Maiden Names

Katie Roiphe has an interesting piece in Slate entitled, “The Maiden Name Debate – What’s changed since the 1970s?” After a brief history of the pro’s and con’s of women retaining their given name upon marriage, she reveals something I hadn’t realized:

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, the number of college-educated women in their 30s keeping their name has dropped from 27 percent in 1990 to 19 percent in 2004. 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.

While this seemed a silly issue to me as recently as twenty years ago, the prevalence of divorce and remarriage among even “decent” folk these days has made the custom of women taking their husband’s name somewhat more problematic. But, as Roiphe notes, keeping one’s maiden name is simply impractical once children come into the picture.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. It can get amusing sometimes.

    My ex, who was born Melissa B, became Melissa G when we got married. Then we divorced and she retained my name since our children bore my surname. Then she remarried and became Melissa R. Then she divorced her second husband and reverted to Melissa G. Then she got married again, and became Melissa J. Now she’s divorced again, and is also Melissa G again. We chuckle over her ping-pong name action.

  2. McGehee says:

    Well, I think the whole keep-the-maiden-name “empowerment” business was silly too, but as far as the complication WRT children goes, it’s my understanding that in China women routinely keep their maiden names and apparently the children’s names being different isn’t a problem because culturally it’s the norm.

    If part of the feminist agenda of the ’70s was to remake the culture so that the same could be accepted here, they failed — but only because far more substantive gains were made in the meantime. Given how much noise the culture-remakers were making, though, you’d think those issues were the only ones that mattered to women in those days.

    Which, I think, may offer an additional perspective on certain cultural “issues” being pushed today. Mature activists take the substance and let the children (figuratively speaking) be disappointed at losing over fluff.

  3. Paul says:

    I know a family similar to Jarhead’s.

    Mom, Dad and 2 kids. All 4 have different last names.

    What a mess.

  4. Ahem. For the record, my son is the Jarhead (I’m Abu Jarhead, or “Father of Jarhead”). I’m the retired Navy Chief. 🙂

  5. I actually saw a Dear Abby column a few years ago on this very subject. One man was getting miffed that his wife would go back to his name after each divorce. He wanted to stop her from doing it and make her go back to her maiden name. However, there’s no remedy. As long as she isn’t using the name as a means of fooling people into thinking they are still married (which would be fraud) she can use any name she chooses.

  6. triticale says:

    My wee wifey did not change her name when she stopped being a maiden thirty-plus years ago. We’ve had more difficulties thru the years with the fact that my given name is a short form more commonly a nickname. For example, when we closed on our first house, the title company got both last names right but my first name wrong, and were then peeved with us when we refused to close.

  7. R Gardner says:

    OK, having lived in Iceland where most have a patronymic, the result is that most are known by their first name and profession. For 80-90% of the population there is no surname as we understand it. The 10-20% are old families that actually do carry down a (Danish) surname if the child chooses it at confirmation. And women are still their father’s daughter after marraige, no change in surname.

    First name and occupation is the only way you can find someone in the phone book (though the operators are fantastic if you don’t know the details). However, almost everyone goes by a nickname, rather than by their given name, so this gets complicated (Siggi versus Siggidur, this being the most common name). Plus, the profession is often outdated. One friend was a teacher 10 years ago (kennari) but works in civil defense today. Phone book still says teacher (besides, civil defense in Icelandic would not fit in the directory (Almannavarnir rikisins – madur)).

    So you end up with the typical family of 2 parents and 2 children (1 boy, 1 girl) all having different surnames because boys and girls have different surnames. Actually, that isn’t typical, since the average family is 5 (they are still growing), and the first child has a different father and has yet a third surname.

    But what I think is important is that the children are always part of the family, regardless of last name. The bottom line is that none of the stuff about names matters (though family connections do, no different than any other place).

  8. Sam says:

    I’ve advocated flipping a coin to see whose name gets adopted. So far, no one has taken my suggestion.

  9. Miguel says:

    Here in Mexico, women keep their original last name when they marry, and that hasn’t been any source of trouble that I’m aware of, even if children and their mother have a diferent surname. We use two surnames here: our father’s first surname, and our mother’s first surname. So the children’s second family name would be mommy’s. (No hyphenation please, some Americans seem to think that we always hyphenate our two last names, when that is not the case except for a tiny group of nobility last names.) Greetings to all 🙂

  10. Teri Lester says:

    Sometimes you take your husband’s last name because your father’s last name is just completely dorky. I expected when I married that people would stop saying “and how do you spell that?”

    Unfortunately, no. Someitimes I say “L-E-X-Q-U-I-E-R” just to see if they are paying attention – and there are those who will dutifully write it down. Oy!

  11. Jay Solo says:

    Interesting topic. Deb was surprised that I was surprised that she was taking my name, especially since she has a cool last name. However, she decided to lose her old middle name and use her old surname as her middle name now. Which led to my making “to DYE for” jokes, naturally.