Should women keep their maiden names after marriage?

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For the 21st-century woman, is keeping your maiden name after marriage a matter of convenience or is it a political declaration? There are many women who say that taking their husband’s name is a symbol of their pledge to enter into a new life with their spouse. However, there are a growing number of career women who say that giving up their maiden name disregards the identity that they have created for themselves professionally.

Each year, approximately 3 million women change their name when they get married. They give up their maiden names and take their husbands’ surname. But within the last few years, studies show that a new trend is happening, a growing number of women are opting on keeping their maiden names when they tie the knot.

And although this issue has emerged as a point of conversation in recent years, it is not a new one. As far back as the 19th century, Lucy Stone, (1818-1893) a women’s rights pioneer said that, “A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost.” Women have come a long way from over a century ago when it was a legal requirement to change their names after marriage.

Now, women have the option of taking her husband’s last name, making her last name her middle name, hyphenating the two last names or picking an entirely new name altogether. It’s rather surprising that well over 100 years ago; trailblazers such as Stone were preparing a pathway for women of this day and age with this particular issue. She and many other women’s rights pioneers planted a seed that has left some major societal shifts for women of the 21st century to tackle.

As a matter of fact today, The Lucy Stone League supports name choice equality and backs women who prefer to retain their own names after marriage. Although Stone was one of the first known women in American society on record to keep her surname after marriage, the trend has grown ever slowly in the midst of traditional social standards.

A recent study from Indiana University showed that 95 percent of women are changing their names and 70 percent of women say that they should remove their last name for their spouses. Old habits die hard. Traditional social customs dictate that women should take on their husbands’ surnames upon marriage. Meanwhile, looking back through history, women were once considered property and changing the last name reflected that. Although this of course is no longer true, in the legal or communal sense, name changing symbolically still reflects agreement and commitment.

Though the commitment and communal piece is what the name change reflects, the burden of the work still rests with the woman. For example when a woman changes her maiden name to that of her spouse there are various numbers of legal documents to sign that will reflect the name change. The list can get rather lengthy but for starters she should begin with: bank accounts, credit cards, health insurance papers, driver’s license, passports, the voter registration office, the Social Security Administration who will then notify the IRS, deeds, titles and of course the human resources and payroll department at her place of employment and countless other important documents. It seems like an unfair burden to carry. And realistically speaking if the marriage does not work out, and the woman wants to reclaim her maiden name, she will have to recruit the help of a lawyer to legally change those numerous documents back to her former name once again.

And as studies show, there are definitely those who choose to go against tradition. As women have begun to acquire more of an influential and authoritative role in the workplace, those who have kept their maiden names upon marriage has also increased. Albeit a small number roughly less than 15 percent, it is something to take notice of. Professional women who decide to keep their maiden names when marrying often say that they have worked hard at creating a “name” and identity for themselves in their respective careers and they don’t want to give that up.

For them, it’s an act of claiming their identity or a fear of losing a professional identity that they have created for themselves. The general consensus among these women seems to be, if you are getting married, you should feel as if you’re adding to your life. You shouldn’t feel like you’re losing yourself in order to follow society’s traditions.

However, while the paperwork and lost identity issues are legitimate ones, accomplished career, African-American women for the most part are either staying with the well-established custom or they are choosing to hyphenate their names with that of their spouses. The general trend is to use their maiden names as their middle names and use their husband’s surname as their own.

According to the 2010 Real Weddings Survey released by The Knot, only 6 percent of newlywed women opted to hyphenate their names. Of the roughly 20,000 brides polled, responses overwhelmingly favored taking their husband’s name, to close to 86 percent. What it really boils down to is that African-American women are primarily traditionalists when it comes to the name-change question. And practically speaking, social norm is the primary reason why African-American women have taken their spouses’ surnames.

But in any case, as a woman who appreciates choices and objects to being caught in outdated societal norms, I welcome this growing trend. It allows women to choose what’s appropriate for them in the respective phases of their lives. Tradition is not always a good thing. And sometimes we have to undo or let go of what was taught to us through the years in order to move forward, or as Gloria Steinem so aptly put it, “The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.”