I got married at 21. Both my partner and I had planned to take on a hyphenated last name, but since we were married under the Civil Code of Québec, in which changing your name is separate from legal marriage, it didn’t happen right away. It’s been over four years since then, and I never got around to changing my last name—and I recently decided that I never will.
I started freelance writing about a year ago, working under my maiden name. Changing it now—when working in a field that is so dependent on personal branding, publication history, and digitally mediated relationships—could potentially be disruptive to my burgeoning career.
Simply put, I like my Google search results too much to change my name.
People change their names for a variety of reasons, but it’s mostly a concern that women are expected to navigate. For freelancers, it can be a particularly thorny issue.
Recent statistics quoted in The New York Times show that the percentage of women keeping their names after marriage is once again on the rise, after a brief dip in the more conservative ’80s. Now, 20 percent of women don’t change their name after tying the knot. Professionally, women who keep their last names after marriage are judged as being more competent (albeit less caring). Either choice seems to carry some cultural baggage.
In Cosmopolitan, attorney and writer Jill Filipovic asserted that mid-career name changes are “bad for women’s identities, their careers, and their online footprint.” For some—like writer Rachel W. Miller, who wrote about rebranding her online business after her marriage—letting go of domain names and hard-won SEO gains can be a huge challenge.
For more insight, I talked to a few freelancers to discover how they fared with the professional repercussions of changing their names.
A veteran designer and front-end developer, Fisher-Crawford has been freelancing almost exclusively for the last six years. She works with agencies and small businesses, designing and developing everything from overall branding to websites.
To clients, she’s Erica Fisher. At home, she’s Erica Fisher-Crawford.
“Not long into my career, I married into the last name Fisher, which was way more marketable—and easier to pronounce—than my maiden name,” she said. “I divorced amicably ten years and two kids later, but chose to keep my married name for the sake of my kids and to retain the name with which I’d built my career over the previous decade. I’ve continued to work under my married name ever since.”
Recently, she remarried, hence the “-Crawford.” By her estimation, her new husband “understands that keeping the name I’ve used for most of my career is important,” despite the fact that it’s from a previous marriage.
When it comes to name changes, her advice to other freelancers is to regard your name as your brand.
“You should consider how a change would affect your brand, just like a change in company name would affect that company’s brand recognition,” she said. “Social pressure to take a married name is very real, but the choice has to be yours.”
Fisher-Crawford’s experience is a good example of a potential solution: freelancing under a brand or business name instead of your legal name. There are pros and cons to either, but if a name change is on the horizon, it’s easier to have consistent identification on invoices, email signatures, and business cards.
“If I were to have changed my name at this point in my career, I would [have] to deal with a lot of extraneous work,” Fisher-Crawford said. “I really can’t say if it would have a negative impact on my career. I just know it would be a pain in the ass.”
Ali Luke, who began her freelance career as Ali Hale, started working as a writer circa 2008 as she was taking a master’s program in creative writing. In 2010, she got married and became Ali Luke.
Now, she earns most of her income from her e-books (The Blogger’s Guides) and her membership site (Writers’ Huddle), and she’s written for professional writing publications like Copyblogger, The Write Life, Write to Done, The Creative Penn, ProBlogger, and Daily Blog Tips.
Luke has found there have been some positive outcomes to changing her professional identity.
“In some ways it was handy to have a clean break from my earlier work and particularly a couple of my early, abandoned blogs,” she said. “Changing your name is also a perfectly good excuse to contact past clients, perhaps reminding them that they need some writing work done.”
There were some bumps in the road, however.
While updating social media, email, and clients can amount to a few hours work—Luke suggests doing this as soon as a name change is being considered—there are often little nooks and crannies in a professional web presence that can be easily overlooked.
“I didn’t go about this very systematically, but probably should have,” Luke said. “[I was] updating my mailing list’s ‘You’re Already Subscribed’ page recently, [and] found I still had a reference to myself under my maiden name.”
Changing your name on payment platforms can also be complex. Luke lives in the UK, but mostly works for clients in the U.S. She receives most of her payments through PayPal, which led to her biggest name hassle.
“I updated my name on my bank account with no problems but then needed to change my name with PayPal in order to make withdrawals,” she said. “It took quite a while and a fair bit of back and forth to get PayPal to make the necessary change, even though I had documentation.”
Her advice to freelancers is to make the change when a short-term cashflow disruption won’t cause a huge problem.
Though she can’t see herself changing her professional name again at this point in her career, Luke encourages freelancers considering a name change to follow their gut and make sure it’s a thoughtful, independent choice.
“If you feel you’d be happier, more ‘you’ under the new name, then change it,” she said. “Yes, it’s a bit of an administrative hassle, but once you’ve got past that brief hump, you’re using the name you want.”