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Great name debate: Women's choice after marriage more accepted, but still trends traditional

Tyler Tupa and Emily Tobin Tupa take in a trolley ride. A month after the couple returned from their Cancun, Mexico, honeymoon, Emily decided she was ready for a name change. Special to The Forum

FARGO - Liz and Tarver Nova knew what their last name would be once they married even before they were engaged.

Nova isn't Liz's maiden name, nor is it the surname of Tarver's family. Instead, it's a Latin word the couple chose, which means "new" and serves as a symbol of their fledgling family unit, the couple says.

"It was really important to us that we are our own family," said Tarver, a writer and department supervisor at Barnes and Noble in Fargo.

"I never felt it was fair for her to just take my name," he said.

The Novas married in September, but the decision to forego tradition in which Liz would legally assume Tarver's last name was made several years earlier.

The pair had told family and friends for years that once they were married, they'd be known as the Novas, but it's still taking some time for some relatives to get used to the idea.

"(In the beginning) some people in Tarver's family took it as a rejection," Liz recalls. "But it wasn't at all. We love his family."

And six months into their union, the Novas have no regrets about trumping tradition. But they're still in the minority.

Historically the majority of American women have assumed their husbands' surnames once married, said Ann Burnett, professor and director of the Women's Studies and Gender program at North Dakota State University.

During the women's liberation movement of the 1970s, however, more wives chose to retain their maiden names in one form or another as a way of preserving their personal identity, Burnett said.

A widely noted Harvard study of college-educated women found in 1975 that between 2 percent and 4 percent kept their names. Those numbers sharply increased through the 1970s and '80s before declining in the '90s to just below 20 percent in 2001.

But the trend remains in tradition's favor. According to recent statistics the number has decreased to just about 8 percent today, Burnett said.

"When I talk about that in my classes, that percentage holds true," Burnett said. "About 90 percent plan to take their husband's last name."

Tradition and identity

The reasons why the tradition remains the norm are difficult to pinpoint, Burnett said.

For some women, it's not worth the fight, she said. For others, it's a way to ensure their children will have the same name as both of their parents.

For Emily Tobin Tupa, a 27-year-old Fargo catering manager, the decision to take her husband's last name, while keeping her own as a middle name, didn't come easily.

When the Tupas married two years ago, Emily chose to keep Tobin and forego adding her husband's name.

"At the time, it was sort of a practical thing and a feminist-principal thing," she said.

A month after the couple returned from their Cancun, Mexico, honeymoon, however, Emily decided she was ready for a name change.

"There was something really special about it, and I don't know why," she said. "It was special to start to identify and introduce myself as Emily Tupa."

Something about changing her name helped her identify as a newly married woman and part of a new family.

"I'm still proud to identify as a feminist," Emily said. "This whole situation has taught me that this is one of those issues that's so bottom of the barrel important-wise."

Traditionally, taking a man's name was a way for a man to take ownership of his wife as property, Burnett said. It's an argument many women cite for their decision to keep their name.

"I respect all of that, but it has to be my personal decision," Emily said. "In my ideal world, we wouldn't judge any woman for what we choose to do."

What's in a name?

For everyone, a name symbolizes something different.

"A name is a name, what's the big deal? But there's a lot of emotional attachment toward your name for some people," Burnett said. "It's your nationality or ethnicity. For some people, there's a professional issue that they have been known by their maiden name."

The Novas view their name as a motto for their family. "I think they're supposed to be kind of symbolic," Liz said.

For other women, retaining their maiden name was a natural choice.

Sarah Kjos, a Moorhead woman who works as a counselor at the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center, never even thought about changing her name when she married her husband, Robbie Njos, 11 years ago.

"I don't think I really ever took very seriously the idea of changing my name," Kjos said. "I like my name. My name is who I am."

It was actually the couple's last names that brought the pair together in the first place. The pair were working together at the time, and once when filling out time cards, Njos (pronounced "Ness") spoke his first words to Kjos (pronounced "Chos").

"He said 'We should get married an hyphenate our last names,' " Kjos recalls.

The couple did eventually get married, but they chose not to hyphenate. Their two daughters are both named Kjos, but had they had a son, he would have had Njos as a last name.

The similarity of their names often has strangers jumping to conclusions, Kjos said.

"If I'm on the phone with the credit card company, my name will get changed to Njos, but Robby's name has never been changed," she said. "To me, that just wreaks of sexism. I'm 37 years old. I know what my name is."

For other women, their decision to keep their last name was more practical, as in the case of Lacey Planteen.

"I didn't want to lose my identity," she said. "I found the idea to be archaic."

But more practically, she wasn't prepared for the jokes that would follow if she did take the name of her husband, Jesse Bahls (pronounced "balls").

"I just couldn't bring myself to become Lacey Bahls," she said. "My husband was used to being the butt of every joke and completely understood my decision," she said.

Readers can reach Forum business editor

Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511