The Real Reasons Women Keeping Their Maiden Names Is On the Rise

Source: AP
Source: AP

When the news broke that actress Zoe Saldana's husband Marco Perego would take her last name, the overwhelming response was shock. Considering 71% of American men and women still believe a woman should take her husband's last name, according to a 2009 Indiana University survey, this reaction is perhaps unsurprising. But Saldana may be representative of an emerging trend rather than the exception to it. While there may not be a surge in husbands taking their wives' last name, the proportion of women keeping their own is. 

As many as 30% of recently married women are not taking their husband's last name, according to a recent Google Consumer Survey conducted by the Upshot, the New York Times reported Saturday. About 20% of women kept their own names, according to the research, while about 10% chose an alternative option, like hyphenating their name or legally changing their name but their using their original surname professionally.

The history: When suffragette Lucy Stone decided to keep her last name upon marrying Henry Blackwell in 1855, she not only set a legal precedent, but also launched a political movement. In 1921, the effort was codified with the founding of the Lucy Stone League — a group devoted to preserving women's names, according to Slate — and resurged again with the Second Wave of feminism in the 1970s. 

The number of college-educated women in their 30s who kept their names dropped 6% — from 23% to only 17% — between 1990 and 2000, according to a Harvard University study. The reason for this decline, author and professor Katie Roiphe argued in a 2004 Slate column, was less about the political waning of feminism, however, but about a more mundane reality of bureaucracy. 

Many women decide "to change their names in line at the passport office or in the post office or in a doctor's waiting room," Roiphe wrote. "They are not inspired to do it out of a nostalgic affection for tradition or some cozy idea of family or anything so charged or esoteric; they do it because giving in to bureaucratic pressures is easier than clinging to their old identity."

Source: Wikimedia

Why the resurgence? And yet, the tide is shifting. Experts often point to a generation of women reaping the benefits of previous waves of feminist action for this choice. Penn State sociology professor Laurie Scheuble, for instance, posited in the New York Times that women may be bucking "the strongest gendered social norm that we enforce and expect" due to increased college enrollment, celebrities keeping their names and pre-marital cohabitation.

But women themselves often offer disparate explanations. In April, Bustle went straight to the source and asked 100 women who kept their maiden names why they did so.

"Laziness," responded one. "I hate paperwork and it seemed like a pain in the ass."

"As a writer, my name is also my brand, so it would be like starting my career over," reported another.

The remaining reasons varied — from feminist ideology to bucking heterosexist conventions — but a common thread seems to undergird them all: Women today aren't making this decision as a deliberate feminist statement as they might have in past decades, but rather as a matter of practicality. 

"The decision now tends to be less political," the New York Times confirmed. "For many women, sociologists say, keeping their maiden names has lost its significance in defining their independence and its symbolism as a feminist act."

And yet, while women today may not directly cite feminist ideology, this choice is still inarguably the byproduct of the movement's progress. Choosing to keep one's name because of professional success, because one wants to and feels they can buck heterosexist standards, or simply because they like their name better are all products of victories in the ability to make independent choices. Whether women use the "f-word" when talking about their last names, therefore, our feminist foremothers should still be proud.

h/t New York Times

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Julie Zeilinger

Julie Zeilinger is a staff writer at Mic as well as the founder and editor of The FBomb (thefbomb.org), a feminist blog partnered with the Women’s Media Center. She is also the author of "A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word" and "College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year."

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