Should You Take Your Husband's Last Name?

Let me start by saying, I have always found the institution of marriage in America to be perplexing along with the many traditions that seem to go along with that particular swan song. 

For instance, there is the herd of single ladies that gather to catch a bouquet of flowers in the hopes of being named “next.” Gag.

Of course there is the carrying of the new bride over the threshold that should just as well be fingers down my throat since the majority of young couples today have carried many a grocery bag and Ikea product over that threshold for a couple leases before they decide to no longer “live in sin.”

Although many customs still make me squirm, over the years and into my (ahem) thirtieth year, I’ve wrapped my head around my own definition of marriage. For me it is the place where love and partnership collide. Yet this particular union, which by definition represents the blending and merger of two distinct people, still has a particular stigma for women when it comes to the post marital decision of last name.

Over 90% of women today decide to take their husband’s last name and that number has, bizarrely enough, been steadily climbing since the 1980s. Although so many wonderful strides have been made in equality for women over the years in almost every facet of society, research shows there is still a certain perception that women who do not take their husbands last name are “less committed” to the relationship.

After finding a human you can simultaneously trust as your life time road dog who also gives you butterfly’s every time they walk into a room, you’d think the hard part was over, right?

Wrong. 

There are decisions to be made ladies and gentlemen, and I am not talking about bridesmaid dress color, wedding venue or cake choices.  I am talking about how you will identify yourself by name as a couple … for the rest of your given days. 

No pressure.

My own current love: partnership junction is a full balance of lustrous sparks and real life hiccups alike and we surely seem to be dancing (sometimes wobbling) down the path to marriage land.

Insert my Sicilian mother’s voice with a molasses thick Boston accent here, “It’s almost fo-wah years now Shannon, I certainly hope so.”

Thank you for clarifying, Ma. 

Family, friends and society aside the last name post marriage decision is one that looms and lingers for many of us ladies in the very near distance. 

Does taking my husband to-be’s last name make me a terrible feminist? Sometimes I think quietly to myself, “Would I ever be able to look Ms. Gloria Steinem in the eye if I give up my last name? Would she make me throw away my copy of Ms. magazine and hand me a copy of Cosmo in its place? ”

Insert dramatic pause here.

If we choose to hyphenate our last name, which logically makes sense in that there are two humans joining together in partnership and is customary in so many other cultures, are we dooming our offspring to lifelong ridicule? Will our children be defined by an annoyingly long and blasphemously politically correct family name, develop a complex and hate us forever?

Another intense pause.

But in all seriousness, does taking on a new last name mean that I am giving up my own identity?  From “I do” forward, am I defined only by my relationship with another human?  The thought of giving up an individuality that I have built for thirty years personally and professionally just doesn’t feel… right. 

In March, Guardian columnist Jill Filipovic's piece, "Why Should Married Women Change Their Names? Let Men Change Theirs," created a great deal of buzz around the issue.  In the article, she argues that in 2013 is it essentially absurd for women to give up the “most basic marker of their identity.”

She points out that, “Identities matter, and the words we put on things are part of how we make them real. There's a power in naming that feminists and social justice activists have long highlighted. Putting a word to the most obvious social dynamics is the first step toward ending inequality. The invention of the term "Ms" shed light on the fact that men simply existed in the world while women were identified based on their marital status.”

Yet after intensive research on the subject, Harvard Economics professor, Claudia Goldin, has a different theory. She believes it is the gains that women made over the past few decades that may have led to the recent decline of women keeping their maiden name.

“Where once a woman keeping her own name after marriage was a way to make a statement of equality for women, that is less important today, when many women enjoy equal access to education, jobs, and relief from the traditional structures that kept them in the home,” Goldin said.

However, Filipovic believes that women who change their name are in many cases merely choosing the “path of less resistance.” Today 50% of Americans believe women should take their husband’s last name and the vast majority of women do. It is certainly more socially acceptable and palatable to the masses, but going with the current in this particular situation is possibly more detrimental than it seems. 

The roots of this tradition are in fact quite disturbing. The legal concept of coverture came from England and caught on in 19th century America: the idea was that a woman, upon marriage, becomes the property of her husband. Marital rape remained legal in many US states through the 1980s. It is in fact a fairly new found idea that a woman retains her own separate identity from her husband, and that a husband doesn't have virtually unlimited power over a woman he marries. 

Flipipovic points out “When women see our names as temporary or not really ours, and when we understand that part of being a woman is subsuming your own identity into our husband's, that impacts our perception of ourselves and our role in the world. It lessens the belief that our existence is valuable unto itself, and that as individuals we are already whole. It disassociates us from ourselves, and feeds into a female understanding of self — we are defined by our role as someone's wife or mother or daughter or sister.”

But Goldin maintains that women today grew up in households that had a much better representation of equality than their mothers and grandmothers so the urge to make a point of keeping their last name is not as tenacious as the previous generation. 

“There's an inner urge to bond — and [there are] crazy glues that bond people together. Sharing a name is one of them," Goldin said.

There are a plethora of opinions and resources that map out the positive and negative points alike.

The “Last Name Project” website is loaded with personal stories and is a self-described safe place where couples can discuss in open forum their last names decisions. Cross branded with “The Feminist Mystique” the site is a place to discuss becoming “Two to one: Reflections on marriage, faith and feminism.”

There is also a site called “Name That Bride,”  is basically a pro name change site but has gathered some interesting information on the debate.  It also has resources like checklist’s and “Name Change Kits.”

The short answer is: there is no answer. Every gal and couple must make her and their own decision. The sentences you have just read are a judgment-free zone. I merely write in attempt to illuminate all sides of the issue and identify it as just that, an issue, that should be pondered and not buried under the excitement of wedding planning. 

Just as the decision to get married and spend your life with someone should be a well thought out process with all pros and cons weighed, so should the decision to change your name. 

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Shannon Leocata

BS in journalism from Boston University and gender studies minor at the University of Sydney. Also has self-given degree in life studies while traveling the world as a fairly destitute English teacher. Now a marketing pundit in the spirits industry in NYC, she is best described as a curly haired policy nerd that simply finds bliss in the written word.

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