I feel like the majority of women here in the US take on their husband’s name as well. It’s slowly changing–more and more women are questioning it and opting to keep their own. But due to tradition and patriarchal society, many women who keep their maiden name will inevitably be addressed as “Mrs. So-and-So” meaning their husband’s last name. It is a lot easier when everybody in a family has the same last name, my two friends who have gotten married took their husband’s last name. I’m not sure if I would change mine. Quite honestly, my name sounds ridiculous with anything that is not French sounding. I won’t be changing my name if my future husband has an Anglo Saxon sounding last name. Amelie Smith or Amelie Johnson I am not!


    • Patriarchal society is the right term, certainly in France and also in the States it appears. With your first name, you’ll have to marry a Frenchman, then! Or someone with a French-sounding name – there must be a few of those down in New Orleans. Or just keep your own. Much simpler.


  2. i’m quite surprised that France creates problems about keeping maiden names…I thought it was the norm (as it seems to be in Belgium), and that in the UK married women generally use their husbands’ surname…is that not the case?


    • It’s interesting that it’s the norm in Belgium because it certainly isn’t in France as far as I can see. I’ve spent much of my 16+ years in France battling to be addressed by my maiden name by the authorities. I have succeeded in some quarters but not in others. While the maiden name appears on documents such as the ID card, it is followed by ‘épouse [husband’s name]’. There is apparently some law dating back to the Revolution that says everyone should only use their birth name but it would seem that custom and practice diverge from it.

      I can’t say what happens in the UK now since I’ve been away for so long. When I married for the 2nd time in 1994 and retained my maiden name (to which I had reverted) it was unusual but the authorities didn’t turn a hair and I had no problems using it.


  3. Great post. In fact I do use my married name despite being married before and reverting to my maiden name on divorce. Both times (in the UK) it was absolutely hellish changing name but my choice was to jump through the hoops. And there’s the word … choice. It is purely personal and I totally agree that making a unilateral decision that we are all to be known by our maiden names henceforward is by definition a backwards step. One other point – in France when you divorce you MUST go back to your maiden name … they don’t like the tromperie of a woman using the name of a man she is no longer wedded to.


    • The key word, as you say, is choice and forcing women to adhere to one or the other when it comes to surnames doesn’t do much for either égalité or liberté in my opinion. I didn’t know that if you divorce in France you have to go back to your maiden name. I suppose there’s a certain logic in that but, presumably, you have to jump through all the administrative hoops to do it. While the man just stays as he was…


      • The easiest and best way would simply to be to give women the choice – choice on marriage and choice if that marriage happens not to work. We seem to be a long way from that simple landscape here – in fact I think the steps are backwards rather than forwards. hey ho!


  4. I’m with you all the way. Kept my own name when I got married, as I just couldn’t conceive of changing my identity. But the French administration (government, schools, health insurance….) arbitrarily defaults to my husband’s name. Agree there should be choice or it’s just adding layers of complexity and feels like a step back. But that is the French way!


    • It’s not easy to keep your own name in France and I have often battled with bureaucracy about it. Now, the legislation is going completely the other way – and, being France, they can’t make it simple or give people the choice. Just something we have to live with, I guess.


  5. What a great post, Vanessa. I can see how the new legisltaion is absolutely dictatorial. A pain for women who have always used their husband’s surname. I used my husband’s (Hanna) when we were first married, simply because I like it and it’s much easier for anglophones to pronounce than mine, but when we moved to Belgium all my papers were issued in mine only. His does not even appear on my passport. Then in middle age I got all individualist and decided I should really be my own person in my own right, so now I use my own all the time like most Belgian women do…just occasionally, when I feel I need to sound more anglo-saxon (like whe. I write for the Oldie) I use his…though many people, when they see it, ask if he is from the Middle East!


    • Thanks, Paola. Like you, I believe in being regarded as a person in my own right and not an adjunt of my husband, which is partly why I kept my own name when we married. Unfortunately, in France you are often seen as an appendix. One of the less appealing aspects of living here.


  6. Gosh, I can see why you decided to tackle this subject. I use both my names – my married name for everyday living and my maiden name for my writing. As I’m living with someone and not divorced from my husband, that makes for extra confusion! Re. the French attitude to women – it’s pretty archaic. But then that seems to be the way here – either they’re trail-blazing or way behind the times. As for sticking to traditions, right or wrong – phew! I put it down to the education. Now there’s another extremely controversial subject.


    • Now you are complicated! A lot of people use maiden name for professional purposes but keep married name for everyday life. As for education, there is of course a big row about gender education in France at the moment. I’m not getting into that!


  7. Hi Vanessa.. well done getting onto something controversial… It really is fun! My experience was exactly the same as yours, having changed my name to a previous husband, then gone back to my maiden name, there was no way I was doing it again. About 6 weeks before I was to marry again, and we are both rather conservative, I asked my then husband to be, over a glass of champagne, if he would like to take my surname when we married. The look of horror and shock on his face was worth it… and he responded with a definitive ‘NO, I’m not giving up my surname’. I replied, ‘well you won’t mind then if I don’t take yours.’ There was no chance then of him objecting! Take care… Kate


    • Interesting that we have had the same experience. I wish I was there to see your husband’s face when you proposed he take your name! And what a clever way to handle it. Well done.


  8. Thank you for writing this post! No marriage in sight for me just yet, but it’s interesting to see his France handles name changes (or not) after marriage.


    • France is a bit schizo about names: on your ID card your maiden name is the prominent one but they always put your married name after it. And in obituaries you often seen a woman’s name with ‘veuve [different name]’ i.e. ‘widow of’, after it. But in all other respects they expect you to use your husband’s name. So the new legislation is a complete volte-face.


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