Each year, approximately three million women – about 90 percent of the women who marry – change their names when they marry. They give up their maiden names (now sometimes called “birth names”) and take their husbands’ surname.
Name change is traditional. It’s expected of a marrying woman in America, and it makes it easier when meeting people and introducing each other as a married couple. Name change can also avoid any suggestion that maybe the kids were born out of wedlock.
After all, what’s in a name? One young woman who married expressed a measure of disbelief many years ago when at the end of the ceremony the minister introduced her and her husband to family and friends as “Mr. and Mrs. William T ———–.” Realizing she’d lost her first and last name in a jiffy, she thought: “Hey, what happened to Nancy?”
Most women don’t think twice about it. But for some, name change becomes a personal struggle, especially career-oriented professionals who have worked hard to establish themselves and whose names are respected and widely recognized. For some women, keeping a name is a matter of convenience, or a social convention, or a political statement.
The Lucy Stone League promotes name choice equality and advocates for women who wish to retain their own names after marriage. Lucy Stone (1818 – 1893), the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree, spoke out for women’s rights and against slavery at a time when women were discouraged and prevented from public speaking. She is also remembered for keeping her maiden name after marriage.
The League sees the name change decision as a politically charged issue with far-reaching consequences. The tradition of marital name-change by women is so much a part of American culture, but some see it as a powerful instance of sex discrimination that has a major effect on women. When young girls are growing up, the argument goes, they see surrender of their identity into the identity of another, which diminishes the incentive to develop their full identities in adolescence. Some draw the comparison to some prison cultures, where inmates are given numbers and their names are taken from them. This practice strips away a sense of importance and humanity from the inmates; the tradition of women giving up their names is equally damning.
Last year, 29.5 percent of the women in the wedding section of The New York Times kept their names, compared to 26 percent in 2000 and 16.2 percent in 1990. “The pressure is huge,” says Laurie Scheuble, who studies marital naming as a professor of sociology at Penn State.
Writing in Sister, Columbia University’s feminist magazine, Tammy Jo Eckhart says: “Surnames are one of the most powerful tools used by patriarchy to deny women not only equal rights but even personhood. Tradition is the only reason why American women have taken their spouses’ surnames, since there have never been any laws in the United States dictating which surname must be taken upon marriage. Until very recently … some women have had to go to court in order to keep their maiden name or to change back to it after divorce or widowhood. Since the 1970s, it has been established that people may legally use whichever surname they wish …. But the assumption is still there, and it is promoted in all of our minds through … the attitudes of government agencies and officials, not to mention our neighbors’ and families’ reactions to those of us who have decided to buck tradition. I’m afraid that women who change their names are blindly promoting women as second-class persons, though I suspect that they themselves don’t think they are doing this …. To me the difference is whether the woman thought about the choice – just blindly doing anything is not acceptable.”
Women with established careers and women who marry when they’re older are less likely to change their names because they’ve established a reputation with their birth name and may feel that changing it would challenge the recognition they’ve already accomplished. For example, providing references for work done in the past, a woman who has changed her name would have to ask a potential employer to use her birth name when calling her references, as her old employers or professors will not recognize her by her new last name. This creates an inconvenience that for some women outweighs the benefits of changing their name.
Some women solve this by taking their husband’s name legally, but keep their birth name professionally. Others make their birth name their middle name and take their husband’s as a last name. Still others hyphenate their birth and married names. A few couples make up an entirely new name.
Even women who have thought about the choice and decided to stay with their maiden names find their thinking evolves over time. For many, convenience wins out in the long run as children enter the picture. And when they do change their names, they do so with little fuss. In her essay “The Maiden Name Debate” on Salon.com, feminist Katie Roiphe observes:
“…[T]he maiden name is no longer a fraught political issue. These days, no one is shocked when an independent-minded woman takes her husband’s name….Today, the decision is one of convenience, of a kind of luxury — which name do you like the sound of? What do you feel like doing? ….In the end, many…have decided to change their names….because giving in to bureaucratic pressures is easier than clinging to their old identity….And then, of course, the beauty of the contemporary name change is that you don’t have to formally decide. You can keep your name professionally and socially, change your name for the purposes of school lists, or airline tickets…in short, you can maintain an extremely confusing relation to your own name (or names)…. Like much of today’s shallow, satisfying, lipstick feminism: One can, in the end, have it both ways.”
And if the marriage falters, reclaiming the original name is a very simple line entry on the divorce petition.