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The Maiden Name Dilemma: Keep, Drop or Integrate?

January 3, 2016 Linda Rosenkrantz

By Laurie Scheuble

I have been working on marital naming research for 25 years. I study what names women choose when they marry and what surname they give their children.

Twenty-five years ago, I would have predicted that at least a quarter of women in the United States would keep their maiden name as their last name when they marry. I expected this because there was a tremendous amount of social change occurring and an expectation of equity in the treatment of women was becoming the social norm. On the contrary, the most recent data shows that only about 9% of women do keep their maiden names or hyphenate them with their husband’s last name when they marry.

Another 20% keep their maiden name as a middle name and change their last name to that of their husband. Women who keep their surname as compared to those who don’t are more likely to have higher levels of education, get married at a later age, be more vested in their careers and be less religious. Even women who keep their maiden name as their own last name when they marry overwhelmingly give their children their husband’s last name.

So, what does this mean?

The surname that women take when they marry appears to be a nonissue for many people in the US, the expectation that women will change their last name to that of their husband remaining strong. Also, compared to other issues like equal pay for equal work, childcare equality and other gender issues, naming has received far less attention in the popular press and by academic researchers.

In my more cynical moments, I think that this is the last area of socially approved sexism.   We don’t expect men to change their last name when they marry to that of their wives. In fact, when I suggest this to a classroom of students, many of them look at me as if I have lost my mind. We also socialize women into investing less in their maiden name. Girls in middle school still try out their first name with the boy they like’s last name.

There is nothing legal or special about the way we do marital surnames in this country. In other countries, women keep their maiden names when they marry as do men. They still manage to know to whom they are related and women don’t get lost in history because they’ve changed their last names when they married. Their children still know who their parents are even though they have different surnames.

We hold on to this tradition of women taking their husband’s surnames when they marry because it is just that, a tradition that continues to function simply because it has always been that way.

As a researcher and a woman, I think women and men have the right to have whatever last name they choose when they marry.   Given this, I know that the majority of women will decide to change their last name to that of their husband when they marry. This decision meets societal expectations that everyone in a family has the same last name, that if they love their husband they will change their last name and that changing their last names shows they are committed to the marriage (even though women who keep their maiden names are not at a higher risk for divorce than those who change).

My life experiences are consistent with the research findings. I am a well-educated woman who married at a later age and was vested in my career when I married, so I kept my maiden name. In fact, my husband and I never had a discussion about it. We both assumed each of us would just keep our birth surname. We have a daughter and, consistent with research findings, she has my last name for a middle name and my spouse’s last name as her last name.

But that’s a decision we did talk about extensively.

Where do you stand? Did you/would you change or keep your last name when you married?

Laurie Scheuble is a senior lecturer in sociology at Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests focus on marital naming, adoption, informal parenting and infertility. She is married to a sociologist and they have one daughter.

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