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 luxuryÃ¢€”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 pointÃ¢€”apologies to Lucy Stone, and her pioneering work in name keepingÃ¢€”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 runÃ¢€”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.