The Maiden Name Debate

What’s changed since the 1970s?

It was an interesting moment in the history of nomenclature when Hillary’s “Rodham” slipped into the position of a middle name after her husband lost his bid for re-election as governor in 1980. In the decades that followed, political wives have been pressured to tack their husband’s names onto their own (n.b. Judith Steinberg Dean and Teresa Heinz Kerry). In a way, it is an ingenious political solution: By shunting their old names into a prominent middle-name status, aspiring first ladies can signal to red states that they defer to their husbands while winking at the blue states that they still have their own names. (Or in Teresa Heinz Kerry’s case, their other husband’s name.) Of course, the entire debate over keeping one’s name is only an issue for a small portion of the country, since roughly 90 percent of American women automatically assume their husband’s names upon getting married. But for this educated, vocal segment of the population, the thorny question of what to do with one’s maiden name persists.

The movement to keep maiden names began in the 1850s in Massachusetts, when a suffragette named Lucy Stone decided to keep her name when she married an abolitionist named Henry Blackwell at the age of 37. In 1921 the Lucy Stone League was founded in New York, and a circle of forward-thinking women devoted themselves to the preservation of women’s names. In 1925, a journalist wrote snidely “some of its resulting confusions are indelicate and therefore may merely be hinted at. Many moral hotel clerks are troubled at the assignment of rooms to the traveling Lucy Stoners and their husbands.” But until the feminism of the 1970s brought a resurgence of interest to the issue, almost all women, including highly educated career women, changed their names to their husband’s when they married. Of course, the majority of these women were married before they were 23. Now that women marry later, and live more of their adult life with their maiden names, it can feel unnatural to assume another name, even for women who do not consider themselves feminists. Once you have “made a name for yourself” in the world it becomes more complicated, and even professionally damaging, to change it.

Having children, however, presents a conundrum: If you change your name to your husband’s, how are you connected to your ancestors in the shtetl, or the potato famine, or the decks of the Mayflower? If you don’t change your name, how are you connected to the future, to your children and grandchildren, who will use your name as a secret password for bank accounts until eventually it is forgotten? (There is a nice blue-blood tradition in this country of the mother’s maiden name becoming a recurring motif through the generations, as in the case of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But this is not entirely satisfying for the contemporary mother, as most people today do not use their middle names in any meaningful way.)

In the late ‘70s and ‘80s people began to make what seems to be an enlightened compromise: hyphenating their names. By using both last names, they appear to have created an equitable and serviceable solution for their families. But hyphenating is socially irresponsible as well as aesthetically disastrous: What happens when Julian Hesser-Friend marries Tessa Rosenfeld-Cassidy? Their grandchildren could end up with great, long, loopy strings of names, their signatures spilling off the blanks of any form. If they sensibly lop off part and end up as “Hesser-Cassidys” then they find themselves in the same quandary as we are.

Even more impractical is the recent rise of fiercely egalitarian couples inventing a third name out of the components of their last names. In most cases the new, fake-sounding name obliterates all ethnic resonance: When O’Connor and Rosenblatt turn into Rosecons, the verbal cadences of two cultures are lost. Mr. O’Connor and Ms. Rosenblatt somehow manage to simultaneously defeat the main functions of the surname: They are severing all ties with the past and the future, leaving the immediate family an island of Rosecons, with no nomenclatural relation to any of their cousins, grandparents, or future grandchildren. Not to mention that from a purely logistical standpoint it has become much more difficult to change one’s name since 9/11, due to security concerns. For anything other than the assumption of a husband’s name upon walking down the aisle, one faces added bureaucratic hurdles like court orders, fees, and long waiting periods, as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2003.

To this day, there is a group of “Lucy Stoners” who fervently believe that we will not be free until naming practices are “equal.” But how can they be? In a way the confusion and unwieldiness of the issue is a perfect metaphor for feminism’s limitations: We might prefer equal naming practices, but how in a practical sense could they be implemented? How can both people preserve the longevity and tradition of their surnames? The truth is there is something unsatisfying about either the bride or groom giving up their name. There is in the creation of a family a kind of uncomfortable and thrilling blending of identity, a difficult obliteration of the distinct self; in short, it’s one of those nuanced, emotional moments that rarely fit into the categories rigidly set out by the purest forms of feminist ideology.

Interestingly, over the past 10 years fewer and fewer women have kept their maiden names. According to a recent study by Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin, based on Massachusetts birth records, the number of college-educated women in their 30s keeping their name has dropped from 23 percent in 1990 to 17 percent in 2000. * Goldin suggests that this may be because we are moving toward a more conservative view of marriage. Perhaps. But it may also be that the maiden name is no longer a fraught political issue. These days, no one is shocked when an independent-minded woman takes her husband’s name, any more than one is shocked when she announces that she is staying at home with her kids. Today, the decision is one of convenience, of a kind of luxury—which name do you like the sound of? What do you feel like doing? The politics are almost incidental. Our fundamental independence is not so imperiled that we need to keep our names. The statement has, thanks to a more dogmatic generation, been made. Now we dabble in the traditional. We cobble together names. At this point—apologies to Lucy Stone, and her pioneering work in name keeping—our attitude is: Whatever works.

In the end, many mothers I’ve encountered since becoming one myself have decided to change their names in line at the passport office, or in the post office, or in a doctor’s waiting room. They are not inspired to do it out of a nostalgic affection for tradition, or some cozy idea of family, or anything so charged or esoteric; they do it because giving in to bureaucratic pressures is easier than clinging to their old identity. In a mundane way, having the same name as your children is easier.

And then, of course, the beauty of the contemporary name change is that you don’t have to formally decide. You can keep your name professionally and socially, change your name for the purposes of school lists, or airline tickets, or your husband’s presidential run—in short, you can maintain an extremely confusing relation to your own name (or names). There is, at least for me, an element of play to the whole thing. There’s something romantic and pleasantly old-fashioned about giving up your name, a kind of frisson in seeing yourself represented as Mrs. John Doe in the calligraphy of a wedding invitation on occasion. At the same time it’s reassuring to see your own name in a byline or a contract. Like much of today’s shallow, satisfying, lipstick feminism: One can, in the end, have it both ways.

Correction, March 24, 2004: As originally written, this piece incorrectly cited research from Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin as saying that the number of college-educated women keeping their name has dropped from 27 percent in 1990 to 19 percent in 2004.  Return to the corrected sentence.