What's In A (Sur)name?: To Change, Or Not To Change

An email in which the sender addressed me as “E” recently landed in my inbox. I’ve never expressed a divergence from “Emily,” other than an occasional “Em” with friends and family members. What about the letter “E” being synonymous with my name inflicted such a reaction?

As a pre-teen, I remember wanting everything engraved with my initials: initial pillows, initial chokers, initial key chains, and of course, initial lettering on my backpack. As a young adult, I still wear necklaces that dawn my name and initials, but the engraved jewelry carries more meaning than it did when I was a child. These initials have carried me though my young adult life—through relationships, hardships, first jobs, an undergraduate degree, and future graduate degrees—but not everyone shares that same perspective or tie to identity.

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The earliest known woman to retain her surname was Lucy Stone, an antislavery and female suffrage crusader (Goldin & Shim, 2004). After her marriage in 1855, Lucy still embraced the term “Miss,” which was exclusively reserved for unmarried women (Goldin & Shim, 2004). “Ms.” did not gain popular or accepted connotation in language until the appearance of ‘Ms.’ magazine in 1972 (Goldin & Shim, 2004). The usage of “Ms.” was still so controversial that the New York Times dedicated an editorial announcement to its terms of use in June of 1986: the New York Times “will use “Ms.” as an honorific in its news and editorial columns…The Times will continue to use “Miss” or “Mrs.” when it knows the marital status of a woman in the news, unless she prefers “Ms.” “Ms.” will also be used when marital status is unknown.” This dedication admits not only the importance of marital status in the United States, but also its privilege.

When it comes to heterosexual marriage, it is an assumed tradition that a woman will take her fiancé’s last name—which is considered by scholars to be one of the most gendered aspects of such a union (Fitzgibbons Shafer & Christensen, 2018). In fact, 50 percent of Americans believe that women should be required by law to take their husband’s name. This belief system reinforces both the patriarchal structure of the United States and the rights of property and inheritance passed to and from males (also symbolized by a father “giving” his daughter away during wedding ceremonies) (Stoiko & Strough, 2017). Although earlier feminist movements pushed women to renegotiate marital terms of identity, only 22% of women married in 2010 reported retaining their surnames (Fitzgibbons Schafer & Christensen, 2018; Stoiko & Strough, 2017). Women are more likely to keep their last names if they have an established professional identity or graduate from advanced degree programs. Women considered as more “traditional” and concerned with familial and societal expectations are more likely to change their names (Goldin & Shim, 2004).

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Heterosexual women are still found in the shadows of their husband’s name, even if they choose not to adopt it. Women’s surname change is linked to level of spousal devotion and commitment to familial bonding (Robnett et al., 2016). Of those women that decide to retain their surnames, or even hyphenate, there is patriarchal backlash to pay. These women are seen as more masculine, more selfish, and worse mothers than those who adopt a name change at marriage (Fitzgibbons Shafer & Christensen, 2018). In rationalizing the adoption of a new naming convention, most women cite tradition and putting their families first as primary reasons.

Despite the majority decision for women to adopt a new surname upon marriage, the process of legally changing one’s name is not as simple as one might think. Similar to planning a wedding, this process has become heavily commodified with bride name change kits and apps and Pinterest’s multiple how-to guides for changing one’s last name as part of traditional wedding planning (Goldin & Shim, 2004).

Similar to other heterosexual marital traditions, a name change isn’t simply just a name change; It’s a subscription to a gender belief system. It’s an expectation. It’s a reinforcement of privilege and resistance to change. It was unacceptable for a woman in 1855 to retain her surname post-ceremony, and 163 years later, despite all of the movements and advancements for equality and independence, the view of surname retention remains the same.

Questions for Readers
What do you believe in?
Did you change your name? Why/Why not?
Do you plan to change your name? Why/Why not?

Boxer, D. & Gritsenko, E. Women and surnames across cultures: reconstituting identity in marriage*. Women and Language, 28(2), 1-8.
Fitzgibbons Shafer, E. & Christensen, M.A. (2018). Flipping the (surname) script: men’s nontraditional surname choice at marriage. Journal of Family Issues, 39(11), 3055-3074.
Goldin, C. & Shim, M. (2004). Making a name: women’s surnames at marriage and beyond. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18(2), 143-160.
Kay, L. (n.d.). 7 things no one tells you about changing your name. Retrieved from https://www.theknot.com/content/7-things-no-one-tells-you-about-changing-your-name
Piquant, N. (n.d.). How much does it cost to change your name after the wedding? Retrieved from https://www.theknot.com/content/name-change-cost
Robnett, R.D., Underwood, C. R., Nelson, P.A., Anderson, K.J. (2016). “She might be afraid of commitment”: perceptions of women who retain their surname after marriage. Sex Roles, 75, 500-513.
Stoiko, R. R. & Strough, J. (2017). ‘Choosing’ the patriarchal norm: emerging adults’ marital last name change attitudes, plans, and rationales. Gender Issues, 34, 295-315.