The modern expectation that women adopt their husband’s surname at marriage began in the 9th-century doctrine of coverture in English common law (Reid 2018). Under this doctrine, women lacked an independent legal identity apart from their spouses (Reid 2018). At birth, women received their father’s surname; when they were “given away” at marriage, they automatically took their husband’s surname (Reid 2018; Darrisaw 2018). The phrase “giving away the bride” was intended literally—under the doctrine of coverture, women were property, transferred from husband to father, and largely prohibited from owning their own property (Darrisaw 2018).
The expectation that women adopt their husband’s surname at marriage is fundamentally rooted in patriarchal marital traditions. Historically, it represents the transfer of women’s subservience from father to husband, the subjugation of women’s identities to those of men. This tradition is also profoundly heterosexist, leaving same-sex couples with no clear norms regarding surname choice (Clarke et al 2008). Yet it has proven remarkably durable, even in the face of broad social and legal changes to marriage—the rise of relatively egalitarian and dual-earner marriages, and the acceptance and legalization of same-sex marriage.
Surname Choice at Marriage
Although the norm that women take their husband’s last name at marriage may be weakening, it remains nearly ubiquitous. In a sample of married couples in the U.S. in 1980, 98.6 percent of women adopted their husband’s surname (Johnson and Scheuble 1995). Among the married children of these same couples, 95.3 percent of women adopted their husband’s surname—a decrease of 3.3 percent between generations (Johnson and Scheuble 1995). This upward trend in nontraditional surnames has persisted over time, but change has remained relatively slow. A Google poll found that about 20 percent of women married in recent years have maintained their own names (Miller & Willis 2015).
Studies of surname choice among brides in the 1980s and 1990s indicated that highly educated, career-oriented women with nontraditional gender ideology were most likely to select a nontraditional surname (generally by retaining their own name unchanged or hyphenating their own and their husband’s names; Johnson and Scheuble 1995). This pattern has persisted, with more recent studies still reporting that highly educated, career-committed, and feminist women are more likely to make nontraditional surname choices (Hoffnung 2006). Yet, despite women’s career commitment overtaking men’s career commitment (Patten and Parker 2012), the vast majority of brides still adopt their husband’s name upon marriage.
So why do women so often change their names? And why is the decision almost always one about the woman’s name? If surname change at marriage were simply about having a single “family name,” either spouse could take the other spouse’s name, or couples could jointly adopt a new name.
The Gender of “Selfish” Individualism
Societal expectations that nuclear families share one last name, coupled with the invisibility of the option that the husband change his name, place many women in a moral dilemma in which they feel they must choose between self and family (Nugent 2010). Women are expected to be communal, sacrificing their individual interests to the well-being of the collective family—and retaining their birth surname is seen as individualistic, selfish, and antagonistic to family unity. The force of tradition in shaping cognition is another powerful contributor—for many couples, the possibility of the husband changing his name is an invisible option, placing the burden of surname change entirely upon women.
In addition, women face censure for nontraditional name choices. Women who retain their birth surname are seen as selfish and uncommitted to their marriage and family (Nugent 2010; Shafer 2017). Observers may hold women with nontraditional surnames to higher standards of “performance” as wives (Shafer 2017). Needless to say, this censure is not applied to men who retain their birth name—as long as the possibility of men changing their name remains largely unconsidered and invisible, men’s retention of their name appears natural and inevitable.
In practice, many ostensibly gender-neutral rationales for naming choices—such as not burdening children with an unwieldy hyphenated last name or having the unity of one surname for all nuclear family members—privilege the father’s name (Nugent 2010). For example, having a single, non-hyphenated family name would be accomplished if either spouse took the other’s name, but it is exceedingly rare for men to adopt their wife’s name, with only about 3 percent of men choosing nontraditional surnames upon marriage (Shafer & Christensen 2018).
Among those few couples who defy the norm, options include alternating children’s surnames, thus representing both parents’ names equally; combining the parents’ names into an entirely new name; and developing rationales for privileging the mother’s name, such as the labor of pregnancy and birth. (See my earlier blog post on children’s surnames; McClintock 2017.)
Many couples follow patriarchal marital traditions simply because they are traditional: Rituals such as giving away the bride may be given new meaning (e.g., honoring the bride’s relationship with her father) or may be followed by default. Likewise, many couples take women’s surname change for granted, following tradition without discussion or consideration. But that does not lessen the sexism inherent in the tradition.
Women’s surname change remains a conspicuous reminder that women’s identities are changed by marriage, whereas men’s identities remain largely the same. When a newly married couple is announced at a wedding reception as “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith,” the woman’s name and individuality are subsumed. She has gone from “Miss” to “Mrs.,” and her husband’s name has replaced her own name. Certainly, many women make this choice happily, but for others, the choice is agonizing. More to the point, as long as women are subjected to unequal societal pressure to change their surname, the practical and professional costs to name change are disproportionately born by women, as are the psychological costs of losing an individual identity (Nugent 2010; Reid 2018).
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Clarke, Victoria, Maree Burns, and Carole Burgoyne. 2008. “‘Who Would Take Whose Name?’ Accounts of Naming Practices in Same-sex Relationships.” Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology 18: 420–439.
Darrisaw, Michelle. 2018 “16 Common Wedding Traditions—And The Shocking History Behind Them.” Southern Living. https://www.southernliving.com/weddings/history-wedding-traditions
Hoffnung, Michele. 2006. “What’s In a Name? Marital Name Choice Revisted.” Sex Roles 55:817-825.
Johnson, David R., and Laurie K. Scheuble. 1995. “Women's Marital Naming in Two Generations: A National Study.” Journal of Marriage and Family, 57(3):724-732.
McClintock, Elizabeth Aura. 2017. “Choosing Children’s Surnames.” Blog for Psychology Today.
Miller, Claire Cain, & Derek Willis. 2015. “Maiden names, on the rise again.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/upshot/maiden-names-on-the-rise-agai…
Nugent, Colleen. 2010. “Children’s Surnames, Moral Dilemmas: Accounting for the Predominance of Fathers’ Surnames for Children.” Gender & Society, 24(4):499-525.
Patten, Eileen, and Kim Parker. 2012. “A Gender Reversal On Career Aspirations.” Pew Research Center. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/04/19/a-gender-reversal-on-career-a…
Reid, Stephanie. 2018. “The History Behind Maiden Vs. Married Names.” Seattle Bride. https://seattlebridemag.com/expert-wedding-advice/history-behind-maiden…
Shafer, Emily Fitzgibbons. 2017. “Hillary Rodham versus Hillary Clinton: Consequences of surname choice in marriage.” Gender Issues, 34:316-332.
Shafer, Emily Fitzgibbons, and MacKenzie A. Christensen. 2018. “Flipping the (Surname) Script: Men’s Nontraditional Surname Choice at Marriage.” Journal of Family Issues, 39(11):3055–3074.