I Do, Unfortunately, He Doesn't: Name Changing and Egalitarian Marriage

To commemorate Women's History Month, the Roosevelt Institute's New Deal 2.0 blog asked me to reflect on past accomplishments and explore today's key challenges as part of its ongoing 'Feminomics' series. Here's my take on marriage and what's really in a name.

Much has been made about this so-called woman-friendly recession. One woman in three now earns more than her husband; that's one in two for women earning over $55,000. Unemployment may be stuck near 10% but cheer up ladies -- this economic crisis is a feminist.

And there's further evidence marriage is changing. It was once a woman's best economic option to specialize in the domestic domain, allowing her husband to focus on earning. But with appliances and Trader Joe's there's less call to have one person dedicated exclusively to homemaking. We come home from work and microwave a frozen something while one machine does the dishes and another does the laundry.

If marriage is now less a comparative advantage trade arrangement, what's the driving impetus for it? In a word -- love; there's also companionship, pleasure and sometimes child rearing. Where once the bulge in a man's pants -- from his wallet -- heralded his marriageability, now his willingness to cook, shop and clean are equally attractive.

Yet there's at least one thing about marriage that's remained remarkably fixed -- a woman taking her husband's name.

Reportedly, 90% of wives take their husband's name. This may seem like no big deal -- a nod to tradition, a way of signifying unity and simplifying paperwork for years to come. But this name change happens almost exclusively one-way. A bride benefits from state laws that waive the expensive and burdensome requirements legal name change entails; only seven states provide the same convenience to grooms.

All right, name changing is gendered but given that men are washing more dishes, who really cares? Forgive me Shakespeare, but let's consider: what's in a name?

Naming has ancient and powerful meaning in our religious traditions and folk beliefs. In Genesis, God has Adam name things to signify his dominion over them. From the biblical prohibition against uttering God's name to the Rumpelstiltskin fable, the ability to bestow or even utter a name lends a measure of authority and control. We are baptized "in the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost."

Forward-thinking feminists have long refused to take their husbands' names. This practice reeks of the notion of women as property, barred from exercising control over their economic affairs. Yet, as we question and alter the roles (and even actors) in what we call marriage, this name changing custom remains largely in place. It's worth asking, then, just how far have we come, baby?

Until it's just as easy for a man to become Mr. Woman as it currently is for a woman to become Mrs. Man, socially constructed ideas of marriage will still perpetuate inequality. Electing to change your name will always be an individual choice. But, until the state recognizes that it's one a man can elect just as freely as a woman, the taint of marriage as a sexist institution will remain.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.