For a bride-to-be in American society, the dilemma of whether or not to take on her fiancee’s last name is a difficult and often painstaking decision to make.Most English-speaking countries have the long-standing tradition of a woman adopting her husband’s last name after marriage. Besides a long list of notifications, the wife must deal with the notion of losing her identity and cultural heritage.
Some women feel that by assuming their husband’s last name, they are giving up their identity–an identity they’ve built upon and lived up to for many years.
Names, in a sense, are a symbol of who we are. They dis-tinguish us from others in both our professional and social lives. Take away our names, and we are nothing. Without a name, friends cannot find us, our employers cannot pay us and all our history is lost.
Why, then, do 90 percent of women, as of 2003, abandon their names in favor of their husband’s? Some tend to take the “easy route” by adopting the Shakespearean adage, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” and argue that a name is just a name and not the essence of a person. Other women find fault with their own last name, either because they dislike it (it’s hard to spell or pronounce) or they have deep issues with their own family; thus, they seize the opportunity to change it so those burdens will be lessened.
At the other end of the spectrum, women who do not choose to take their husband’s last name are assumed to not love their husband or that they are having problems within their families.
The whole issue of a woman changing her name is embedded in our cultural norms. Some women feel insecure if they’re not married, when of the typical age. They need the title of “Mrs.” in order to feel complete and successful in society. Society itself wants to maintain the patriarchal attitude and traditions it has always held onto. It used to be that when a woman was married off and the “bride price” was paid, she was henceforth property of her husband. Men, in turn, feel threatened today because of the modern woman’s attitude on keeping her maiden name.
The trend of changing surnames began in the 1960s and 1970s, with 85 percent of women changing their name at marriage. This is surprising because in 2003, five percent more women have changed their names.
Accommodating both male and female counterparts, liberated women of the early 1980s started another trend-the trend of retaining their maiden name on top of taking their husband’s name. Activists, public officials, and wives of politicians (ex. Hillary Rodham Clinton), kept their maiden name out of fear that by losing their name, they would lose part of their birthright and identity.
The Lucy Stone League (LSL), an organization that supports name choice freedom, states that this “tradition” is not a tradition at all, it is a powerful instance of sex discrimination which has a profound effect on women. LSL develops several ar-guments for their stance.
When girls grow up, they have no incentive to fully develop their identities as adolescents, for they know that when they marry, they will abandon that identity in order to develop a whole new one. An astonishing 95 percent of childbirths in the United States are given the father’s surname. More than half of those children will lose that identity through marriage.
Another argument that LSL presents is that stripping women of their maiden name and thus, their cultural heritage and identity– is much like prison culture. Inmates are given numbers and their names are taken from them. The purpose of this practice is to strip away their sense of importance and humanity. LSL maintains that the cultural norm of women giving up their name is equally damning.
LSL is currently working to change the naming practices of marriage and at birth to a non-sexist tradition where the burden of name changes, if any, are shared by both men and women. The organization stands firm that until naming practices are equal, women will not be considered equal to men in the United States.
One would think that the United States, being one of the most modern and advanced of cultures, would be far more accepting of name choice freedom. Surprisingly enough, na-tions in Africa–in countries far less advanced than our own–are more accepting of women who wish to keep their maiden name.
In countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Burundi, women do not drop their names to carry on their husbands. This is not a new phenomenon for them. Even more accepting are some Zambian people who equally distribute the name change burden between husband and wife; the husband takes on his wife’s last name, and the wife takes on her husband’s last name.
Slowly but surely, American women are beginning to notice the inequalities in being forced by societal norms to change their surname. Some have even gotten a little creative by giving their children their maiden name as their middle name so that their daughters, and sons, won’t lose their matrilineal heritage. Although a small amount of American women are fighting these inequalities and sexist cultural norms a meager five percent–this small amount could start a revolution and change national perspectives of what it means to be married.
Marriage is supposed to be a blend of two people’s lives, not an Oreo cookie concoction where the woman suffocates under the dark layers of a male-dominated society. Marriage is not about losing one’s identity or forcing one person to change. Marriage is about the continuation of one’s identity in conjugal matters. By keeping her maiden name, or joining it equally with that of her husband’s, a woman is able to continue on with her cultural heritage and identity.
In order for the current situ-ation to change for women in our society, men must fully understand the absurdity and inequal-ity that women as a whole experience by this practice. If the tables were turned, so to speak, and a man was forced to change his last name just because he married a woman, how would society handle that? Being that America is still very much a patriarchal society, this practice would most likely never occur voluntarily. So what, then, makes it right that a woman must change her name, lose a part of her identity, and erase the lines of her cultural heritage and understanding of what it is to be “herself?”
Erin Joyce is a senior majoring in communication.