To Change or Not to Change: What's in a Name
By Sam Stroozas
Names are how we answer, how we exist, and how we claim that existence. For many women, names are something that we give up and someone that we become. Your name is the heart of your identity and how you are presented to the world. It is who you are, who you have been, and who you have become, so why are so many women changing theirs?
In the past, women had to change their last names, because under the unity of heteronormative marriage a couple was seen as “one person” or one name by the law. In the time of the Norman Conquest, married women often had no surname at all because “the Normans had brought with them the doctrine of coverture, the legal principle that, upon marriage, a woman because her husband’s possession.” By becoming their husband’s possession, women were stripped of even the small bit of autonomy they were allowed in a patriarchal society. Taking away a name is taking away an identity, it is giving silence to meaning, and reinforcing that a woman is not anything unless she is a part of a man’s world.
During a court session in 1340 it was recorded that, “when a women took a husband, she lost every surname except ‘wife of.’” Sexism has allowed us to continue this belief throughout the centuries, reiterating that women are only equivalent to their marital status. The pure fact that a woman's last name, post-name change, is called ‘maiden name’ bleeds of the normativity of sexism and male privilege. It is simply perpetrated by the insecurities and over-sexualized nature of the Victorian era and the isolation that came with or without marriage.
Saying ‘maiden name’ is rooted in a sense of control. Why not say ‘birth name,’ or even better, do not encourage that people change their names once they are married. More so, allow people, specifically women, to choose what they want to do with their title, free of judgement. It was not until 1972 that women were allowed to keep their birth name after marriage, if preferred. But in recent years, “Roughly 20 percent of women married in recent years have kept their names, according to a Google Consumer Survey conducted by The Upshot. (An additional 10 percent or so chose a third option, such as hyphenating their name or legally changing it while continuing to use their birth name professionally.)”
In comparison to earlier years, in the 1970’s about 17 percent of women kept their last names. In the 1980’s that fell to 14 percent but increased to 18 percent in the 1990’s. In a study by the New York Times examining wedding announcements, 29.5 percent of women kept their name, which was an increase from the 26 percent in 2000, and the 16.2 percent in 1990.
Since Lucy Stone, an equal rights activist who became famous for keeping her last name when she got married in 1855, the surrendering of a last name has become a feminist issue. It is still viewed as abnormal if a woman does not take her husband's name and “50 percent of Americans think it should be illegal for a woman not to take his surname.”
There are many reasons that women may come to regret taking their husband's last name, but the main one is a lost of identity. Women who enter the political, editorial, medical or law fields have been opting to keep their last name more than other women, as it serves as proof of their sacrifice and connection to their work. They put themselves through law school, they got elected as an official, they got published, not their husbands. Many people believe that surrendering your last name gives credit where credit is not due. There is an intrinsic connection to your name, and this feeling of disconnect defines you as your relationship with a man, rather than your relationship with yourself.
In recent years, many options have been created such as hyphenation, combining the last name, or simply keeping your last name. These alternative choices are often frowned upon by conservatives and older generations, but I think the bigger question is, why do we still feel the need to control women far past our true limitations?
Additionally, if a couple does choose to have children, the conversation veers more towards what the children's last names would be. You can choose to have the mother's name as the middle name, and the fathers as the last name. You can hyphenate, or create a new name, whatever fits your family best. There are many decisions that go into changing your name and how the rest of your life is influenced by that decision. Regardless, one thing we continue to have silent dialogue around is what happens when a man in a heterosexual relationship wants to take his wife’s name.
A man taking his wife’s name still remains incredibly rare. In a study of 877 heterosexual married men, less than 3 percent took their wife’s name when they got married. This has not always been a foreign idea, Western colonization created it as one. In the 12th and 15th centuries, many men who married women who were wealthier and came from more prestigious families would sometimes take their wife’s last name. Stephanie Coontz, a professor of marriage and family history at Evergreen State College said, “class outweighed gender” in this era, “Men dreamed of marrying a princess, it wasn't just women dreaming of marrying a prince.” Many men worry that changing their name won’t fit in with the patriarchal system we’re accustomed to, but we never question the ideology that women have come accustomed to the identity exasperation that name politics has instituted.
Unsurprisingly, around this topic members of the LGBTQ+ community are often left out of the conversation. When there is not the constant disapproval of the heteronormative lens, things seem to be less complicated yet easily dismissable. An Atlantic article by Vicki Valosik quotes, “For newlywed same-sex couples navigating their way through the thorny question of family nomenclature, there’s no tradition in place to buck or follow.” There is also the competition that heterosexual couples institute of what counts as ‘true marriage.’ Because of this, sometimes it is opted to LGBTQ+ couples to share a name, “People also do it for a need of acceptance in a larger world where there is one idea of what family looks like and to fit into that box.”
Luke Boso, associate professor at Savannah Law School explains, “A lot of LGB [lesbian, gay, and bisexual] couples reject the idea of changing their names because of the sense that the name-changing practice has roots in a gendered, sexist marriage institution in which women literally became their husband's legal property and lost their identity under the law. Many LGB people see same-sex marriage as a way to transform the institution of marriage itself, moving it away from its property/ownership roots and more towards an egalitarian partnership model based on mutuality and a greater degree of independence.” This way of thinking has further proved that upholding heteronormativity as the norm is the reason we have so many issues of identity crisis. Without the neverending stream of toxicity, we can find an inclusive space where the conversation can be furthered.
Besides being expensive and sexist, changing a last name is not always the best option for a woman and that must be normalized. Whether one decides to change their name or not, it is vital that we all know the true history behind women changing their names when they get married, and why the term ‘maiden name’ further refuels the corrupt elasticity of the patriarchy.