What is in a name?

Apparently there has been a little upswing in the number of women that have decided to go back to taking their husband’s name upon marriage.
“Adopting a husband’s last name remains an entrenched tradition that is on the upswing, despite a temporary blip in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s where many young women tended to want to hold on to their birth names,” said UF linguistics professor Diana Boxer, who led a series of studies. “I think it reflects how men’s power continues to influence American society despite the fact that women have made great advances economically and socially.”
The exception is highly educated women in academic and professional positions, said Boxer, whose research was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.
The survey involved 134 married women ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s who lived in various parts of the United States. Boxer found that only 24 — 18 percent — had kept their own names, compared with 107 — 77 percent — who took a husband’s name. The rest used hyphenated or other names. Family unity was the most frequently mentioned reason.
“Taking on my husband’s last name was an outward sign of our union,” explained one woman. “It served to make me feel that I was ‘really married’ and that we were forming a brand new family.”

This is interesting, because many women have said that to me, “What is in a name?” I think naming is important, it is strategic and it does serve as a symbolic representation as to who is in “charge” of the particular union. Language and names are a very socially mediated system of symbols and what you choose to name yourself does reflect certain values of society. In this case, women are choosing to be defined in name by there husband and that is very much connected to patriarchal control. That doesn’t mean that these women don’t have agency, voice etc, but it does serve as a symbolic representation.
The researchers found that many women felt they should take their husband’s name because it would be good for their children and would represent the union of their family. Quite frankly, it does take more than a name to create a feeling of family union. Sometimes these lies force women to be complicit in their own oppression in ways that are conscious and unconscious. This is how patriarchy thrives.

Join the Conversation

  • Gueuze

    The name-taking phenomenon is also very cultural. For example, many women in Latin America keep their birth name and take their married name, only without hyphenation. It’s how things are done there (such as in Venezuela). The children have a name from their father and a name from their mother. I suppose, though, with the heavy influence of patriarchy in many of those cultures, the name that is ultimately passed down comes from the father’s side.
    Also, from what I’ve seen, in Belgium (and likely many other European countries) women tend to keep their birth name. Although it could be the highly-educated factor going on here, as my example comes from a woman who is a bad-ass microbiology researcher here in the US. Her husband teaches French (they’re both Flemish, but they speak French, English and Flemish).
    While I love my boyfriend very much, and will likely marry him sometime in the next few years, I think I would be very tempted to either keep my surname or perhaps hyphenate. Because the taking of the last name DOES indicate you are, symbolically at least, property.

  • jmcchesney

    I don’t know… I took my husband’s name when we got married and I certainly don’t feel like property. Honestly, I enjoy having the same last name as my husband and I was never attached to my last name. In fact, I was so angry at my parents at the time I got married that switching my name was, to me anyway, a way to break ties with the ideas/attitudes/beliefs of my father. I also do think it makes it easier now that we have a child, I like the fact that we all have the same name. Not to say I don’t see the value in keeping your last name when you get married, I understand that it’s very important to a lot of women. It was just never important to me. The big thing, to me, was the ability to make my own decision. My husband left the decision completely up to me, and had no feelings whatsoever as to what I did, he said it was my name and my decision.

  • Aggie

    I consider myself a die-hard feminist, and I took my husband’s name when I got married.
    First of all, I don’t understand what taking the man’s name has to do with feminism. Most women’s last names are already from patriarchal lines–their father’s. So already the last name you have follows a patriarchal lineage. Wether you change it or not, it’s still coming from the male line. I know that there are a lot of viable alternatives, like combining last names or creating new last names for both the man and the woman, but frankly, I didn’t want to go there.
    “In this case, women are choosing to be defined in name by there husband and that is very much connected to patriarchal control. That doesn’t mean that these women don’t have agency, voice etc, but it does serve as a symbolic representation.”
    I am tired of having to justify my feminist credentials over something that I consider a deeply personal, multi-faceted decision, which I made on my own without any pressure from my husband. There were a number of circumstances that led me to my decision, none of which I want to go into here, but rest assured it was not a knee-jerk decision based on some dippy, unaware concept of “tradition” or submission.
    This is my first post (long-time lurker, etc) and I know it’s sort of a rant, but this just happens to be a bit of a sore subject for me. I don’t accuse women who have chosen to have children of selling out on feminism, even though I myself have chosen not to have children for feminist (and environmental and spiritual) reasons. So I would like the same courtesy in return.
    By the way, I love this site!

