Maiden Names Redux

Matt Yglesias, whose late mother kept her maiden name throughout her life, throws a new wrinkle into the longstanding Should women take their husband’s name debate: “[I]sn’t the inconvenience of changing your email address reason enough to stick with your original name?” An interesting point, especially in the era of permanent accounts like G-mail. Presumably, though, auto-forwarding would solve that problem.

My position on the issue remains unchanged from when I last addressed it, a little over four years ago: “[K]eeping one’s maiden name is simply impractical once children come into the picture.” You’re simply swimming against the cultural tide trying to juggle multiple names in a society that’s used to single surnames.

Yes, it’s a social construct. In most Latin cultures, women keep their names and the children take both their mother and father’s surnames. Richard Gardner points out that in Iceland most people have no surnames as we understand it and that “the result is that most are known by their first name and profession.” But that’s not our way. As Kevin McGehee observed, “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.” Much like the perfectly sane attempt to go metric, it just Petered out.

Related and amusing-to-me: Searching for that old post, I stumbled on “Hillary Rodham Clinton More Popular than Hillary Clinton” from a couple years back. It was about a survey showing “Hillary Rodham Clinton” outpolled “Hillary Clinton” by four points. While this was within the margin of error and I never saw subsequent polling addressing that issue, it’s rather amusing in the light of the fact that she ultimately decided to brand herself as “Hillary Clinton” for the presidential run and lost narrowly.

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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. Tertius says:

    I think that a wife taking her husband’s last name serves in the Christian community to be yet another way of exemplifying the mystery of marriage, which mirrors and exemplifies the mystery of Christ and the church to the world.

    Christ redeems His church with His blood and imputes to it His righteousness, washing her clean of her sin and bringing her into the family of God.

    Since the marital covenant is to bear witness to Christ and His church, the wife taking the last name of the husband signifies a unity and identity that speaks of a fundamental change in character from her previous unwed status. Marriage is not simply a partnership but a covenant that speaks of and witnesses to the covenant between Christ and His church.

    Of course, these considerations really only make sense to Christian men and women, but it’s the best and most spiritual reason I can think for a wife to drop her maiden name and adopt her husband’s surname.

  2. Eric says:

    Tertius: Great, so basically a woman should change her name because Christians do it, so she should too? What if she doesn’t believe in the Christian god? Or that god exists at all?

    I think James’s reasoning was on much more solid moorings, that traditionally that’s the way things have worked, etc. As you point out, your reasoning only makes sense to generally Christians, and, really, only a subset of Christians at that.

  3. Triumph says:

    In most Latin cultures, women keep their names and the children take both their mother and father’s surnames.

    Unfortunately, with pro-immigrant guys like Juan McCain around we are quickly becoming a Latin culture so this whole issue will soon be moot.

  4. lunacy says:

    By your argument re: name juggling, all stepkids should take the name of their stepfather.

    I gave my son his father’s name although I never married him. I kept my maiden name when I did finally marry. Ergo, my household has Mr. Smith, Ms. Jones and John Young in residence.

    The three of us, with our different names, don’t seem to have any trouble with this arrangement. Nor have any of the many business and municipal systems we’ve engaged over the years. The young one is off to college now, but he’s probably not the only kid whose father figure and mother have different surnames from each other and from him.


  5. MstrB says:

    I discovered an interesting one from some icelandic frends on tehir tradition names, where the last name of the child is the father (or sometimes mother’s) first name plus son or daughter.

    Example from Wikipedia:
    A man named Jón Stefánsson has a son named Fjalar. Fjalar’s last name will not be Stefánsson like his father’s; it will become Jónsson, literally indicating that Fjalar is the son of Jón (Jóns + son).

    The same practice is used for daughters. Jón Stefánsson’s daughter Katrín would not have the last name Stefánsson; she would have the name Jónsdóttir. Again, the last name literally means “Jón’s daughter” (Jóns + dóttir).

  6. mq says:

    I’ll admit, I got married 10 months ago and still haven’t gotten around to changing my name. Not out of any misplaced feminist pride or anything, it’s just a huge pain in the ass to have your name changed. I’ll get around to it one of these days, even though my family already calls me by my married name. Well at least they try to, they still haven’t gotten the hang of the whole hyphenated thing.