Times are changing, no doubt, but complete revolutions do not happen easily.

In the United States,  the total adoption of the bill that permitted women to keep their own names after marriage took place in 1972, sweeping throughout every state in that year [1]. Since then, more women have begun to kick against the tradition of changing surnames after marriage. We are at a time when women are rising to the tops of every walk of life, ruling nations, running giant companies, and being more than just “helpmates”. Despite this, society still judges women who decide not to change their last names after marriage. Last names have always been tied to a male figure in a woman’s life.

Many women go through life facing psychological confusions about their identity [2]. People tend to attach a great deal of our identity to last names, taking great offense when it’s spelled wrongly, mispronounced, or omitted in a presentation. In reality, no all women have a problem was with this name change custom because they are raised to aspire to it, to look up to a day when they’ll finally change their names to that of their husbands. This custom also varies according to religion, peculiar cultural traditions, and socio-political environments.

As of recent times, women have become more powerful and self-assured than they ever were. Feminine liberation is sweeping through the world at an alarming rate, and women are no longer so comfortable with the way “things are supposed to be done.”

Doctrine of Coverture 

At birth, she takes her father’s name. Upon getting married, she’ll be expected to relinquish the identity she’s borne her entire life and take her husband’s name, a practice that began following a dictate in the Doctrine of Coverture in English common law, written in the 9th century [3]. The Anglo-American common law concept dictated that a woman has to be literally “attached” to the identity of her husband, having all her rights subsumed by his. This was why it was literally unacceptable and abominable for women to choose to remain unmarried in that era, with only clergywomen as exceptions. Marriage was a symbol of dignity, a source of identity. A way for a woman to be a part of the society and have her own name (which is basically just her husband’s name).

This tradition was put in place by patriarchs as a means to exert their dominating power over women for generations to come. Folding a woman’s identity completely under her husband’s has the social implication of giving her the title of ‘wife’ before any other.

Building up, but not quite there yet

Many women have tried to solve the problem of misplaced identities by suffixing their husbands’ last name to their own after marriage. For some, this solves the problem and lets them retain a sense of power over their own identity. For others, this would merely compound an already existing issue, strengthening the conviction that they still do not have their own identities.

For some women, last names don’t matter so much. Every individual has a different conception of what identity is all about. Not everyone attaches their essence of being to their name. It doesn’t upset them to have to change it. For others, though, this is pure social injustice.

More women are starting to kick against changing the most basic marker of their personal identity, and it’s actually happening at an alarming rate. According to BBC, a 1994 Eurobarometer survey revealed that about 94% of women took their husband’s name after marriage [4]. In 2013, a small-scale survey revealed that 75% of women took their husbands’ names. In 2014, a survey by the Discourses of Marriage Research Group revealed that 54% of women took their husbands’ names. These statistics show a trend of progressive reduction. A more recent survey by The Upshot, an affiliate of the New York Times shows that only about 20% of women are changing their names after marriage [5].

Following the legalization of same-sex marriages, what then is expected of couples in these unions? They usually keep their last names and hyphenate both names to coin a compound one for their children. Heterosexual couples also take this route sometimes, but it usually leads to a problem for the children in the future. How are these kids expected to name their own children if the females choose to retain their last names too? Surely, a child shouldn’t have three or four names concatenated together as a last name…

Custom, but not a law

Women are expected to change their last names by the dictates of an ancient tradition. A new last name is an indicator that she’s not available for marriage anymore. It is not a valid written constitution but a remnant of an old culture.

It is said to facilitate the tracing of lineages through hundreds of ancestral ties when a nuclear family unit maintains one name. If some of the children take their mothers’ names, ancestral ties would be broken and lost.

Women who chose to retain their last names, whether wholly or as a prefix, are seen as uncontrollable and uninterested in maintaining family unity. Most times, they are accused of having a lack of commitment toward marital ties. Retaining her last name is assumed to imply that she doesn’t want the hassle of having to change it back when there is a need for divorce.

In fact, retention of her last name can cause a woman to be regarded as “untamed”.

Inconsiderable for men

This tradition, like many others formed by the patriarchs of the early centuries, has no iotas of gender neutrality. Any man who opts to take his wife’s name after marriage would be regarded as a total boy-toy who’s either been completely emasculated or accused of wanting to gain something from his spouse. It’s considered unconventional, feminine, abominable, and down-right senseless for a man to opt to change his name to wife’s own. Merely three percent of men are bold enough to go down that route, and it’s usually upon the request of his wife as a way to protect her interests in the marriage, or to keep her father’s lineage alive [6].

The patriarchs back in the 9th century took out the time to draft these laws to keep their women subserviently under their rule and dominance.

Too bad things aren’t really going as they planned.

Every woman has an inalienable right

For some women, changing their names after marriage is romantic and beautiful, and they actually look forward to doing this. For others, they lose a huge part of who they’ve always been, and they struggle to discover who they are currently expected to be. Changing their names and relinquishing the most basic marker of their identity can cause a deal of psychological trauma and emotional dilemma for these women [7]. They should be allowed to keep their names if they want to. Suffixing their husbands’ names should be their sole decision choice as well.

It’s left for the couple to come to a compromise about the kids’ last names. For some couples, the girls take their mother’s name and the boys take their father’s name. For others, it’s the other way round. Some choose to hyphenate both names, and others may select the first name of any of the grandparents.

If her name means a lot to her, a woman has the full righto retain it. She’s an individual, a partner in her home, and not a subject to her spouse.

References:

  1. Women’s name rights“, Marquette University. 1976.
  2. Should Marriage Still Involve Changing a Woman’s Name?“, Psychology Today. September, 2018.
  3. Coverture Law. Encyclopedia Britannica.
  4. Why should women change their names on getting married?“, BBC. November, 2014.
  5. New Study Says More Women Are Keeping Their Maiden Names“, The Knot.
  6. This Type Of Man Is Most Likely To Take His Wife’s Last Name, Study Suggests“, A Plus. May, 2018.
  7. The Effects of Changing Your Name“, Huff Post. April, 2013.
  8. Discourses of Marriage. Official Website.
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