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Should Women Take Their Husbands’ Last Names in 2013?

In January, a Florida man had his driver’s license revoked and was convicted of fraud by local officials for taking his wife’s name. “I did it as an act of love,” said Lazaro Dinh, formerly known as Lazaro Sopen.

“My family has plenty of men and I thought it would be cool to surprise her with the news.”

But the Florida DMV wasn’t moved.

After forcing Mr. Dinh to jump through a parade of legal hoops and make an appearance in court, the Florida DMV conceded and allowed Mr. Dinh to keeps his wife’s last name.

“We’re doing training so everyone realizes it [the name change] works both ways,” said Kristen Olsen-Doolan, spokeswoman for the Florida Department Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Even in 2013, Mr. Dinh’s decision to take his wife’s last name seemed to many rather ridiculous, even radical. Should women continue the American tradition of taking their hubby’s last names or should they rock the cultural boat?

It may surprise you to know that in many countries and regions lineage is still passed down through the mother known as matrilinealOrthodox Jews still trace lineage through the mother’s line as do the Tuaregpeople in Africa and the Minangkabau in Indonesia; the latter both Muslim. In fact, most Arabic-Muslim women keep their family names and do not change their family names to their husbands’. In Spain and many other Spanish-speaking countries, children receive both their father’s and mother’s last names which come together to form a new hybrid last name. Though traditionally the children would receive both their mother’s and father’s paternal surnames while the maternal surnames were dropped, this too is changing. So why is the U.S. so far behind?

In the 1980s and 1990s, hyphenated last names became the thing to do for many feminist-conscious young couples. But now those same couples’ children are forced with a tricky choice: Do they keep both their parent’s name or drop one when they start their own family? What if they fall in love with a person who also has a hyphenated last name? In the name of equality, are we going to have a generation 50 years from now sporting names like “William Schutzenbacker-Smith-Lawrenzo-Hall-Valdim-Macbeth-Merberg-Poindexter?” Not unless we want to. 

There are many options for the soon-to-be-married looking to shake up patrilineal tradition. Heterosexual couples would be wise to look to their same-sex counterparts and observe how they’re tackling the challenge. Without predetermined cultural rules to follow, many couples are getting creative. Some are combing their surnames into one hybrid last name, like Colby Berger and Sarah Swett did when they came up with “Swettberg.” While others are picking an entirely new last name, perhaps one plucked from way back in the family tree.

For many heterosexual women, the idea of holding onto to or preserving one’s last name is especially appealing. However encouraging the examples of matrilineal cultures above are, the truth is, for the majority of human history, women have been treated as second-class citizens with little to no autonomy. For us, the possibility of preserving our identity by not forsaking our family’s last name is empowering. It helps us know that we exist, that we existed before our husbands and outside of our husbands; however bonded we may be. That said, there’s nothing wrong with switching out a name you’ve loathed since childhood for you partner’s more appetizing upgrade.

The point is choice and compromise — perhaps sprinkled with a bit of tradition. Gay marriage is now legal in nine states and interracial marriage has been legal for almost 50 years (well, except good ‘ol Alabama where it was illegal until 2000). Point is, it’s 2013. I think it’s about time we choose our own damn last names. 

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