Keep her own name. Take his. Take his and make hers a middle name. Take his legally but use hers professionally. Hyphenate. These are just five of the plethora of options from which women can choose regarding what to do with their last names after marriage. The options are so numerous that deciding what to do becomes a stressful task for a new bride. The factors that she must take into account while making her decision do not alleviate the stress either — in a “Dutch study published in Basic and Applied Psychology in 2010, hypothetical women who took their husband’s names were judged as more caring, dependent and emotional, while those who kept their names were seen as smarter and more ambitious.” So how should she choose?
Keeping one’s maiden name was born out of feminist philosophy in the 1850s. The practice was first introduced by U.S. suffragette Lucy Stone. In the 1920s, members of the Lucy Stone League began to adopt this practice, and the feminist movement of the 1970s popularized it. It was a way for women to declare that they were equal to men.
But strangely, as women were getting better access to education and workplace equality, the percentage of women keeping their last names after marriage began to decline. In 1990, 23% of women kept their last names, but only 17% did in 2000. And now a new Facebook study says that number is on the rise again. So what’s going on here? (If one clicks the links, one will actually see that the article titles show conflicting conclusions.)
After reading over ten articles on this topic, here’s what I’ve “concluded”:
1. It could be a generational difference.
According to a 2010 study in Names: A Journal of Onomastics, “women who married when they were 35 to 39 years old were 6.4 times more likely to keep their names than those who married between 20 and 24.” Only 62% of new brides in their 20s choose to take their husband’s names, while that figure increases to 74% for those in their 30s, and 88% for those in their 60s. Maybe the women who are older are more traditional. Or maybe, as president of the Lucy Stone League, Dr. Christina Lucia Stasia, suggests, “it’s that they’re conditioned from the day they were born to think that, as women, it’s their job to take their husband’s last name.” (Sounds like an explanation I’d expect from Mary Wollstonecraft.)
2. It could be that women are embracing feminism (again).
Ashley Lauren S. wrote that keeping her name was the best decision she made in her marriage. She implied that taking her husband’s name didn’t seem fair because it would signify that she was becoming part of him, while he wasn’t part of her. Another explanation could be that there is less perceived backlash against feminism now — Angela McRobbie, author of The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change, suggested that women who are now in their 30s were more fearful of the retaliation against feminism than the younger generation. Moreover, some women believe that taking their husbands’ names would symbolize the shedding of their identity in exchange for another.
3. It could be a career thing.
Harvard Professor of Economics Claudia Goldin suggested in 2004 that there is a positive correlation between the age of first marriage and the tendency to keep one’s maiden name. Indeed, with better education leading to better career opportunities, women are getting married later in life. She argued that “education and later marriage provide women with a greater opportunity to make a name for themselves in the workplace.” Today, the average age of first marriage for women is 27-years-old, while it was 23 in 1990. Consequently, women are independent for longer than before, and this, she suggested, “[allowed] women to create an identity that they may be reluctant to give up.” Unsurprisingly, women with higher-income careers, and those working in medicine, the arts, or entertainment are the most likely to keep their maiden names — fields in which self-branding is essential to success.
4. It could be related to the prevalence of social media.
This is probably a corollary to #3. Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks makes self-branding easy. Some journalists, like Christiane Amanpour, are very visible figures on television with well-established names in the field. Kim Kardashian was still a Kardashian after she got married (fortunately, seeing how she wound up divorcing him anyway). Maria Shriver did not become Maria Schwarzenegger. Changing their names might confuse the public. Especially now that many women have accomplished and established careers by the time they marry, such as becoming a partner in a law firm or a well-published writer, changing everything affiliated with all that a woman’s accomplished under her maiden name is a tedious task.
5. It could be for practical reasons.
Not all women have the fortune of marrying just once and having it last forever. Some marry a number of times (think Elizabeth Taylor). Changing their names after they get married, and then changing it back after getting divorced, and then changing it again when they get remarried, would probably make their brains explode. On the flip side, some women may choose to change it simply because their maiden names were too hard to pronounce. Others think that it’d be easier to have everybody under the same name, especially when they have children.
Or it could be a combination of all of the above, which really isn’t a conclusion at all. But different women make different decisions for different reasons. A lot of women see changing their names as a way to show their commitment and a sense of oneness, but still consider themselves feminists, while others, undoubtedly, would argue that there is no relation between commitment and name-changing. But it could just be that those who do make the change are more influenced by, as University of Florida Professor Diana Boxer explained, “an uptick in the cultural emphasis on romance.”
Whatever the woman’s decision is, I believe that we should respect it, such as by writing “Ms. Jane Doe and Mr. John Smith” instead of “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith,” and by introducing them as “Jane Doe and her husband John Smith” if she chooses to keep her maiden name.
On a side note, it doesn’t seem fair to me that men don’t have to worry about this. In a recent poll conducted by YouGov, 61% of respondents (male and female) said that “women should take their husbands’ last names, while less than half said a man should be ‘allowed’ to take his wife’s instead (and 34% said men should not be allowed to do so).” Perhaps it’s because of this clinging to the tradition of female subservience that feminism is on the rise again.
On another side note, I expect to see some studies on name-changing in same-sex marriages in the near future. Only one of the articles that I came across mentioned gay couples, and even then, the discussion barely amounted to three sentences.