  • http://www.brunchma.com/~acsumama/blog Stentor

    The family unity arguments are good as far as they go, but they miss the real question: why is it always the woman who changes her name in the interests of unity? Why isn’t name-changing a dilemma for men too?
    Speaking as a heterosexual man, I would be bothered if my fiancee (once I have one) were to want to take my name.

  • http://www.bloodlesscoup.com/blog Binky Rasmussen

    As Stentor says, if it were only a question of unity, then why is there not a corresponding phenomena of men changing names to their wive’s?
    Not having the same name as one’s spouse is a hassle with children, especially if the child carries a non-hyphenated name. Teacher: who are you? I am Susan Jones. Who is Susan Jones? Bobby Smith’s mother. oh. I have one friend who, with her husband in the spirit of egalitarianism, gave their children her grandmother’s name as a last name. That way, both of them face the same issues of non same last name.
    As to why academic’s don’t change names, it’s all about the byline. Even if, on your resume, you are clear about listing what you have written, many people don’t even see your resume, and assume that you stopped pubishing after you married (and changed your name).

  • Samhita

    I appreciate your feedback. I recognize the deeply personal nature of this issue. I am not saying that taking your husband’s name disallows you from being a feminist. It is more recognizing the tradition as patriarchal and having roots in *very* anti-feminist ideas. Since I have not been confronted with this particular issue I can’t relate. I just knew that I would never take my partner’s name, but I am a Taurus, so you know how that goes with our egos and all.
    I understand you don’t want to share (I mean really I understand, it is personal), but it may help those of us that can’t understand why some women do want to take their husband’s name.
    ps-really really good point about our last names being our daddy’s anyway, so in a sense we are nameless, only named by the men before us and the men we become a part of.
    Fuckin ey.

  • Samhita

    Oh and I said “defined in name” not defined by (in general) their husbands. I would be far from making a broad general statement that all women that take their husband’s name are defined by their husbands. That would just be wrong wrong wrong and very judgemental. I am more interested in the symbolism of the practice.

  • SarahS

    Ever since I was a child, I looked forward to the day when I would marry a man and take his last name. Because my last name sucks and I was teased for it all my childhood. I would hate to inflict this name on future children.
    Now I’m seriously dating a woman. With a name that is almost as bad as mine and twice as long. Which brings us to my point…
    How do feminists feel about making up a new last name? I would be interested in hearing opinions. This way, a family could have the same last name and bypass patriarchy all together….

  • Kyra

    I think that, first of all it is obviously every woman’s choice. However, the whole patrilineal/patriarchy/property thing is very much a factor to me. As long as it’s just women changing their name and not men doing it often or both of them hyphenating them or them both creating a new family name, the “family unity” issue is an insufficient excuse. In many/most cases, your name is your identity, and the idea that you just cast something like that away, change it at someone else’s whim, seems rather absurd. To me it is suggests that an insignificant increase in “family unity” is more important than the woman’s identity. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “The woman has no name. She is Mrs. Richard Roe or Mrs. John Doe, just whose Mrs. she may chance to be” sort of rings a bell here.
    Of course the above does not matter much if you’re not particularly attatched to your name, but see my first sentence. On the other hand, if I disliked my last name, I’d legally change it to something I chose, not whatever whoever I might marry happens to have.
    As for naming children, I’d give daughters my name and sons my husband’s name—therefore you have a matrilineage and a patrilineage, neither marginalized or made more important than the other.
    Feminist credentials, by the way, are satisfied by making one’s own choices. Just so long as one does not deny others the same rights.

  • Aggie

    Samhita, thanks for your feedback. It’s just a hotbutton issue for me so I tend to get my hackles up about it. Since you seem to genuinely want to understand, here’s some of the reasons I decided to change my name:
    My husbands’ parents both died tragically and suddenly, and he had an especially deep connection with his father. (Not so much with his mother, or I may have considered taking her maiden name.) He has no family left at all to speak of, and he is proud of his cultural heritage, which his name reflects. My husband never once asked me to change my name, but I chose to do so as a gift to him and a tribute to his father, who was an extraordinary person. It cost me nothing but a little inconvience and paperwork, and I know that it means a lot to my husband that his father’s name is living on, in a sense, through me. I had no professional stake in my madien name and it was easy to let go of. In fact, it was a relief.
    I disliked all of the associations with my family name, especially my father’s side of the family. They are Not Nice People and neither is my dad. I never felt connected to his last name and I never had any atttachment whatsoever with that lineage. Besides, the name is stodgy and doesn’t really reflect me as well as my “married” name. My husband likes his name because it reflects his heritage, I liked his name…so there was no reason to go to the trouble of re-inventing the wheel simply for the sake of being appropriately feminist.
    I understand that the system of names being patrilinear is entrenched and has implications and needs to be changed, but I also feel that there are more important battles to fought right now. I didn’t create the system, my husband didn’t either, and this is what we had to work with. A very good feminist friend of mine who got married recently had her father walk her down the aisle and “give her away”–a ritual that I personally find problamatic to say the least, but she had her own deeply personal reasons for doing things this way, and I respected that. Not everything can be boiled down to what the “right” feminist-sanctioned decision is. Life is messy and things are often ambiguous and personal.

