First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, Then Comes a New Gmail Address?

When a woman changes her name today, it's not just a legal matter. She'll need to rebuild her digital identity as well.

A screenshot of The Atlantic's very own Eleanor Britton nee Barkhorn's Facebook profile

Mary Margaret Fletcher had a flutter of worry recently. She’s getting married next spring, and plans to change her last name to her husband’s. But one day it dawned on her: “I was like, ‘wait,’” she said. “My last name is in my email address.’“

Fletcher, an archivist who lives in Vermont, is one of the roughly 80 percent of brides expected to drop her maiden name upon marriage. That decision has always been a mix of the personal and the practical. It requires a lot of legwork, including interaction with multiple federal agencies and a trip to the dreaded DMV. But it also forces women to think about how they’ll be perceived with a new name and, at some level, a new identity.

The proliferation of online profiles and the growing demand for digital presence has managed to complicate both aspects.

The practicalities
Fletcher's Gmail problem has an easy-enough solution. Gmail lets a user update a profile name, but not the actual email address. To do that, newlyweds have to use a workaround in which they create a new account with their new surnames, and then use a feature actually meant to combine work and personal accounts to merge the two addresses. That can take a lot of time to accomplish, and up to seven days to go into effect.

And that’s assuming the address is available. Lore has it that the competition for a reasonable married email name has become so cut-throat that some girlfriends are reserving an address with their boyfriends’ last names, just in case he pops the question.

For this story, I emailed a particularly digitally-engaged new bride I know, a social-media professional. First I received an auto-reply telling me to update my online address book. Then, I got a frantic list from her of other sites she’s wrangling with post-wedding: “Custom URLs, man,” she wrote. “Most social platforms were easy. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram let me change my URL and name, no problem. It's Pinterest that's trouble. Also, Etsy. Apparently you can't change your Etsy username... unless I want to start a new profile and lose all my purchase data.”

These things aren’t huge, of course. But they can add to existing hesitation that comes along with changing your name and, in some ways, how people perceive you. “I did think about how much of a pain it would be to change my email address and my Twitter and that kind of stuff,” Ashley Rayner, a librarian from Chicago who kept her own name when she got married last year, told me. “I know it’s small, but, ugh, it’s just another thing.”

Making a name
Studies on the culture of brides’ decisions about their last names have always shown that women with more public careers are more likely to be “keepers.” The 2004 Harvard study Making a Name found that a major jump in women keeping their maiden names in the 1970s coincided the emergence of second-wave feminism and a growing set of women who worked. “Women began to ‘make a name’ for themselves,” the study’s authors write, “and more often insisted upon retaining their name at marriage.”

Today, not only are more and more women obtaining higher degrees and becoming an influential part of the workforce, they’re also getting married later, and have an even larger digital footprint to consider. In the digital age, it’s not just the journalists and published authors out there who are considering their "bylines." Social media and the ever-growing, searchable self have opened up public personalities for nearly everyone, particularly young professionals.

Michael Fertik, the founder of the digital personality management site, calls this “digital equity,” and he finds a lot of clients who seek his company’s services are worried about it. Largely, they are professional women. “It is certainly a community who are reluctant to give up all the equity they’ve built up in their careers, in their names, and so forth,” Fertik said.

The company has set up services to help women make the digital transition when they decide they want to drop their maiden names, or when they divorce and want to switch back. He says there’s a lot more panic around the process than there needs to be. “If a consideration is your digital findability, I think you can certainly solve this with a high degree of accuracy if you give it just a little bit of effort,” Fertik said. “I don’t think you’re going to lose all the equity.”

Have it your way.
Angel Brownawell is getting married next June. She plans on keeping her surname on her online accounts but changing it legally to match her husband’s. Her decision is prompted by a combination of factors -- a feminist attitude, wanting to be a good digital role model for the people she advises in her public relations job in Washington, DC, and the practicalities of trying to come up with a whole new set of usernames -- that are driving her to split her identity in two. “I’m still trying to figure out if that will work,” she told me in an email.

Brownawell’s approach may well become more common. After all, in the digital world, names are malleable. If you want, you can be one person on Instagram, another on Facebook, and someone totally different on the books at the Social Security Administration. It’s possible that this flexibility could be an advantage for women who want to define their professional selves outside of the private world of marriage and the family.

Rita J. Shea-Van Fossen, who co-authored a 2009 study called The Bride Is Keeping Her Name that looked at how social factors influence a woman’s decision, thinks that's the case.

“We talk about men compartmentalizing their lives -- home versus work, and having separate spheres,” Shea-Van Fossen told me. "I think for women it’s almost easier to do that now because we can use the multiple names depending on where it happens -- kids at home and school versus [work].”

In the history of name-changing, these are new possibilities, and they're taking the opportunity to experiment a bit. “Where in a lot of realms the legal status forced you to choose one from the get-go,” Shea-Van Fossen said, “now, we can say ‘oh let me keep both for a little bit’ and then make a decision.”