Two years ago, I got married and took my husband’s last name, adopting my original surname as my middle name and dropping my birth-given middle name altogether. My husband seemed mostly apathetic about me doing this. He was flattered that I wanted to take his surname, but wouldn’t have been bothered if I hadn’t. But I wanted to do it. It’s what my mother had done, and what I always imagined I’d do, too.
It wasn’t until a month after our wedding, though, when my driver’s license expired, that I really got the ball rolling on my name change. As I filled out the paperwork required to get a new Social Security card, I felt my first pangs of misgivings. Why was I doing this? Was it anti-feminist? The feeling my imminent name change suddenly gave me was not one of joining, but instead of shrinking. I felt like I was burying a part of my own identity — and for what? To adopt a surname that was laden with a history to which I had no connection?
I talked about my shifting perspective with my new spouse, who encouraged me to forget about the process. But I didn’t. My list of reasons for changing my name seemed to overshadow my new and nebulous feelings of doubt. I wanted us — and any future kids we might have — to have the same last name. Part of me wanted to put some distance between myself and my family of origin’s surname, to symbolically step into a new stage of life, one centred around the family my partner and I were creating. Objectively, I preferred my partner’s surname to my own, and of the two of us, he felt the most connection to his last name (I’d grown up expecting to change mine, after all). I don’t think he would have taken my name, though I never seriously asked him to.
But my discomfort has persisted. I like having the same last name as my husband. I just miss my original name, too. I miss strange, specific things. Even though I disliked my middle name, I had liked the roundness its first letter, B, lent to my initials — MBK, versus MKZ. I miss spelling my last name out on the phone, and ending by saying, “F F like Frank Frank,” which is how my mom always spells it and which always made me think of her. While I love my in-laws, I feel strange sharing a last name with them, tied to them in a way I hadn’t anticipated. And I wonder whether it was wrong for me to take part in an inherently patriarchal tradition, one that’s relatively easy to opt out of.
That last concern didn’t occur to me in a vacuum. When I began asking people what they thought about women taking a spouse’s last name after marriage, many called out the practice’s sexist roots. Renée Warren, 39, the CEO and founder of business coaching company We Wild Women, explained her decision to keep her last name after marriage by saying, “I am a feminist and had also built up a little bit of a brand around my name. Going through the motions of changing my last name not only didn't feel right, to me, [it] put feminism back a few more years.” Sabrina Beaumont, 40, the CMO of Passion Plans, said, “The practice of taking your spouse's name is truly one that helps maintain the ingrown sexism we see in society. If there was any sort of reason, 50% of couples would take the woman's last name but that's not so. With no functional purpose, taking the man's name is a tradition that should be stopped in its tracks.”
I wonder whether it was wrong for me to take part in an inherently patriarchal tradition, one that’s relatively easy to opt out of.
The modern North American tradition of marital name changes is a holdover of Anglo-American coverture laws, which dictated that in marriage, a woman’s rights were subsumed by her husband. The suffragist and abolitionist Lucy Stone is typically credited for being one of the first to publicly and vocally push back against the tradition of married women changing their names in the United States. She kept her name when she married in 1855. Even so, in 1879, she was denied the right to vote in a school election unless she added her husband’s name to her signature. Over the next 100-ish years, US state governments continued to rule on the question of whether women should be forced to change their last name in order to vote, open a bank account, and even secure their own passport. By around 1975, though, every US state law that had required a woman take her husband’s last name after marriage had been eliminated. This was thanks to the women’s rights movement, in which marital names became a core issue insofar as they pertained to a woman’s personal liberty. It was such a prominent issue that the number of women keeping their birth-given surnames hit an all-time high in the 1970s, according to a small 2015 Google Consumer Survey analyzed by The New York Times’ The Upshot. That figure dipped in the more conservative 1980s, before rising again each subsequent decade.
That said, the significant majority of women in the U.S. still adopt their spouse’s surname after tying the knot. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number, since many studies analyse limited populations — one used The New York Times’ wedding announcements, Harvard University alumni records, and Massachusetts birth records, for instance — groups that tend to be composed of high-income, mostly white, straight couples. But the research I’ve seen indicates that roughly 70% to 90% of women in the U.S. adopt their spouse’s name after marriage.
At the same time, more than 60% of U.S. women described themselves as feminist in 2020, the Pew Research Center reported. That means there are plenty of people who, like me, consider themselves feminist and still took part in this patriarchal tradition — by which I mean taking a spouse’s name, not just marriage in general.
Considering how much it was nagging at me, I was surprised to find that many people apparently don’t think about changing their name all that much. In a small 2013 study that looked into students’ reasons for marital name change, researchers from East Carolina University found that about half of them thought the practice just wasn’t that big a deal. The majority saw changing their name as a family expectation, a tradition that was worth honouring, a way to unify their family, or just easier. Very few respondents indicated that the practice was a way of giving a husband power over their wife — but a significant number thought it was a sign of respect toward their husband, an answer that didn’t sit all that well with me.
When people hesitated, it had more to do with their sense of self than with their thoughts on the patriarchy. They talked about being sad to lose their personal identity, a degree of autonomy in their career, and, significantly, their family heritage — a common thread that came up among the people to whom I spoke. Iqra Mehrin Azhar, for example, said, “As a Pakistani South Asian woman, I know that, culturally, women take on their husband's names. But growing up, I strongly associated with my religious identity, which is that of a Muslim woman. And as a proud Muslim woman, I knew that God did not require it in Islam,” the 33-year-old digital marketer and businesswoman explained. “If I had taken on my spouse's last name, I would have felt like I am simply leaving my family and my past behind.”
