Two years ago today, I married one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met and I feel lucky every day that he is my family. But this is not a post in which I will wax poetic about my love and happiness. For my cotton anniversary, I am going to honor my marriage with a good old-fashioned angry feminist rant about why I really hate women changing their last names to their husband’s upon marriage. I will most likely piss off many people, including a lot of people who I truly respect and care about. But I ran it by my hubby, and he’s cool with it. (Another reason I love him is that he’s so supportive.)
According to a Facebook and Daily Beast survey, 65 percent of women in their 20s and 30s (my cohort) change their last name to their husband’s upon marriage, and the percentage only goes up with older groups of women. This proportion seems even higher in the informal sample of weddings I’ve been to in the past few years. What is up with this? Why is this tradition, that is clearly based in patriarchy, still common and even seems to be coming back into vogue?
I have never found a reason for changing one’s last name to their husband’s that I find convincing. But for the sake of being thorough, let’s review them. The Feminist Bride has a good rundown, that I paraphrase and expand upon here.
- Because G-d said so: in the bible, when Abraham married his wife, she no longer existed as her own person, but as “the wife of Abraham.” Needless to say, FOR G-D’S SAKE!! I don’t even want to justify this outward patriarchy by even getting into it.
- To prove any kids produced in a marriage are not bastards. When 25% of mothers are single mothers and I can’t remember the last time I heard someone even use the term “bastard,” I feel like this is irrelevant. If people are concerned about bastardom, they need to get over it.
- To ensure that children can inherit their father’s property. In a modern legal system, more or less a non-issue.
- It’s romantic. Why? Am I missing something? I know this is judgmental. But people should acknowledge how social construction of gender influences our idea of what is romantic. I’m not arguing that getting married isn’t romantic, but it doesn’t lose romance by also holding onto some modern facets of life like female independence. I promise you will not lose any great romance if you keep your last name.
- It makes us feel like a family/so I have the same name as my children. This one I get defensive about because I don’t have the same last name as my mother (who has been married to my father for 39 years, if it matters) and I was never confused about who my family was. And now I have a different last name as my husband and I feel like he’s my family. I seriously doubt any potential future children would feel any less like a cohesive family unit because of this. Even if someone else were to judge us any less of a family because we are two married people with two different last names, f-ck them. You know what actually makes you feel like a family? Being a family. Not your last name. Take it from all non-traditional families that a last name does not a family make.
- It’s tradition. Yeah, one based on women not having any of their own rights. Listen, I’m into tradition. That’s one reason I got married. It’s kind of cool to do this thing that other people in love have been doing for thousands of years (well, the ones who were lucky enough to be able to do it for love). But I don’t want to or need to give up my identity for the sake of tradition when it’s not even a necessary piece of the tradition of marriage anymore. It’s possible to do have modern traditions where you take the good stuff from the old and the good stuff from the new.
- It’s what my husband wants. Why? Why does it matter to him? What would he lose or give up with you keeping your last name? And then compare that to what you are giving up – your identity.
- I don’t want to have to explain it. Except with this one, it’s really not that hard. Only once that I can recall did anyone even blink when I said that I’m Mrs. Lady Economist and this is my husband Mr. Set Designer. And this blinking person was actually some ass at a car rental place in Missouri who then proceeded to scold me for not having gotten on changing my name yet. Like the people above who might not consider you family with different last names, f-ck that guy.
Now lots of ladies claim that their name is not their identity. Now here is where the fun comes for this lady economist. It is your identity. And your identity shapes the ways you interact with the economy. Sex discrimination definitely still exists, so if you go by Mrs. Husbandname, then you could be at greater risk for sex discrimination.
Also, except those of us who get married at 18, people spend a long time building up their career and professional reputation. Changing your name partway through your career can disrupt that, particularly for careers where name carries a lot of weight like journalism or academia. It just seems like a bad career investment decision to change your last name mid-career.
There is a study from the EU that explored the impact of a woman changing her last name upon marriage. The study has come under criticism and has since been retracted from the journal it was published in for faulty or fraudulent statistics, so the conclusions should be reviewed with caution. In a summary on the Huffington Post, “a woman who took her partner’s name or a hyphenated name, for example, was judged as more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, less competent and less ambitious in comparison to a woman who kept her own name…. A woman with her own name, on the other hand, was judged as less caring, more independent, more ambitious, more intelligent and more competent, which was similar to how unmarried women and men (married or not) were judged in the study.” Sadly or not, women are expected to exhibit more caring behavior than men, so there can be some penalties associated with not being seen as caring. Hey, I like to care too and be seen as such. But more than that, I like to be judged as ambitious, intelligent and competent – especially in regards to how I interact with the economy.
The same study also estimates the actual pay penalty that women experience because of changing their last name upon marriage. A female job applicant who did change their last name upon marriage was likely to be offered an estimated €861,21 less each month, or $1109.32 in U.S. dollars. This is not only a lot less money to earn, but earning less in each job influences how much you get offered to be paid in your next job. This also impacts future financial security through accrued social security and retirement benefits pegged to earnings levels.
Another bummer about changing your last name is not honoring the fight of our feminist foremothers. 19th century feminist Lucy Stone said, “a wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers … my name is my identity and should not be lost,” and the Lucy Stone League considers changing your last name “name abandonment.” For more reading on how badass Lucy Stone was in regards to marriage, you can read a statement she and her husband Henry Blackwell had read and distributed at their ceremony here. Fellow feminist foremother Elizabeth Cady Stanton only added her husband’s last name Stanton to her’s because it was illegal for her not to do so where and when she got married. There were states where women had to change their last name in order to be able to do things like keep their drives license until the 1960s. Not only was it a feminist success for it to be culturally acceptable for women to keep their own names, but it was even more a success to change the legal ability of women to be able to do so.
I also come from the Caitlin Moran “How To Be A Woman” school of feminism. It’s easy to figure out if something is sexist. Do men do it too? If not, then it’s sexist. Do men change their last name to their wives upon marriage? Nope. In the Guardian, Jill Filipovic argues that men should. Even women who say that their choice wasn’t influenced by gender and it’s just a coincidence that they are reflecting a traditional gender roles are still playing into this sexist tradition. By the same token, I also suggested both my husband and I wear white at our wedding to keep things equal (and it looks good in pictures).
Note that I explicitly say changing it to their husband’s, because I’m not entirely against changing one’s name outright. I understand sometimes people have last names that they don’t identify with as their own’s for plenty of good reasons, but why does that often mean you are taking on the last name of the man in your life? Isn’t there something else you could choose like your mom’s birth name instead of your dad’s? Even if you don’t identify with your last name, I don’t think that means you should subsume your identity under your husband’s. Maybe you could both change it to something else altogether if you really want to start your new lives as a family together, rather than you just starting your new life as part of his family.
Also, just because you do change your last name does not mean you aren’t a feminist. Like Simone wrote on this blog earlier, not everything you do needs to be a feminist act for you to identify as a feminist and be a damn good feminist too. You are still allowed in the club if you changed or are planning to change your last name. But you might get a feminist gold star if you keep it.
*Amended to note that EU study has since been retracted from its journal of publication.