Why do women change their last names when they get married? Setting aside the fact that it is the conventional thing to do, the reasons women change their names aren’t overly persuasive. Many of the female friends and relatives who are dearest to me have changed their last names, and they are intelligent, thoughtful individuals who probably considered the following arguments, so I hope that they and other women like them will submit comments about why they disagree.
The custom of married women changing to their husband’s last name is a relic of the times when wives were the legal property of their husbands. The modern parlance of “taking” one’s husband’s name makes it sound like the wife’s independent choice, but it looks different when viewed in the context of history. It’s like engagement rings, which are effectively a down payment. (I have one myself, but only because when I got engaged people kept asking where my ring was, and they are just so pretty and sparkly.)
Nowadays some women say they change their names because it is “easier” – when they call their children’s school or doctor, there is less explaining to do. But really, how hard is it to say “my name is Smith, but my kids’ last name is Jones”? As a person with an unusual first name (though it seems to be gaining popularity with each passing day), I have spent maybe an extra 45 seconds on many phone calls spelling out my name. As a wife with a different last name from my husband, I have spent the same 45 seconds on the phone explaining that while my name is Hoffman, I’m calling about my husband, whose name is Roth. Granted, telephone customer service is a hassle, but I doubt that going to the lengths of getting a new driver’s license and passport is going to make it any more pleasant.
For those who feel strongly about this “same name as the kids” issue, I admire the solution a friend adopted: she kept her last name and gave it to her children. Because she is the primary caretaker she is more likely to be calling the school or the doctor or whoever, so by sharing her own last name with her children she avoids whatever hassle she might face if her name were different from theirs. (Like my friend, her husband kept his own last name. But I suppose that goes without saying.)
Another reason some women offer for changing their last names is that they don’t want to feel left out of their families as the only member with a different last name. This suggests that they understand names to be important signifiers of identity; it follows that by giving up their own last names, they are burying or even repudiating their pre-marriage identities, including their membership in the families who raised them (sometimes dropping the original “nuclear” family’s name is the most alluring reason to change one’s last name, but surely that’s true of men too). But wives don’t have to choose between their childhood family and their married family: both spouses can hyphenate their names and give the same hyphenated last name to their children. (What those children choose to do when they get married is their problem.)
A couple who feels strongly that their family should share the same last name has another option: choosing a new last name that combines the wife’s and husband’s name, or a name that is entirely new and expresses something about their marriage and the identity of their new family. Both partners then share equally in the formation of their new identities and in symbolically breaking ties with their old ones, but also in considering and shaping their identity or character as a new family. Plus this option opens up exciting new possibilities: want to be a Kennedy? Or better yet, a Colbert? Go right ahead!
Some women change their last names because it is important to their husbands. But if a man is already dictating what his wife’s very name will be just as they are starting out in life together, it does not bode well for his respect of her independence in other matters. (If he is willing to trade for things that are important to the woman, however, she might as well explore the opportunities for profitable bartering.)
Of course these are generalizations and each woman’s experience is unique, but the phenomenon of women changing their last names to their husbands’ is the norm, and it is troubling. Would you all please explain why you keep doing it?