Every niece, cousin and friend’s daughter who has married in the past few years has done this one thing: Once they walked down the aisle and said “I do,” they ditched their maiden names and adopted their husband’s surnames.
As we enter wedding season, I’m left to wonder what this means and if it’s in any way symbolic of our times. Even as more women enter the workforce, chip away at the glass ceiling and earn seats in the rarified C-suites, changing one’s name to match a husband’s remains a tradition held dear by most.
This wasn’t always so. Back when I first married, many of my friends, professional women intent on their careers, held on to their birth names. Their reasons were varied: as a sign of feminist conviction, as proof of independence, as a break with tradition, out of pride for their ancestral origins.
The percentage of American women who kept their maiden names, according to a 2009 study, peaked at 23 percent in the 1990s, with the largest and steadiest increases occurring in the 1970s and ’80s. Not surprisingly, it coincided with the women’s liberation movement. Our names, like our bras, served as banners of affiliation. I even know of one couple, college sweethearts, who famously adopted each other’s surnames, an unusual move that upset both sides of the family.
I hyphenated mine, partially as a compromise. Though it created a mouthful, it actually helped in an unexpected way. It distinguished me from my grandmother, who owned the same name, and from all the other Ana Vecianas who had preceded me in the family. More importantly, however, it served as a nod to my first husband, who was expecting this concession.
Later, widowed and remarried, I held on to that long parade of letters, not once considering adopting my second husband’s surname. By then I had an established writing career, an identity that might have been lost had I switched — the type of reasoning that would appear to persuade today’s young women, one would think. After all, women are marrying later in life these days and many have advanced well enough in their professions to have earned a visible reputation.
Yet, the maiden-name movement has plateaued. It’s estimated that only 20 percent of married women keep their surnames now. The rest make the change on their Social Security cards and, perhaps as importantly, on social media.
Now, I’m not saying this is right or wrong — the women’s liberation movement was about choices, after all — but it does raise the question about our acceptance of change. A 2006 survey found that half of all Americans think the legal system should force women to take their husbands’ last name, and a whopping 70 percent believe it’s better if they do.
“Women,” Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer, a Portland State University gender and marriage researcher, told USA Today, “have made a lot of inroads in terms of employment, but what is more stalled in terms of gender inequality is … what goes on in the home.”
In other words, what transpires in American living rooms hasn’t changed as much as we think it has. But is this true? Based on my observations, young men do a lot more around the house than their fathers ever did, proof that an evolution, if not a revolution, is well underway.
So maybe keeping one’s maiden name isn’t as much of a statement as it once was. Maybe we’re long past the need to defy convention, preferring instead the convenience of one family, one surname. Maybe, quite simply, the fight has moved from the symbolic to the practical. Maybe the support we get in our careers and in the kitchen matters more than how we sign our names.