  • Samhita

    Thank you so much Aggie for sharing your story! The personal is the political for a reason. And I think this is a really good example of deciding which battles you will fight and will not fight, as you mentioned. I battle that everyday, we alone can’t do everything.
    Not everything can be boiled down to what the “right” feminist-sanctioned decision is. Life is messy and things are often ambiguous and personal.
    That is the most feminist thing I heard all day. Thank you!

  • Soren Kongstad

    I think that the issue of names is not trivial. They do do have significance in marking out individuals as being members of a family.
    When my wife proposed we had some discussions as to what we wanted to do with names. We both had special names. Since I had the strongest feelings about us having the same name, I should have been the one to change my name – but I am ashamed to say that I chose to make a deal. My wife wanted to get married after we had lived together for 6 years, and I believed that if we were to get married we should share our names – so she gave up her name!
    I do feel a little guilty about the resolution, but I do feel that if marriage is to have any meening at al it should include the same name. For me the best solution was to keep my name – the second best would be that we kept her name, but that was not how it ended up.
    The naming law is being changed in Denmark, so soon I will take her name as my middle name (this was not allowed before), so both of our names will be preserved.

  • http://oddgoose.blogspot.com Julia

    When I was in college, I was sure that when I married (if I married) I would keep my name. I was sure I would have a fabulous career, and I wouldn’t want to lose my identity.
    Flash forward 15 years. No fabulous career. When I married, I really wanted to be a part of his family. I had been in a “live in” relationship before, and it sucked. I wanted my husbands name. It was important that I was taking his name, it was a way of saying “this is forever”.
    And it just felt right.

  • meg_donkey

    I love my name and I don’t want to ever change it. I’ve often asked boyfriends if they would change theirs should we marry. Only one ever said yes – he thought it was a great idea and very progressive. People always tell me I’ll change my mind when I do get married and take my husband’s name. “It’s easier for the children.” Funk that noise – since when is anything worth doing or having all that easy anyway?

  • JesusJonesSuperstar

    Why bother getting married at all. It is usually the worst mistake of peoples lives.
    Keeping your own name is just a band aid to the problem of marriage with is a a flawed institution.

  • AndiF

    I took my husband’s name when I got married in 1971 and I’ll freely admit it was sheer laziness. There were so many battles I had fought and was fighting and keeping my last name would have taken energy away from battles that I thought were more important. And what mattered to me more was that the man I was going to marry thought it was entirely my decision.

  • amitheonlyone

    I agree that the last name debate is very interesting, and I also agree with Aggie’s comments that the person is political. I think it’s completely true that everyone needs to make their own decisions about these things, and everyone’s identities are always in a state of flux, I think. I like to think that the point of opening discussions is so that we can all talk about these things, and hot-buttons topics (like this, like issues surrounding Levy’s recent book on women and sex) are so much more important to talk about.
    I find not only the issue of taking last names interesting, but the rationale — “Family unity.” Why is it the woman’s job to create “family unity”? What exactly is “family unity” — if someone could explain how having the same last name does this, I would appreciate it. Furthermore, it’s fascinating to me that “family” issues are always society’s response to issues that are women’s freedoms — reproductive freedoms, working mothers, single mothers, etc. Why are women’s choice always destabilizing to “family unity”?

  • http://tsuredzuregusa.blogspot.com Shaula Evans

    When I got engaged (after I proposed to my now-husband), we had a long discussion about last names, what our names meant to each of us, and what we wanted to do about our married names.
    My husband said the he would be proud if I took his name, and just as honoured to take mine. He would be happy to hyphenate if I wanted to, and since he didn’t have a strong preference either way, he’d gladly defer to me if I had particularly strong feelings. (I married the right guy.)
    I was interested to learn, after we got married, that we could each legally use the other’s surname in British Columbia without any additional paperwork. I don’t know if that holds true across the rest of Canada or not.
    We finally decided to both keep our birth names, although we use our hyphenated surnames socially. Our reasoning was partly practical–I wanted my name for professional reasons, and we often work together in situations where being instantly presumed to be married could be awkward, plus we were dealing with immigration applications and didn’t want to further complicate matters; but also for personal and symbolic reasons.
    We are both very happy with the result.
    Back to the original article, Samhita: I wonder if there is an agenda behind it. 134 women hardly strikes me as a statistically valid sample from which to announce an upswing. Do you happen to know anything about the people (or money) behind the study?
    I’m a regular reader but infrequent commenter here. Thank you for the great writing that you and your colleagues do.

