Why are Women Still Changing Their Last Names?

If names are so important to us -- why are women so quick to change their last names upon marriage?
11/10/2015 06:57 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2016
Woman sitting on mountainside
Woman sitting on mountainside

Names matter to us. A lot. Think about how offended you are when the Starbucks barista misspells your name. Or back in highschool when Mr. Wilson read roll call and of course screwed up pronouncing your name.

There's a visceral sense of identity tied to our names. It's a link to our cultural lineage. This is especially true in the United States, given that we are an immigrant collective that grasps for any sort of pre-1776 heritage.

So then if names are so important to us -- why are women so quick to change their last names upon marriage?

There used to be legal reasons. Women were forbade to keep their last names a short handful of decades ago, under the premise that the wedded couple were viewed as "one person" by the law. That one person was the husband, whose identity superseded the wife's. He was the sole person who could vote, hold property, go to law, etc. In fact, it was only in 1972 that every United State legally allowed a woman to use her maiden name as she pleased.

The fact that a woman's maiden name is even called a "maiden name" is evidence that this practice is antiquated at best. Unfortunately, a woman not taking her husband's last name is still viewed as abnormal, deviant behavior in the US. This is supported by the fact that around 90% of American women still take their husband's last name at marriage, and a staggering 50% of Americans think it should be illegal for a woman not to take his surname.

Regardless of whether you do or don't change your last name, there are fiery opinions on what you decide to do -- if you're a woman. While I'm not here to judge whatever choice is made on marital moniker, I am saying there are reasons why a woman changing her surname could be a mistake.

I Regretted Taking My Husband's Last Name

The reason I took my husband's name when I wed at 22 was, well, I didn't think about it. My mother took my father's last name. She did it, so I did it, and that was that. I thought I was showing love to my husband by abandoning my last name. Plus I was mad at my Dad at the time and wanted to piss him off.

But when everything became official and I was a bonafide "McClain," a part of me suddenly felt lost. I no longer shared the name of my brothers. People couldn't identify that my parents, nephews, and blood family were even remotely related, given that our last names were entirely different.

That bothered me a little - then it bothered me a lot.

Losing an Identity

Part of why it was so bothersome was because losing a name is losing a piece of identity.

When I changed my name, I lost the German "Erdmann" and turned into a "McClain." I was suddenly Irish. It felt strange that others were no longer able to identify with my German heritage by looking at my name. I was instead barraged with questions around my Irish upbringing, especially around St Patrick's Day. Although there's everything right with green beer, I felt like an imposter.

We have an innate connection to our names, and after some time being a McClain, I started to feel disconnected from everything. This of course speaks in part to the marriage itself, but I felt lost walking around with a name that didn't represent me in any way other than my affiliation with a man. I felt as though I had vanished behind my husband and his endeavors -- which was the reason this practice was created in the first place.

Why We Started Changing Women's Names

This isn't to say every couple who chooses to assume the man's last name in a heterosexual marriage intends to delete the woman's identity. But looking at American and English history, (two of only a few countries that exercise this practice, by the way) identity deletion was the original intention.

The idea came to England around the time of the Norman Conquest, as the French brought with them the idea of coverture -- that "her legal existence as an individual was suspended under 'marital unity,' a legal fiction in which the husband and wife were considered a single entity: the husband." As such, when married the wife would assume her husband's name to become Mrs. his name. According to one court document in 1340, "when a woman took a husband, she lost every surname except 'wife of'". She was known only in relation to her husband, and that was in fact her only identity.

What to Do With Naming Upon Marriage, Then?

It's time for both men and women to stop being so offended at the question of choosing an alternative practice, given that most of us agree with the idea of women having identities. If we're offended by a woman not taking a man's last name, why is it not offensive for a man not to take a woman's name? Just think about that. Further still, even this conversation pisses people off, to the degree that it's become a bit of a hobby of mine to ask these questions and watch the feathers ruffle. One recent encounter, in fact, I asked a bride if she would be changing her name after her wedding, and she quite literally screamed in retort, "What am I, some sort of f*cking liberal?!"

Although I got a solid laugh out of that, let's just calm down here a minute, folks.

Your name is your identity. It was one of the first things you wrote when you learned how to write. Your achievements, your failures, and your collective history are all filed under the name you were given at birth. These are all things you should proudly stand by and sign for. It is a fundamental marker of who you are, and to sacrifice it due to wedlock is a notion not to be taken lightly, especially given the practice's oppressive heritage.

This is not to say that it is necessarily anti-feminist to change your last name, no. The goal here is to erase the heteronormative assumption that a woman should take her husband's surname, and the absurd notion that she's a crappy wife if she doesn't. Understand the reasoning behind why this practice ever happened in the first place, and accept the fact that perpetuating this practice is reinforcing patriarchy, which is frankly more offensive than anything else.

I changed my name once, but have since changed it back because it was a mistake. I have to own up to that, and do regrettably so. This is why I write to you, assuming you are putting more thought into this than my 22-year-old-dodobird-self did. And while you're thinking about it, you should know some women who change their names really do get hurt by it (I being one of them).

Regardless of the choice you choose, consider breaking open the restrictive box the majority of Americans continue to tighten over couples. A marriage should be a marker of an egalitarian partnership, not a succession of one party behind the other. Your name should reflect that. Find a way to represent yourselves that is unique to you, and at the end of the day, make a decision that is truly empowering to both of you.