Rayna Weiss, 35, on the other hand, worried it would be inappropriate or even appropriative for her to take her husband’s Colombian last name, Londoño, since she wasn’t Colombian herself. And both Weiss and her husband agreed that the Latin American tradition of adding “de” plus the husband’s last name to a married woman’s name — which would have made her Rayna Weiss de Londoño, roughly translating to Rayna Weiss of the Londoño family — felt chauvinistic and possessive, so she chose to keep her original name.
For others, family heritage motivated them to shed their name. Writer Carol Gee, 71, for instance, told me that when she took her husband’s last name 48 years ago, it was “what folks did,” but then too, “there was also some question about my paternity and maiden name, so I was happy to rid myself of it.” I also heard about people who were eager to change their last names because their family of origin was abusive.
One of the main reasons I wanted to change my name was because I thought it would help me feel more like my husband and I were building something together, a family of our own. I’d dated my partner for about a decade before we got married, and lived with him for half of that time. Adopting his name felt like a tangible step toward something new. But Simon Duncan, PhD, emeritus professor of Comparative Social Policy at the University of Bradford in the UK, who has studied marital name change traditions in Britain and Norway, notes that many women change their name in order not just to feel like a unified family, but to look like one. “You don't just have to be a good family; you have to be seen to be a good family by other people,” he says. That reason is coloured by institutionalised sexism, he points out. It also made me wonder about how the pressure to appear “official” affects couples who are already often invalidated by society as a whole, like LGBTQ couples.
“I don’t know if we necessarily thought about it consciously, but I do think in a lot of ways we as a couple have always tried to be just like all of our straight friends,” Ali Sousa, 31, who married her wife Carly, 34, in 2018, tells me. “We aspire to have a family, and raise our kids in a world where we are just like all the other families, and they just happen to have two moms. I think in some ways, using one of our last names, having the same last name, and being a family where the kids and all the parents have the same last names, kind of levels us up with other hetereosexual families.”
“You don't just have to be a good family; you have to be seen to be a good family by other people."
Simon Duncan, PhD
Carly says their decision over which last name to take was just “a rock-paper-scissors of which of these things is worse? And honestly, there’s more room for bullying with her last name, it being a verb.” (Ali’s birth surname was Grab.) For Ali, the change took some getting used to, but was ultimately exciting. But for Carly, the decision to keep her last name came with its own anxieties. “Not getting rid of my last name was hard for me,” she says. “I really struggled with the roles and responsibilities and norms of what a homosexual relationship entails. For me, to keep my last name meant that I was quote-unquote the man of the relationship. I, for a long time, was sort of like, ‘Oh man, I'm going to be the boy, that sucks. I don't want to wear the pants. I don't want people to think I'm the masculine one. I want to be a beautiful, attractive, feminine girl. I want to be the mother.’”
Carly was able to put those fears to rest, but only after doing a lot of work around how she thought about the roles in her relationship, even down to their division of household labour. “I also think we found ways to make sure that Carly felt like she was in the more feminine role,” Ali says. “So for example, I proposed. And even though we each walked down the aisle at our wedding, I went first and Carly came second as the final bride moment. So even though those aren't necessarily the big-picture items, like having the same last name and choosing hers, it’s about trying to find ways to give her opportunities for her to feel like she didn't have to necessarily carry out that role all the time.”
As I talked to Carly and Ali about the ways in which they fit into and chafed against society’s heteronormativity, something clicked for me: My concerns weren’t really just about my decision to change my name. That choice had come to represent the ways in which I was meant to fit into the entire institution of marriage, one that doesn’t always treat me like an equal, or even a full individual. My husband and I are both feminists, and we try to be intentional and thoughtful about our relationship. But gender roles run deep. Can we always identify which roles we had chosen, and which we had simply slipped into? After all, sometimes, quietly accepting what’s being forced onto us can feel a lot like making the right choice.
Before we got married, I felt comfortable in the roles we’d taken in our relationship, largely because I still felt completely independent from my partner — despite living together, we operated as two separate people, with robust lives that only occasionally intersected. After our wedding, despite wanting to create a more parallel existence to my new spouse, I started to question things about our relationship that had never bothered me before. I began refusing to do the dishes, a chore we’d always split. I dragged my feet when my husband asked if we could open a joint bank account. I trust him and I trust his principles and his respect for me — but I’m scared to lose my autonomy. I’m scared to become “a wife.”
Lori Axler Miranda, 41, tells me that she understands that tension, and says that her discomfort around gender roles became more complicated after having her first child. She felt like the bulk of the childcare tasks fell on her shoulders, often by necessity. “Whether you intend to or not, the gender roles really shift. It forced us into these very stereotypical gender roles that we’d never been in before,” she says. Lori adds that having kids also affected how she felt about her decision to take her husband’s name — something she’d struggled with on and off ever since she had changed it, two years after they got married. “It feels strange to change your name — which is a part of your identity — just because you get married. And there is no expectation for men to do this," she says. "And after having kids… I'm the one who carried [my kids] and I'm the one who birthed them and fed them, but they take my husband's name.”
What became obvious to me after looking through the research and speaking to dozens of people is that there’s no one right answer here. People have a million reasons for their decision to change, or not change, their name, and those reasons are all informed by everyone’s unique cultural and personal history. After taking a close look at my apprehensions, I’m actually less bothered now by my decision to change my name than I had been. I can now see that discomfort was a symptom, rather than the source, of my anxiety around what marriage means for me. That said, if someone asked me my opinion, I’d probably suggest taking a year before officially making the change to think about it: Try using the new name, or not. See what it brings up for you, and after some time has passed, you can decide if you want to make the switch for good.