Predictably, there are some to whom it means the patriarchy is strong as ever. How could an incredibly accomplished woman like Alamuddin (an Oxford grad and high-profile barrister representing the likes of Julian Assange) completely give that up and take her husband’s name?
There’s powerful symbolism in changing your name, your public identity. Women who take their husband’s name are, in some symbolic way, shedding part of themselves for their husband. But if taking one’s husband’s last name is a patriarchal symbol, how is keeping one’s maiden name any different? That name, too, came from a man’s name passed down for generations; it just happens to be your father’s. Which is more patriarchal—choosing your husband’s last name or keeping your father’s? What’s a real feminist to do—make up her last name? Choose Steinem?
Well, we know a number of spouses are making up new names to avoid the patriarchal aftertaste. And families have changed surnames throughout history for all range of reasons—sometimes to assimilate to a new culture (as my grandfather did, changing his Italian last name to English when coming to America), or to distance oneself from a former culture (as the British royal family did, changing their name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor in the mid-1900s due to anti-German sentiment). So there’s a long history of families choosing the name they felt would best represent them.
And that’s the thing—there’s no one-size-fits-all feminist answer here.
I am a feminist, and when I got married, I decided to take my husband’s name. I did so because I like the sound of it. I like the consistency for me and my family, and the fact that I will have the same last name as my children. Even though I had established a professional byline with my maiden name, I thought, it’s a new start. If people really want to read my articles they can follow me to my new name. I even love my new initials, which I’m sure would make some women’s-studies professors cringe, as they literally became M.R.S. But considering I vowed to stand by this guy’s side through thick and thin, I welcome this name as an extension of that. I don’t feel any influence of patriarchy in my decision—or in my marriage.
It turns out I’m not alone, as more women are choosing to take the names of their husbands than in past decades. I think if we asked women who take their husband’s names why they do so, the reasons would range from the personal (“I liked it better than my maiden name”) to the technical (“I think it’d be a hassle for my future kids to have hyphenated names”). But I bet most women today choose their husband’s last name for the same reason they choose to get married—as a sign of unity.
At the same time, there are plenty of reasons one might want to keep her maiden name. Women are getting married later and may feel strongly attached to it. Or they may have advanced in their career to a point of strong name-recognition. Or perhaps they simply don’t like the sound of their husband’s last name. Many women keep their maiden name professionally, while changing their legal name to their husband’s. Some women move their maiden name to their middle name. Some couples create a hyphenated name for both spouses. There are as many opinions as there are people.
What’s in a name? Surely a lot. But not because of one-size-fits-all prescriptions. What’s really in a name, I would submit, is a glimpse into each person’s individual story.