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07.27.10

Will Chelsea Change Her Name?

Chelsea Mezvinsky might be more comfortable for a woman who’s made a point of avoiding the limelight, though Chelsea Clinton might be more helpful on a business card. Samuel P. Jacobs on the tense considerations.

With mere days to go until Chelsea Clinton, Bill and Hillary’s 30-year-old daughter, ties the knot with hedge funder Marc Mezvinsky, the press has more questions than answers: What will the dress look like? Who will attend? Is it really all going down next door to Annie Leibovitz?

But there’s one question which looks beyond the frenzy, over the nuptials, past the honeymoon, and into the broad American horizon: Will Chelsea Victoria Clinton keep her name?

“I learned the hard way that some voters in Arkansas were seriously offended that I kept my maiden name,” Hillary wrote in her memoir.

“You can bet on it that she will,” said New York political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign in 1996.

The considerations must be tense. For a woman who has made a point of avoiding the limelight, would Chelsea Mezvinsky be a more comfortable handle? For someone who might come around to a more public role in the future, might Chelsea Clinton be more helpful on a business card? It’s tough to say what resonance the Clinton name will have in 20 years. For the time being, Bill Clinton may be trading in his reputation as a lady-killer for one as a statesman. (His approval rating is at 61 percent, besting both Barack Obama and George W. Bush.) And Hillary has added luster to the surname in her service as secretary of state. Mezvinsky isn’t exactly a fresh start: Marc’s father, Edward, a former Democratic congressman, spent five years in the pokey for fraud.

A survey of the sorority of first daughters presents two predictable options. Susan Elizabeth Ford, daughter of Gerald, held onto the patronym. Amy Lynn Carter, Jimmy’s only daughter, who married in 1996, avoided her husband’s name. (It is Wentzel.)

Dropping the president’s name has been a sign of protest: Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis, remembered for posing in Playboy, took Nancy Reagan’s maiden name instead of the Gipper’s. Caroline Kennedy stayed a Kennedy when she married designer Edwin Schlossberg. Richard Nixon’s daughters, Julie Nixon Eisenhower and Tricia Nixon Cox, went halfway, accepting their husbands’ names and moving the family name into the middle. Dorothy Bush Koch, daughter of George H.W. Bush, married in 1992 and kept up the middle-way tradition. So did the most recent first daughter to wed, Jenna Bush Hager.

But this mishmash of possibilities does illustrate the quandary facing wives-to-be in certain social circles. Even after many waves of feminism have crashed onto our shores, the vast majority of American women still take their husband’s name. A university study conducted in 2009 found that 70 percent of respondents said a wife should do just that. Yet the costs of trading Ms. for Mrs. are greater than stationery for some. Psychologists at the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research in the Netherlands announced this spring that women who go by their husband’s name earn on average $1,500 less per month than their sisters who stuck with their maiden names.

“The challenge today is that there really aren’t any rules anymore. There are almost too many options, which makes it harder because every little decision is so open,” said Caroline Tiger, the author of The Newlywed’s Instruction Manual. “You really have to think about everything. It’s tough in [Chelsea’s] situation because her last name is so recognizable and comes with so much baggage, good and bad. It’s basically a brand in our culture.”

Chelsea might look beyond the first daughter clique and take a cue from her future mother-in-law, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, the former Pennsylvania representative who hyphenated her name when she married Mezvinsky in 1975. That path, said Tiger, is becoming passé.

No matter what she decides, Chelsea should also take a note of her mother’s peculiar name odyssey.

When Bill and Hillary said “I do” in 1975, somewhere between 2 and 4 percent of brides kept their maiden names. Hillary was one of them.

“It showed that I was still me,” Hillary said, according to Carl Bernstein’s biography.

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Around Little Rock, Hillary remaining Hillary Rodham struck some as a put-on for the lawyer from up north, with her hippie clothes and Wellesley manners. During Bill’s 1980 reelection campaign, her name became a weapon for the opposition, as the Republican candidate Frank White made a point of introducing his wife as “Mrs. Frank White.”

“I learned the hard way that some voters in Arkansas were seriously offended that I kept my maiden name,” Hillary wrote in her memoir. “…I was an oddity because of my dress, my Northern ways, and the use of my maiden name.”

With Bill running again for the governor’s seat in 1982, Hillary Rodham finally became Hillary Rodham Clinton. She gave into some family pressure, too: Even Hillary’s mother directed her letters to “Mr. and Mrs. Bill Clinton.” Shucking her maiden name, Hillary was moving in the opposite direction of American women, who were refusing their husbands’ surnames with greater regularity in the 1970s and ’80s. Of course, the name game didn’t stop there for Hillary Rodham Clinton. By the time she returned to the campaign trail in 2007 as the principal rather than the candidate’s wife, both Rodham and Clinton seemed to disappear altogether. Now running for president, she was just “Hillary,” a one-name phenomenon. It was an obvious effort for the former first lady to stand on her own two feet.

“When a multiple-ton elephant is chasing you down the road, you cannot run fast enough, so how do you get away from it?” asked Sheinkopf. “The Clinton name is like that. You can’t get away from that. In order to win, you can try to establish your own identity.”

If Hillary’s decision to keep her name was an act of rebellion against society’s norms, Chelsea might have to make the opposite choice to pull off a similar effect. Still, becoming Chelsea Mezvinsky would put her in line with many of her peers. According to a study conducted by Harvard economist Claudia Goldin in 2004, the percentage of educated women in their 30s who kept their name dropped during the 1990s from 23 percent to 17 percent by the end of the decade.

In the end, perhaps no marriage license or change of name will alter Chelsea’s fate.

“It doesn’t even matter because she will always be known as Chelsea Clinton,” Sheinkopf said. “She can change her name, and she will still be known as Chelsea Clinton.”

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.