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A survey of New York Times wedding announcements in the last year found that almost 30% of women chose to keep their maiden names — a steady increase from decades past. "Women are more likely to keep their names if they are older, not religious, have children from a previous marriage or have an advanced degree and established career," the Times reports.
At first blush, this observation seems innocuous enough but, like many social customs, upon closer examination starts to reveal a problematic assumption. It points to the idea that women need a justification for retaining their birth name — and not only that, but their reason should be one society deems "acceptable." Has she earned a medical degree that makes it confusing for patients to refer to her by a different last name than the one on her license? Has she been leaning in, a la Sheryl Sandberg, throughout her 20s and most of her 30s and finally made it to the corner office? Is she a cold, calculating power player who loves her career more than her family? This is the picture that's often drawn of women who choose to keep their maiden name.
Women need a justification for retaining their birth name — and not only that, but their reason should be one society deems "acceptable."
Here's a different visual: At 21, I'm gleefully engaged to my favorite person. I'm very connected to my faith and family-oriented culture. Fresh out of undergrad, I get married and move to a small Midwestern town with grim career prospects, in order to be with my husband while he finishes graduate school. I willingly defer professional goals for the sake of personal ones — the downsides of which are not lost on either of us. I flit from one temp gig to another as his professional trajectory pulls us back and forth across the country. I have no real career or plans for grad school. I am financially dependent on him. But I do not change my last name.
By all accounts, I was that image of a dutiful young wife deliberately prioritizing her husband's career to the detriment of her own. And yet the name you see at the top of this article is the one I've been scrawling across the tops of papers since kindergarten. This choice is then superficially misconstrued as a lack of commitment or enthusiasm toward the relationship, despite significant evidence to the contrary.
While it seems like we've evolved beyond the 1950s sentiment that women cannot be professionals as well as homemakers, the subtext of the maiden name/married name debate is just that. This socially-constructed dichotomy pits maiden-name, independent lady bosses against married-name, doting housewives. The implication is that you can't be both, and either way you lose. If you're an amazing homemaker, there's no way you can hold it down in a boardroom, and vice versa. It's one or the other: traditional or modern. Or, at least, that's what the decision to keep or change your last name signals to the world.
However, my decision wasn't a political statement. It's just my name. My identity. The name I've used since I was born. Every time I tried out out my married name, it felt like it belonged to someone else. It wasn't familiar. For this reason, I wasn't interested in my husband taking my last name, or creating a new last name together, as some couples choose to do.
This socially-constructed dichotomy pits maiden-name, independent lady bosses against married-name, doting housewives.
As strongly as I feel about the choice, I’m not immune to the external pressures that inevitably come with rejecting long-held social conventions. "It's tradition for the woman to take her husband's last name," is a familiar attempt to convince me to simply go with the flow. But who's tradition? In Islamic tradition, for example, women don't change their last names thanks to a strong cultural emphasis on preserving one's genealogical roots. Even in cases of adoption, it's highly encouraged to retain the child's birth name, if known, to avoid potentially erasing his or her biological past. In an increasingly diverse, global society, can a woman be faulted for following a different tradition than the one that's perceived as dominant?
Admittedly, times have changed and what was once considered a radical form of feminist protest doesn’t raise as many eyebrows today. But despite the growing number of women keeping their birth names intact, married names continue to be privileged by the institutions that govern day-to-day tasks. When it comes to things like customs forms on international flights and mail-forwarding, a shared last name is still considered a signifier of a family unit. Once, while shopping at a bulk retailer using my membership ID, my husband was carded. There was no way to prove that he was using his wife's card and not a stolen one. Needless to say, no jumbo packs of socks were purchased that day.
I'm sure these incidents have more to do with the sheer convenience of the convention rather than any oppressive agenda. These everyday hindrances, however small, start to pile up — to the point where I question whether it would just be easier to change my name. Years later, though I have actual bylines and a writing career that "warrants" preserving my birth name, doubts still creep into my mind. Will a decision I made in my early twenties still hold up, in a practical sense, into my forties, fifties and beyond?
Will a decision I made in my early twenties still hold up, in a practical sense, into my forties, fifties and beyond?
How my name will affect future life stages is nothing to gloss over either. "But what will you do when you have kids? It'll be so confusing that you have a different last name," is a question I hear constantly. I'm not a mom, but I would hope that after feeding, cleaning and caring for a child around the clock, he or she wouldn't need to look at my surname to figure out who I was. Nonetheless, horror stories persist. Mothers with different last names prevented from picking up their kids from school, blocked from depositing money into bank accounts they set up for their children, questioned by the pediatrician to confirm they are, in fact, the mother and not the nanny or a kidnapper. Anecdotal evidence it may be, but the volume of these types of stories points to the fact that the system is very much stacked against women who choose to keep their maiden names yet desire a "traditional" family life. Sure, we have the illusion of choice in the matter, but do we really want to go with the option that makes life more annoying, regardless of how closely it aligns with our personal convictions?
So it doesn't matter that in this Internet age of ours, changing your last name could erase a sizeable digital footprint you've worked hard to curate. Or that the changing landscape of marriage and the legalization of same-sex marriage throws all of these wedding-related "traditions" into flux. None of that matters unless new mechanisms are created to accommodate the changing dynamics of families and their surnames. Without that change, cultural attitudes toward last names will continue to reduce multifaceted women to a tired and simplistic dichotomy. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be happening any time soon. Which is why, when I ordered a beautiful leather satchel last week, it arrived emblazoned with my married initials. You know, in case they were right about the kid stuff after all. Just to have the option.