Research conducted by the Pew Research Center suggests that about 80 percent of U.S. women who are married to men took their husband’s last names post-nuptials.
I have to admit that this practice has perplexed me for a long time. I still remember the annoyance I felt over 10 years ago now when a friend on Facebook was making daily posts in the weeks leading up to her wedding, counting down the number of days until she would be “Mrs.” Alan Dearborn (name changed). It seemed odd that she didn’t even use her own first name in this context, and that she holds an advanced degree and might have had some concerns about the career consequences of losing her established professional identity.
Full disclosure: I have never been married and marriage hasn’t been a very important goal for me, especially at the time when most of my peers were marrying. So, I probably don’t have the same sentiments associated with this institution that many of those around me do. My point in sharing this is to acknowledge that I’ve had to perform some gymnastics to put myself in the shoes of the women who make the choice to change their last names after marriage. But doing so has helped me to understand what is really at the heart of my vexation.
I think I now understand why some might believe that it’s both sentimental and practical for all members of a family—which will often include children—to share the same last name. For some people, a shared last name might signal that the family is a unit and committed to one another. When parents share the same last name as their children, it makes things like traveling together much easier. And what happens if a child ends up in the hospital and a parent is desperately seeking information but can’t easily confirm that he or she is the parent?
While some women—about five percent, according to the Pew survey—opt to hyphenate their last names, and might then have children with both names, I can see why it is more practical to have just the one. Some of those children will go on to get married and have children of their own, and the practice of hyphenating an already hyphenated name is not sustainable.
Considering all of these factors has made me realize that it’s not the name-change practice itself that bothers me, rather it’s the gender inequality it so starkly lays bare but that many of us choose to overlook.
The same Pew survey showed that just 5 percent of men took their wife’s names upon marrying. So, among the roughly 2 million marriages occurring each year in the United States, how many collective hours did (mostly) women sink into changing their names on driver’s licenses, bank accounts, credit cards, passports, degrees, home deeds, and any other important cards or documents they acquired pre-marriage? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I feel certain that it amounts to a whole lot of time spent. I think I’d feel better if I knew that this labor was being more fairly distributed at the population level because an equal proportion of men were opting to change their last names.
Beyond the burden of the time and effort women are disproportionately shouldering to give their families a single last name, I have to wonder what this practice symbolizes, especially to children who are forming ideas about gender roles and the authority and respect conferred to men and women by society. Other academics have publicly voiced similar concerns.
Perhaps there is some hope for change on the horizon. Recent research shows that among UK high-school students, only about 35 percent thought that women should take their husband’s last name. And the Pew survey reports that among never-married U.S. women, just 33 percent said they would change their names, and 24 percent said they were undecided. Perhaps a much larger proportion of these women, if and when they decide to marry, will plan to suggest that their future husbands step up and change their names upon marrying.
It’s interesting to think about how most men would respond to such a request. My (perhaps unfair) sense is that many of them would balk. Upon finding no well-reasoned or fair explanation for why the onus should always fall on the woman to change her name, some of them might say something to the effect of, “I don’t care if you change your name, let’s just both keep our own names!” But then what will determine whose name any children produced in this marriage will receive? Using only logic here, shouldn’t it be the name of whomever falls pregnant, since we typically know without a doubt that this person is a biological relation of the child?
What’s the path forward? This practice doesn’t seem to be changing significantly through personal choices. One idea I’ve had is that perhaps when a couple is applying for their marriage license, the office processing the license randomly assigns one of the last names as their family name going forward.
If these ideas make you uncomfortable, that will have to be a conversation for another day. As for me, if I ever get married, I look forward to counting down the days until my future husband becomes Mr. Dr. Leah Sheppard.