Revisiting the practice of the wife taking the husband’s surname

Recall that about two months ago I discussed the well-ingrained tradition of the woman taking the husband’s name when they marry. Well, recently the Wall Street Journal published an article regarding this very issue. One thing provided was not very surprising:

Well-educated women in high-earning occupations are significantly more likely to keep their maiden names, the study shows. Brides in professional fields such as medicine, the arts or entertainment are the most likely of all to do so.

Those with already-established careers are most likely to go with their maiden name to avoid confusion in their careers after their marriage. Women who take their husband’s last name are likely to continue using their maiden name as part of their professional identity if they adopt their married name as well: Hillary Rodham Clinton, for example. But one thing that was rather interesting is that a study appears to have found that women who keep their maiden names when they marry are more likely to earn more and be more successful in their careers.

In a Dutch study published last year in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, researchers had 90 students compare hypothetical women they had met at a party based on whether they took their husband’s names. Those who did were judged as more caring, dependent and emotional, while those who kept their names were seen as smarter and more ambitious.

Researchers also asked 50 students to screen e-mails containing hypothetical job applications from women. The candidates who had kept their maiden names were more likely to be hired and were offered salaries averaging 40% higher than their name-changing peers.

The WSJ points out that the latter study does have some issues that will need to be overcome, but it does at least highlight that this is something in need of more study.

Yahoo! mirrored the article and in the comments on Yahoo! must be what I would consider a very striking comment with regard to the idea by Yahoo! user La Dominicana:

My boyfriend of five years and I have talked about and he knows that under no circumstances am I changing my name for his. It’s the fact that why should I have to be the one to change my name like it’s not as meaningful to me or like it’s not good enough. No one ever thinks the man should take the woman’s last name, do they? Then that also means to “carry on the name” of the family a woman “must” have a son. No thank you I am not buying into this patriarchal garbage that society wants to feed me. If we are so egalitarian like people want to assume then why this tradition and big deal over changing names with only the assumption that the woman should change her name. No thank you as for what name my kids will have if I have kids I know my name better be somewhere in their names since I will be the one carrying them around for nine months.

Like many other ideas in our society that have been around for longer than people really care to realize, such as abortion and circumcision, the idea of the wife not taking the last name of the husband tends to generate a lot of very harsh negative feedback, with accusations of lack of commitment and other vulgar, unwarranted responses being the norm. As I pointed out in my previous article, some men appear to think that women should feel privileged being able to take the husband’s last name, as if the man marrying her bestows such a privilege upon her for which she should feel gracious, such as this comment by Yahoo! user blackacidevil:

Your boyfriend or fiancee was right to state that you obviously lack the commitment necessary for a marriage. Men give up plenty to commit to one woman, to provide for her, etc. You should perhaps try to be honored that a man that is proud of his name and heritage would love you enough to GIVE you his name.

This blog uses a plugin to provide an alert to my Facebook wall whenever I post a new article. In response to the alert for my previous article, a lady friend of mine said this:

Here on facebook I have my maiden name alongside my married name. However legally I took my husband’s name because it pleased him and it was my joy to please him. It cost me very little, and brought Chris great joy and stablity. But every person should do as they wish.

And her use of her maiden name on Facebook allowed those of us who once knew her back in high school to find her again today.

Now one thing with which I’ve come to agree is that what you do matters not nearly as much as why you did it. Here she said that she legally changed her name to that of her husband’s “because it pleased him and it was my joy to please him”. To me this is not a good enough reason to legally give up a name you’ve had for the entirety of your life up to that point. Her college degree and high school diploma carry her maiden name. Everything she had done in her life prior to getting married were done in her maiden name. An entire life was started under her maiden name.

And she changed her last name to please her husband?

I am not yet legally married, and my fiancée has said that she has no issue taking my last name when we do get married. I’ve told her the decision is entirely hers. As Yahoo! user “Just Wondering…” eloquently put it in his comment to the above mentioned article:

There is no “need” for a woman to change her last name upon marrying. In the old days when the ownership of a woman was being transferred from one man (father) to another man (husband) it made sense. Now there really isn’t a need for it. You’re just as married (legally and to God) with the same last name as with different ones. Having the same last name doesn’t make anybody any more respectful, married, loving, etc. It makes no difference to the IRS, the bank when you buy a house or car, to Social Security Administration. The more property a woman acquires under her birth name, it can become more effort to change her last name and to make sure the property reflects the changed name. But if it’s important to a couple that they have the same last name (or first name, if they want) that’s up to them.

The mention of property is especially important, as title to any property acquired by the man and woman before they get married remain separately titled while they are married unless they decide there will be joint ownership of all assets. However only a legal contract can actually make that official. Thus for government-issued titles, if the woman changes her last name upon marriage, she must have those government-issued titles updated with the proper name at the cost of money and probably a considerable amount of time, depending on the procedures to follow.

Then there’s this idea that is mentioned:

In the old days when the ownership of a woman was being transferred from one man (father) to another man (husband) it made sense.

The notion that a woman was owned, first by her parents and then by her husband, is one of the principal reasons for the woman having the last name of the husband after the advent and propagation of surnames across society. Today in the western societies, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who actually believes the husband owns the wife. More common are men (and also women) who believe that women are to submit to their husbands, but an actual claim of ownership is hardly ever made.

But in law, however, the notion persisted until very recent history. I will discuss that in another article.

In concluding this iteration, the one thing that women need to understand is that taking the husband’s last name is not something you should do absentmindedly. You will be pressured by family and by your fiancée to do so, arguably in the name of societal tradition, but remember that the ultimate decision is yours and yours alone.

You see, and I’m addressing both men and women alike here, whether the wife takes the husband’s last name, keeps her maiden name, or hyphenates is entirely up to her. The question for men, then, is whether you will support her decision, or leave her or threaten to leave her because her decision isn’t to your liking.

Note: Please read my follow-up to this article “Playing the marriage name game