  • http://rupadupe.blogspot.com/ Rupa

    I hate to be the one to trot this out but “What about the children?” (ala Helen Lovejoy on the Simpsons.)
    One of my career role-models kept her name when she married, and her children have her husband’s last name. Her 7yo daughter was just mentioned in the paper for something, and Dr. D was a little worried because they got the daughter’s last name mixed up. She said, “You know how it’s a big deal to children, these little things.”
    This is something I’ve thought about alot. Hyphenation can get messy, especially if you both have really long ethnic last names! The creation of a hybrid last name sounds like a huge bureaucratic identity punishment. I definitely want to keep my own last name, for professional reasons as well as independence reasons, (I built my whole career on this name!) but I’m curious if there are any options out there on what children should go by.

  • http://orexia.blogspot.com yellownumber5

    My reasons for keeping my name are basically political. I think it’s a nice, subtle way to make it clear to people that feminism is important to me. On our honeymoon, we had rented a jet-ski under my name, and my Mr. went to pick it up. He explained that we’re married even though we have different last names, and the guy at the counter scoffed, saying, “Oh, a feminist, huh?” It gave my husband the opportunity to say, “Yeah, she is, thank you very much.”
    I do think that the “family unity” thing ought not to be discounted, though. We got married (and invited a gajillion friends and relatives to the wedding) because we wanted a wider social meaning to our relationship. We could have just remained unmarried cohabiters all our lives, but we wanted to make each other part of our communal identities – to become part of each other’s family. That is to say, I think that marriage is more about family than it is about the couple. Changing your name is a good way to make clear that you’re not just making breaking up harder to do in the future, but that you’re altering your communal identity.
    So, I can understand why you would want to change your name, but when it came down to it, I wasn’t about to do it. The chance to assert my individuality, as well as the patriarchal symbolic baggage, were enough to convince me that I ought to keep my name. Were marriage less fraught with gender and power issues, I would probably have changed my name – I don’t have an issue with whether naming is matrilineal or patrilineal per se – but as it is, I’m going to make my statement and be happy about it.

  • Ron O

    My wife & I officially & socially go by our combined last names, which we also gave our son. Professionally we each use our family names. We intend to encourage a daughter, if we are so lucky to have one, to carry on her mother’s name. If though no matrilinar lines of names exist yet, doesn’t mean we can’t start it.

  • http://orexia.blogspot.com yellownumber5

    Ron, there are lots of cultures that have matrilineal naming practices, it’s just not generally seen in Western cultures. I should point out that even if a culture has a matrilinal naming system, it’s still likely to be a patriarchy. So, if we’re wondering what’s in a name, it’s not necessarily power.

  • missjulied

    SarahS, I had a horrible last name growing up too! When I married (at 37) I was only too glad to give it up and live the rest of my life with a name that doesn’t encourage laughter. And, yes, I’m definitely a feminist, and so is my husband.
    When I was in my early 20’s I dated a man for a couple of years and we both thought for sure we were headed for marriage. Not only was his last name as bad as mine, the combination of the two was a disaster! We finally agreed on the original French of his name (which didn’t have the same connotations), after going through endless options (including different versions of my name). I thought it was a fantastic solution, and I would encourage you and your partner to consider it. It really felt like a “bonding” for us each to take a new “family” name. Anyhow, he started realizing he preferred men so we didn’t get married, but I thought the story might be of some help anyway.

  • jmcchesney

    I know for me, I wouldn’t have asked my husband to take my name because of the horrible and shitty way my family had treated him. I wanted nothing to do with that and I most certainly wouldn’t ask him to associate himself any closer to my family then he already was by marrying me. That’s just us though. I thought about combining our names, but honestly couldn’t come up with anything I liked, I thought about hyphenating, but really didn’t like the idea of my last name being that long. In the end, the option that I liked the best was sharing a name with my husband, not because he owned me and considered me property, but because I liked the idea of having a shared last name. I know my sister is moving her maiden name to her middle name and taking her husband’s last name, but I like my middle name too much to do that. To me, it boiled down to the fact that I had zero attachment to my maiden name and wanted to share a name with my husband. It’s different, to me, if you do it because your husband made you or guilt tripped you into it, or if you just do it because it’s traditonal, etc… but if you really think about all the reasons for and against and hange your name because you want to, I don’t see how that’s anti feminist ideals.

