Throughout my late 20’s as my friends are getting older and settling down I have been the sounding board for everything from wedding plans, the pro’s and con’s of natural birth, and the “right” and “wrong” ways to raise your current or potential children. Basically, all the things that a woman looking to get married and raise a family consider. What I rarely hear is young women in my circle debating is whether or not to change their last names after marriage. Being in my late 20’s and marriage no longer being a far off possibility I’ve thought a lot about this. The idea of changing my last name seems so foreign to me it feels like the act of changing it, being called something else, changing my social media profiles, my bank account information and losing the last name that groups me with my family and my background feels like a major shift. It begs the question is a name, just a name or is it a question of identity?
I grew up in a very traditional state with not particularly traditional parents. Both of my parents assumed roles in the house that were against the typical gender roles of husband and wife. Where I grew up it was very normal for women to be “stay at home moms” and in fact the church that we belonged to strongly encouraged it. However in my house while both of my parents worked long hours it was my father not my mother that did the grocery shopping, cooking, lunch prep and most of the day to day cleaning while my mother was primarily the “breadwinner”, cooked rare and took over more of the deep cleaning house overhaul type cleaning. I grew up in a house where my mother had not changed her last name and was only referred to by my Father's last name in church. Professionally and socially outside of the church, she was identified by her maiden name. It wasn't until I was older that I realized that was not the norm for other parents and families.
Once I realized this was unique and it would be a choice that I would need to make at some point in the future I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and learning more about the history behind changing your last name once you are married.
For myself, my primary hesitation in considering changing my last name is the history behind why it exists as a practice today. Under the concept of “coverture” (Claire Caine & Derek Willis, 2015, June 8) which literally means “to be covered by” upon your marriage your belongings, property, legal authority, etc. ALL transfers from your father to your husband and you by all intensive purposes become his property. Like most things related to patriarchal laws, it was enacted under the assumption that we women would be protected and made secure under the strong and righteous care of our husbands. This law did eventually change in the mid-1800s when women were finally allowed to make decisions for themselves, own their own money, real estate, and be represented legally as an independent from their husbands. However, women were still identified by your marital status (Mrs or Miss) and it was the practice to change your last name. It took until the 1970’s however for the prefix “Ms” to appear allowing women to move throughout the world without disclosing their marital status or without being immediately defined by it (Joni Erdman, 2018, July 12). I am a big fan of the “Ms” especially since there is not another pre-fix for men they are always just “Mr” women, of course, it seems to need to be defined by whether or not we “belong” to someone else.
So how many women are changing their last names and how many of them are not? Today an estimated 20% of American women choose to retain their birth names after marriage a lower percentage than the estimated percentage of American women in the 1970s and ’80s (Claire Cain & Derek Willis, 2015, June 28). According to the “Google Consumer Survey” conducted by Upshot, those that chose to keep their last names listed the reasons as practical and professional apart of identity and/or political reasons. While writing this I have talked with several of my friends about why they chose to change their last names upon marriage and if my currently single friends think about it and what they want to do. A lot of them have brought up the feeling of cohesion with being a family unit in sharing the same last name with their husband and their children. I’ve also talked with a few men all never been married and all currently un-married and they each expressed that their future wives having the same last name as them as being very important to them. When this has come up with people I've dated in the past I have also been told the same thing and it’s always been interesting to me that it’s so important to them.
I completely understand that its each individual persons choice but I'm curious why it’s still common practice and why don’t we talk about it more?
For me personally, my name is important to my identity, it has historical ties to where I am from and now living on the opposite side of the country and far away from my roots, it’s even become more precious to me. I also can’t get away from the discomfort at the expectation that I “should” just because I am married to someone. I have a hard time to find the room to agree to a medieval social norm that has its history rooted in the ownership of women. Even though I would want my future life partner and me to have an equal loving relationship based on mutual respect it still feels like an unequal social expectation that has no real purpose.
Can’t I maintain my independent identity in marriage?
Perhaps that's the better question I only can know what is right for myself and I for one won't be letting the remnants of an outdated patriarchal idea dictate how I move through the world.