09/26/2011 10:01 am ET Updated Nov 26, 2011

Can Women Justify Giving Up Their Names When They Marry?

American men and women are equal under the law. Yet, when they enter a marriage contract, most women automatically give up their names. Men rarely do so.

There are wrinkles in the story, of course. Some women keep their own names. Double-barreled names that join the surnames of bride and groom are becoming more common but they are more likely to be used by women than men. Even feminists have a penchant for adding the husband's name to their own.

Why are modern women so willing to give up their names, or to change them? One motive may be increased social status. By changing her name, a woman advertises her success in attracting a husband -- a feat that eludes more and more women with the passage of time and one that is associated with prosperity.

Marriage involves entitlement to child support and inheritance rights. (In Sweden, where child support is legally enforced for single women, few couples even bother getting married). Moreover, if she marries up the social ladder, a women can even bump her social status up to that of her husband's family. Yet, one might argue that similar advantages are available to men.

There are several practical reasons why women might want to change names when they marry, particularly if they plan to have children. If a couple use the same name, it is easier to deal with schools, easier to travel in conservative countries, and easier to fit in with the local community. Even setting up utility accounts and e-mail addresses is more efficient as are managing finances and sending out invitations. Yet, all of these advantages would work if the husband gave up his name and the wife kept hers.

Giving the husband's name to children implies that he is the father although there are many cases where that is untrue. Low confidence of paternity is a problem that is unique to men so that when a woman takes her husband's name, she is stating that he is the father of her children. Since there is no doubt about who is the mother of a child, there is less reason for men to take their wives' names.

Paternity confidence is far from being the whole story because there are many societies where women do not take their husbands' names, including many Islamic societies, Scandinavia in earlier centuries, Spain, Korea, and China, among others. Even without a name change, there are other ways to advertise marital status, such as by wearing wedding rings.

It is very odd that so many women still adopt the husband's name when they marry. People who lose their names lose their identity. This happened during the era of slavery when captives were known by the surname of their owners. Why would anyone want to throw away their own identity and assume that of a spouse?

It cannot be purely for convenience. Changing one's name on bank accounts and other official documents is quite a chore. If a woman has established a professional reputation under one name, she may have trouble getting the same recognition under a different moniker.

Another possibility is that marriage names are simply a way of keeping track of familial relationships -- a social habit that gets passed down with the native tongue. Among English speakers, the wife generally gets the husband's name. Among Spanish speakers, names of children often combine the names of both parents with a given name. It may be too cumbersome to add yet another name upon marriage.

Take your pick: social status, child support; inheritance rights, confidence of paternity, mindless tradition. Apart from paternity confidence, each of these reasons could apply to men. Personally, I cannot understand why any person would voluntarily surrender his, or her, name at marriage. What is wrong with being yourself?!