What’s In a Name?

Should women be expected to sign away their birth names as part of the marriage contract?

Traditionally in our culture, when a woman marries, she adopts the last name of her husband. This custom began in 19th century Britain, when women were looked on as property, and the name change symbolized how the woman’s ownership had changed hands from her father to her husband. It could also have a basis in the Christian tradition; a public act of submission from the woman to her husband, deference to the head of the household.

There are many, many reasons why some women are against this name-change. There are women who fear that the professional reputation they have built as a single woman will be lost if their name is changed. There are women who feel as though, in changing their name, they lose a piece of their identity or cultural heritage. Then, there are women who feel that adopting their husband’s last name will entirely destroy any idea of complete equality in their relationship.

It doesn’t help anything that the decision to keep one’s maiden name is still so foreign in this culture. Women who want to preserve their identity or sense of self by keeping their birth name are criticized for this decision. Even if the criticism isn’t overly aggressive, there is still, in the basic “Why?” response, a suggestion that the woman’s thinking isn’t quite right.

Most of the people on the side of the name-change seem to have one basic argument – specifically, that adopting your husband’s last name is just how it’s done. One article I read mentioned that the number of women who were keeping their own names has dropped in recent years, and it might be due to the fact that women are less inclined to see this name-change as a political question of equality; that women, in fact, may be so secure in their identities that their birth names are no longer an anchor keeping their individual personality from being lost in the current. This is the idea that I really want to grasp onto.

If we as women are secure in who we are, then what difference does it make whose name we choose to keep? I don’t mean to imply that I think a woman should or should not take her husband’s name at the altar; I mean to provoke thought. If you, as a couple, are committed to a lifetime together, if you’re going to love, honor, and respect each other until death do you part, then what does it matter which name you choose to keep? And why on earth are so many people concerned about weighing in on this decision?

Natalie Church

Prompted in part by readings from Elle, AZ Central, Power to Change, and Psychology Today.

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