The vast majority of American women who marry men take their husband's surname as their surname after marriage. Although this percentage is smaller than it was decades ago, it is surprising that this patriarchal practice still thrives in the 21st century.
For the past 98 years, women have had the right to vote. For the past 50 years, women have had access to contraception thereby allowing them to choose when to start a family. For many decades, women have fought for gender equality in the workplace and fought for equal pay for equal work, both of which are ongoing battles. But women in all 50 states have had the right since 1975 to keep their last names upon marriage, if they wanted to. The majority, apparently, do not.
To be sure, there are many different reasons why a woman might want to change her last name when she married. Her name could be difficult to spell or difficult to pronounce. Her last name could be embarrassing. She might want to rid herself of the name of a man who abandoned her and her mother soon after she was born. She might want a surname that didn't reveal her ethnicity. She might want a last name that didn't rhyme with her first name.
On the other hand, 5-10 percent of married women want to keep their family name because it is part of their identity. If you have published books or scholarly articles under the name you were born with, you might be hesitant to change your name. You might fear that you would become more difficult to reach through social media if you changed your name. You might have too much stationary with your given name or too many checks left in the checkbook. You might not want to have to recycle all of those towels and silver service with your initials on them if your initials changed.
But more importantly, you might not want to give up an important piece of your family heritage and identity by throwing away your last name and taking someone else's last name. Just because the patriarchal society of the past is deeply imbedded in the tradition of a woman taking her husband's name upon marriage, would a true feminist do so?
According to a Washington Post poll from 2016, 60 percent of women self-identify as a feminist or a strong feminist. Although there is no one definition of feminism, most incorporate the concept of political, economic and social equality of the sexes. So how does giving up your family name upon marriage and adopting your husband's name square with equality of the sexes?
Perhaps some younger women are turned off by the moniker "feminist," but 85 percent of Americans of both sexes claim to believe in women's equality. How this squares with only 5-10 percent of married women keeping their surnames after marriage is a conundrum.
There are alternatives to taking your husband's name. A very small percentage of men adopt their wife's surname when they get married, but not many. Two people can hyphenate their last names but if both of them already had hyphenated last names, the 4 name hyphenated last name becomes unworkable. If Ms. Mitchell-Westfall married Mr. Cunningham-Brigham, the Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell-Westfall-Cunningham-Brigham moniker would become onerous in no time.
Other options include making up a last name for both husband and wife that might or might not be a combination of both names. That option is uncommon but has the one advantage of affording the future children to bear the same surname as both parents.
But can a woman adopt her husband's name and relinquish the name she was born with and also be a true feminist? Maybe not. Maybe it's time for feminists to jettison that patriarchal tradition.
Or maybe a true feminist can be known by whatever name she wants, in keeping with, or in spite of, tradition, as long as it is her choice and is not something dictated by her spouse or by cultural mores.