Each year, approximately 3 million women change their name. They give up their maiden names and take their husbands' surname upon marriage. That's 90% of women who marry.
It's traditional. It's expected of a woman in our society. It makes it a heck of a lot easier when you're meeting people and introducing yourself and your husband. And after you have children, it avoids any confusion or suggestion that maybe the kids were born out of wedlock.
What's In a Name?
Most women don't think twice about it. But for some it becomes a personal struggle, especially career-oriented professionals who have worked hard to establish themselves and whose names are respected and widely recognized in their fields.
Is keeping your name a matter of convenience? A social convention? Or a political statement?
Name Choice Equality
The Lucy Stone League, promotes name choice equality and advocates for women who wish to retain their own names after marriage. Named after a 19th century figure in the abolition and women's rights movement, the League sees this decision as a politically-charged issue with far-reaching consequences:
This tradition of name-abandonment by women is so much a part of U.S. culture, that few recognize it for what it is: a powerful instance of sex discrimination which has a major effect on women.
When girls are growing up, they see what they have to look forward to: the abandonment of their identity into the identity of another. What incentive do they have to develop their full identities in their adolescence?
In some prison cultures, inmates are given numbers and their names are taken from them. One purpose of this practice is to strip away a sense of importance and humanity from the inmates....the tradition of women giving up their names is equally damning.
Tammy Jo Eckhart hadn't planned on taking her husband's surname. But when she got engaged, everyone around her expected that she would - and those expectations angered her. Writing in Sister, Columbia University's feminist magazine, she says:
Surnames are one of the most powerful tools used by patriarchy to deny women not only equal rights but even personhood.
Tradition is the only reason why American women have taken their spouses' surnames, since there have never been any laws in the United States dictating which surname must be taken upon marriage. Until very recently...some women have had to go to court in order to keep their maiden name or to change back to it after divorce or widowhood. Since the 1970s, it has been established that people may legally use whichever surname they wish.
....But the assumption is still there, and it is promoted in all of our minds through...the attitudes of government agencies and officials, not to mention our neighbors' and families' reactions to those of us who have decided to buck tradition.
I'm afraid that women who change their names are blindly promoting women as second-class persons, though I suspect that they themselves don't think they are doing this.... To me the difference is whether the woman thought about the choice - just blindly doing anything is not acceptable.
Convenience vs. Politics
Yet, as the saying goes, it's a woman's prerogative to change her mind. And the same can be said for changing her name.
Even women who have thought about the choice and decided to stay with their maiden names find their thinking evolves over time. For many, convenience wins out in the long run as children enter the picture. And when they do change their names, they do so with little fuss. In her commentary "The Maiden Name Debate" in Salon.com, Katie Roiphe observes:
...the maiden name is no longer a fraught political issue. These days, no one is shocked when an independent-minded woman takes her husband's name....Today, the decision is one of convenience, of a kind of luxury — which name do you like the sound of? What do you feel like doing?Sources:
....In the end, many...have decided to change their names....because giving in to bureaucratic pressures is easier than clinging to their old identity....And then, of course, the beauty of the contemporary name change is that you don't have to formally decide. You can keep your name professionally and socially, change your name for the purposes of school lists, or airline tickets...in short, you can maintain an extremely confusing relation to your own name (or names)....
Like much of today's shallow, satisfying, lipstick feminism: One can, in the end, have it both ways.
Eckart, Tammy Jo. "The Choice and Power of Surnames." Sister, Columbia University 1996-97.
"Name Choice Equality" www.lucystoneleague.org
Roiphe, Katie. "The Maiden Name Debate: What's changed since the 1970s?" www.slate.com 16 March 2004.