There is something primal about my generation's desire to see a family name carried forward through marriage. In its simplest, most traditional form this means our sons marry, have children, and bingo! the name moves down the line. The wife's family? Well, they lose the name game. The link to their family history is broken.
But we no longer live in hide-bound traditional times. Today, daughters marry and may choose to keep their original name or they and their spouse may devise a combination--a hyphenation of last names or a new name made up from bits of each family name. Sons, along with their spouses, may change their names to the newly devised combination.
Life is so interesting; name changes and the reasoning behind them so fascinating--although not so easy for the traditionalist generation to accept. As one of the cards in a deck of Lojong (Tibetian Buddhist sayings) my daughter made for me, puts it, "Don't Misinterpret. We don't get wise by staying in a room with all the doors and windows closed."
On a recent visit to my daughter and her family--for my granddaughter's high school graduation--we found ourselves caught up in a discussion about the decision women today make about their names when they marry. I remembered when I married--at the ripening age of 25 (relative "old" for my generation). I was starting my career as a journalist but had published only one or two stories. I was not yet an established or recognized byline. I was going to take my husband's name. My boss a Time Inc.--a woman ahead of her times--urged me not to do it. I was deaf to her suggestion. This was the 60s and I was of the generation that, as teenagers, we scribbled our fantasy married names on sheets of notebook paper whenever we had a crush on a boy. Besides, I was excited to take on a new name with fewer syllables than the one I had been born to.
My daughter married in her 30s with her career more firmly established than mine had been. She had authored a book and had a recognizable name in academia. She kept our family name, which her father confessed he found thrilling. Her daughter has her father's name, which my daughter says occasionally causes confusion when she calls her daughter's schools or doctors.
There's also a young woman who is like a goddaughter to me. She's the daughter of my best friends who are now deceased. When my "goddaughter" married (in her 30s), she and her husband took the same name--a combination of both their names. This kept a link to their own family names and careers but now they and their daughters have the same last name.
WHat's the history here of women adopting their husband's name? TUrns out it dates back to the 9th century and something called the doctrine of coverture in English common law. Under this doctrine, women lacked an independent legal identity apart from their spouses.
At birth, women received their father’s surname; when they were “given away” at marriage, they automatically took their husband’s surname. The phrase “giving away the bride” was intended literally—under the doctrine of coverture, women were property, transferred from husband to father, and largely prohibited from owning their own property.
Mirel Zaman, a blogger on Refinery29, was lamenting her decision to take her husband's name (she made her maiden name her middle name and dropped her middle name). She writes that she felt she lost a piece of herself. Beyond that, though, she researched more recent history. What she found was that well into the 20th century, women had to fight state governments if we didn't want to change our names when we married. States could make us take our husband's name in order to vote, open a bank account or secure our own passport.
It wasn't until 1975 that the last of the state laws requiring a woman to take her husband’s last name after marriage had been eliminated. Zaman writes,
"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.
How do the psychologists at Psychology Today see the fallout in the 21st century if women make name choices that run counter to tradition?
Women face censure for nontraditional name choices. Women who retain their birth surname are seen as selfish and uncommitted to their marriage and family .... Observers may hold women with nontraditional surnames to higher standards of “performance” as wives. Needless to say, this censure is not applied to men who retain their birth name—as long as the possibility of men changing their name remains largely unconsidered and invisible, men’s retention of their name appears natural and inevitable.
The writers also make this point:
As long as women are subjected to unequal societal pressure to change their surname, the practical and professional costs to name change are disproportionately born by women, as are the psychological costs of losing an individual identity.
Hard to believe that a little more than fifty years ago states could put our choice of name under a husband's thumb. And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same.* That said, our Betty Friedan moments back in the day have helped our daughters to move the "married name" ball down the field--even if their daughters will have to move it further along.
*In 1849, French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.