When I got married in 2007, there was no discussion between my fiancé and me over whether I’d change my last name to match his. Not because we’d made an unspoken agreement to unite behind his slightly clunky, three-syllable surname; on the contrary, I made the choice years before that I would never, ever change my name to match my husband’s. And unlike some decisions I made as a strident, self-righteous teenager, the decision to keep my name is one I’ve never regretted. (Especially considering that we got divorced four years later—changing my name back was one less thing to worry about amid the crazy stress of separating.)
But not everyone feels the same way: In a recent poll of 1,000 people conducted by YouGov, 61 percent of those surveyed stated that they think a women should take her husband’s after marriage. (Yikes.) And the number of women who actually keep their maiden names after marriage is shrinking: Various surveys have estimated that anywhere from 8 to 18 percent of women don’t change their names, down from about 23 percent in the ’90s.
I thought of all this while reading Pamela Paul’s recent essay in the New York Times, “The Problem That Has Two Names,” about her struggle with the whole name-change issue. “Like others wanting it both ways,” she writes, “I held on to my professional name while also taking on my husband’s.” Paul—who wrote The Starter Marriage, so she’s something of an expert on the subject—describes the challenges inherent to having it both ways, both legally (on things like tax returns and passports), and within her own family. “My young children are all in a permanent state of confusion about the bylines they see under one name and the family name we use at home,” she explains. “Isn’t our shared name part of what unites us as a family? Why would I want to set myself apart?”
My ex and I never had kids, so I never had to answer that question. And I don’t begrudge Paul her choice; it’s her life, and not my place to judge, even if I wouldn’t make the same decision. What does bother me is the fact that it’s 2013, and for all the strides that women have made—socially, culturally, politically, everywhere—we’re still expected to change such a fundamental part of ourselves, simply because we got married.
There are a few reasons why buying into this retrograde notion doesn’t make much sense anymore. For one thing, more women than ever are marrying later, when they’re already established in a career under a maiden name. My personal politics aside, I’ve built up a career and a reputation as a Plitt, and I didn’t want to lose that identity—it’d just be confusing. Furthermore, as gay marriage becomes more and more widespread—hooray!—the conventions of hetereosexual marriage, such as wives taking husband’s names, don’t have to be the norm. It’s silly at best, and exclusionary at worst.
And let’s face it, men never get this kind of pressure. About a year after I married, I got into an argument with a (male) coworker who called me selfish for keeping my own name. As far as I know, my ex-husband never once got the same reaction—that would have been totally unthinkable. Historically, the reasons for and consequences of name-changing were pretty vile; a Harvard study noted that “the laws of various states have deprived women of rights, such as retaining their driver’s license and voter registration, if they did not assume the surname of their husband.” That’s changed, thankfully, but it illustrates my biggest problem: the whole convention is rooted in sexism, and the idea that a woman is little more than an extension of her husband. There isn’t really any good reason why a dude can’t take his future wife’s last name, other than the fact that society might disapprove.
And then there’s the issue of the “family name.” After marriage and having kids, couples—like Paul and her husband—may want to be united under a common moniker. And that’s totally fine! But now more than ever, there’s an opportunity to redefine what the “family name” means. It doesn’t have to be just about a woman changing her identity; it can be about whatever the couple wants. Hyphenating? Making a portmanteau out of your last names? Choosing a brand-new surname altogether? Sure, why not? But let’s stop having an outdated, sexist custom drive the decision-making.
Look at probably the most famous and awesome married folks in the world right now: Beyoncé and Jay-Z. As the Cut pointed out earlier this year, both members of that power couple legally changed their surnames to Carter-Knowles, creating a family unit that represents them both equally. If Bey and Jay can embrace a more progressive, egalitarian path on the name-changing front, perhaps the rest of us should follow suit.
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Amy Plitt is the senior editor for Time Out New York magazine, and has also written for Bust, Mental Floss, Condé Nast Traveler‘s Daily Traveler, and Aritzia magazine. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and spends her free time cooking, thinking about feminism, visiting Brooklyn’s myriad dive bars, and playing with her cat.