The question to change or not to change a woman’s last name is a humanist issue more than a feminist one.
If you are an American woman who decides to get married, you will likely change your name. In fact, three million American women do so every year, roughly encompassing the 90 percent of women entering matrimonial bliss. This leaves the 10 percent of women who decided to keep their birth surnames, or the men who decide to change their own, navigating an interesting cultural landscape.
Stephanie Coontz is the author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage and as Coontz informs us, people in medieval times took the name of the higher-status spouse when they married. But this trend reversed itself in America when women took over exclusive rights on the name change, which eventually evolved into a legal obligation. The rise of the feminist movement in the 1970s helped to change the laws, which included “states [requiring] married women to take their husbands’ names in order to engage in basic activities such as voting and driving.”
So what urged women in the 1970s to hold onto their maiden names? In “Making a Name: Women’s Surnames at Marriage and Beyond,” Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin and graduate Maria Shim attribute this trend to age and experience. They write, “The legal, social and economic institutions supporting this custom began to shift in the 1970s: the laws that pressured women to take their husband’s names changed; the appellation ‘Ms.’ became acceptable; the age at ﬁrst marriage rose; and the number of advanced academic degrees received by women increased.”
And yet, the tendency stalled around the 1990s. As Goldin notes, the number of college-educated women in their 30s keeping their name dropped from 23 percent in 1990 to 17 percent in 2000. Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, believes this is because people are now taking marriage more seriously. He further cites University of Virginia professor Steven Rhoads as declaring “I think it will strengthen marriage. It’s a sign that someone intends it to be a unit, that this is a marriage, and it is for the duration.”
Whether Lowry or Rhoads speak for a woman’s choice certainly depends on the woman making it. Most have a personal anecdote as to why she, and sometimes he, decided to change her or his name. But ask anyone why they didn’t change her name, and you’re likely to invoke a new series of questions, including “What about your children, won’t they be confused?” And many times, “What does your husband think?” And finally, “Do you think women are anti-feminist who keep their name?” For women and men who hyphenate their two names, they might be asked: “What will your children do, hyphenate your already hyphenated names?”
What you will get is a strong opinion. A surname is about identity, and what’s more personal than that? While some might see the act of keeping a maiden name as an indication of a woman’s independence or a play for personal power, the choice is an issue that can cause unwanted criticism for wanting to retain a lifelong identity whether from family, co-workers or the society at large. Plenty of contemporary influential women have changed their name without anyone questioning their feminism. Lady Margaret Thatcher (nee Roberts) is a name changer, as is First Lady Michelle Obama. Hillary Rodham reversed her decision after her husband’s gubernatorial loss in 1980, becoming Hillary Rodham Clinton.
While this decision is personalized on many different levels, there can be some common ground. In the end, what are some of the reasons married women keep their maiden name?
The act defines our society as patriarchal.
Patriarchy is defined as “a form of social organization in which a male is the head of the family and descent, kinship, and title are traced through the male line.” Further, this is “any society governed by such a system.” We are by definition a patriarchal society because women change their names at marriage.
It’s about ethnic identification.
As Lisa Cupido writes for the Columbia News Service, Cara August was a bride who chose not to take her husband’s full name, Buikema. As Cupido writes of August, “If I kept his last name, I just know it would bring with it ideas about me that are not true. There are cultural and religious implications for example, I don’t want it to be assumed I’m Christian Reform because I have a Dutch last name. Their personal belief system differs from mine. I just really want to be me.”
The bonds of family are stronger than just a name.
When a woman changes her name after marriage, does that mean she is less of a daughter to her own mother and father? Of course not. And yet, if she doesn’t share the same name as her children and husband, is she somehow “less” of a member of that family?
A name can be a career well-earned.
A recent study from the Netherlands reveals that women who choose to adopt their husbands’ surnames may be penalized in the job market. As The New York Times reports, “Using Dutch population data, researchers at the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research found that there were demographic differences between women who chose to take their partners’ names and those who did not.” Participants were asked to judge hypothetical women who had changed their names and those who had not. The study showed that people thought that a woman who changed her name to her husband’s was “more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, less competent, and less ambitious in comparison with a woman who kept her own name.” Conversely, women who did not change their name were “judged as less caring, more independent, more ambitious, more intelligent, and more competent, which was similar to an unmarried woman living [with her partner] or a man.” Ultimately, many women feel that their names, often steeped in a hard-won reputation in the workforce, are not tags they are willing to give up at marriage.
The bureaucratic pressures to change your name aren’t as strong as one might think.
In “The Maiden Name Debate,” Katie Roiphe writes that many women change their names not out of “a nostalgic affection for tradition” but “because giving in to bureaucratic pressures is easier than clinging to their old identity. In a mundane way, having the same name as your children is easier.” But many children do not share their mother’s names for other reasons, especially if their mothers have divorced or remarried. Schools, doctor’s offices, and other institutions are more equipped to handle this than one might assume.
There are other options.
Some women choose to hyphenate their last name with their husbands. Others keep their maiden name as their middle name. And some combine their surname with their husband’s to create a whole new name.
The choice is not gender equal.
Finally, some men take their wives’ surnames. Lucy Stone, an antislavery and suffrage activist, is thought to have been the first U.S. woman to keep her name when she married in 1855. Later, 1920s feminists formed the Lucy Stone League which, after some lulls, still exists today. The Lucy Stone League supports equal rights for women AND men to retain, modify, and create their own names, as well as equality in patrilineal and matrilineal distribution of names for children.
Why, might you ask, does an organization exist today when name changing is such a common practice among women? As FOX News reports, male equality does not exist in this choice. According to FOX, “when signing a marriage certificate, a woman has a choice to write in what her new last name will be. However, only six states — Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New York, and Delaware — have the same option for men to change their name. “ They cite a recent court case in California where a man who wished to take his wife’s name faced much higher court fees and bureaucratic hassles. Further, “A man in California must advertise his plan to change his name change for four weeks in a newspaper, as well as get approval from a judge.”
So, yes, there is yet to be equality for this choice under the law. And it seems that the question to change or not to change is humanist issue more than a feminist one.