  • http://www.nobody-knows-anything.com Diane

    I have been amazed by how much flak I’ve gotten — in the San Francisco Bay Area! — for not changing my name. I can’t imagine what it’s like in other parts of the country. I’m one of the few women I know from college who kept her own name.
    My kids have my husband’s last name. My husband didn’t care which name they had, just so long as they all had the same name. There is no problem at school or at the doctor’s office: I just say “This is Sophia Adler’s mother.” Yes, they call me Mrs. Adler a lot. I still sign my name Diane Patterson.

  • JH

    i took my husband’s name when i got married because my father was a scoundrel and i didn’t want to be identified with him ever again.
    when my husband became a scoundrel in his own right i kept his name, but by then it wasn’t so much his name, it was our children’s name and i wasn’t divorcing them.
    if i should choose to marry again, however, i would take the future husband’s name just so i could dump the ex’s name. or perhaps we will be creative and choose something else for us both to be called…

  • Ahlana

    It seems like a lot of women have a story similar to mine…
    I hate my father (abuse asshole that he is) and I want to get as far away from his last name as possible. I’m having my bestfriend from high school walk me down the isle, in large part to piss off my dad. If I kept my last name he might just get a little joy out of it, and I can’t have that…
    Also, my hubby-to-be brought of the topic of last names like this “so, do you want me to take your last name?” He was being completely serious, and said this because he’s as much of a feminist as i am. He’s not really attached to his name, and felt totally comfortable with the notion of taking mine. But outside of my father being a jerk, my last name is long, awkward, and hard to pronounce so there aren’t a lot of compelling reasons to keep it around.
    I guess I just pick my battles for personal reasons. I completely respect however anyone else comes to their own decision about their last name… just so long as they aren’t bullied into something they don’t want.

  • chuym

    I just want to say that, as a male feminist, trying to change your name as a male is a pain in the ass. not only does it cost money that women don’t have to, it makes things more complicated with societal pressures.
    That being said, my wife and I (and we discussed our titles, we got tired of being asked if we were gay when we said “my partner” and longed for clarity) decided to take the easy rout to having mutual last names and she changed hers. It helped that her last same was Smith. It does not combine well with our last name.
    I feel, as others, that the significance of the name is very personal and should be kept that way. the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. If I were to change my name to my wife’s old name and then start to beat her and demand sex of her, would that make me a better feminist? No. Not if you think about it for an instant.
    My only regret is that people still tend to send those cards addressed to Mr. And * Mrs. * [bob smith]. That really irks me. Why not use our first names? That is a cultural norm that I want to burn out of people’s minds!
    sorry. a bit of a rant.

  • http://www.twenty-five.net Jennifer

    Regardless of one’s views on keeping or changing your name, the study included only 130 or so people! That’s far from conclusive. That’s less than 3 per state. I’d be amazed if they can figure out anything statistically significant from that.
    And I plan to “keep” my name, if that’s what you’d call it.

  • Bill

    In Shakespeare’s play, Juliet says “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” Juliet is telling Romeo that a name is artificial and meaningless, that she loves the man called Montague, not the Montague name nor the Montague family. Romeo, out of his passion for her, rejects his family name to be born again as Juliet’s lover, which became the center of the tragic ending, as we all know, but as many of you pointed out, changing your name does not have to be a tragedy for anybody.
    So please let me add that name changing can be a dilemna for men, too. My father gave me his first and last name, but as I grew up I realized I didn’t like his values or his name, so I changed mine to one that made sense with who I think I was, am and seem to becoming — or would like to. George Eliot (a woman, actually) said “It’s never too late to be who you might have been…”
    Your name doesn’t determine who you are, of course. But you can change your name to align it with who you are, or at least think you are.
    Regarding the question of why there are so few husbands who take the name of their wife, let me say this: Because the man would then be going back to the patriarchal lineage of his wife’s father.
    And don’t forget: there are lots of gals out there who divorced their jerk husbands and are therefore eager to replace their last name with the name of their new husband. My wife did, and I encouraged her to go back to her maiden name, but she reminded me that her maiden name belonged to another man: her father.
    I’m trying very hard NOT to be her next jerk husband, and not just to save her from having to changer her name again.
    Thank you for listening. I certainly heard all of you…
    — Bill

  • GamesOnline

    Your name doesn’t determine who you are, of course. But you can change your name to align it with who you are, or at least think you are.games