Taking Your Husband's Name: Yes, We're Still Having This Debate

Elise Solé
ThinkStock
ThinkStock

Kim Kardashian changed her last name to “Kardashian West” earlier this week, and just like that, the newlywed’s decision has triggered debate on social media, with some saying her decision was the "respectful" thing to do, while others balked at the tradition.

While the decision to keep or change one’s last name after marriage is a highly personal one, a debate rages over the politics of the name game, with 65 percent of women in their 20s and 30s taking their husbands' last names, according to a survey conducted by Facebook and The Daily Beast. It’s a weird paradox. In our “Lean In” culture, women are outpacing men in education and in the workforce. We no longer need men for financial security or to procreate. So why forfeit our names for the sake of marriage?

For some, the decision is practical. Sharing the same last name unifies the couple and their future children. That’s especially true for some gay couples in states where same-sex marriage isn’t legal, so sharing a last name may serve as an extra measure that they’ll be viewed as a family. For others, it’s just plain romantic with many saying that taking their husband’s name makes them feel like a “team.” Then, unfortunately, there’s societal pressure — one Penn State University study found that 10 percent of people view women who keep their maiden names as less committed to their marriages.

Other women argue that relinquishing their name is anti-feminist, even a loss of identity. And then there's the concern that one's new name can confuse professional contacts, not to mention the sheer hassle of acquiring a new Social Security card, driver’s license, and passport, and renaming social media accounts. There is even research that suggests that women who keep their maiden names are seen as more intelligent, ambitious, and competent.

Yes, it's absolutely unfair that many women are expected to change their last names. But there are plenty of compromises — keep your maiden name, hyphenate, ask your husband to take yours, or acquire a new family name, like this couple who meshed their last names together to form a new, unique one.

But if taking your husband name is sexist, isn’t the entire institution of marriage? Today people in the United States largely wed for romantic love, but marriage was historically an economical and strategic decision, motivated by a family’s desire to gain more power in its community. Under the centuries-old coverture law, along with their names, married women forfeited their rights to owning property and had to get permission from their husbands to sign legal documents. And any job pay they were allowed to earn went directly to their spouses.

Then there’s that sparkly diamond engagement ring that 27 percent of women claim is a necessity to accepting a man’s proposal. According to a story published by The Atlantic, its history stems from a now-eradicated medieval law called “breach of promise” that allowed women to sue their fiancés if they called off an engagement. In the case that the couple had been intimate before the wedding, the woman was viewed as “damaged goods.” When the law ceased to exist in the 1930s, women lost bargaining power in the wake of a broken engagement so they demanded financial collateral, a sort of “virginity insurance."

If we as a culture have changed the meaning of marriage to suit our evolving identities, then why do many stubbornly cling to the notion that changing one's name is a degrading decision? For me, the decision to take my spouse’s last name four years ago was paramount to getting married in the first place. I married a man who is not an American citizen. And as anyone who has ever muddled through the expensive, incredibly invasive, years-long immigration process can attest, doing whatever it takes to convince the government that your marriage is real is worth it in order to marry the person you love.

And yes, I do find it a tad romantic. Some may roll their eyes at the notion, but my relationship doesn’t make me feel any less complete without my birth name (which, by the way, was given to my mother from my father). It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice because my husband didn't demand it and my name, much like my marriage, doesn’t define who I am. And above all, it’s my choice. And there’s nothing more feminist than that.

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