women in the US take their husbands' names?
December 17, 2018 11:05 PM   Subscribe

My wife has changed her surname to match mine. I vaguely knew that this was a thing that women in the U.S. did, but that's where my knowledge starts and ends. Can anyone recommend some reading? About the history, how it's represented legally, weird corner cases, etc. Imagine if Mary Roach were to write a book about this.

Google mostly wants to show me which forms to file in various states, which is not what I'm interested in learning, or else relatively dense arguments for or against the practice, which go right over my head because I don't know what the practice is.
posted by meaty shoe puppet to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

Maiden and married names

posted by Phssthpok at 11:23 PM on December 17, 2018

Searching at Google Scholar turned up a few things. The first two articles here are about how things stood legally until the 1970s, the third assesses the pace of change (or, more relevant to your circumstance, the large number of women who continued to take their husband's name), and the most recent one is mostly about husbands changing their names instead--but, just glancing through them, they all seem to mention interesting details that might wind up in a good non-fiction book about the practice:
posted by Wobbuffet at 12:08 AM on December 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Historically it's because the woman was not considered a person in her own right. You could try searching for "doctrine of coverture." Jstor has some reading suggestions.
posted by Polychrome at 1:53 AM on December 18, 2018 [14 favorites]

This is a nice short summary, which includes note of the old Scottish practice of not taking the husband's name on marriage. (I looked this up a while ago, having been intrigued by Scottish graveyards where you'd find epitaphs like "Jean Wilson, wife of John Brown").
posted by Vortisaur at 3:26 AM on December 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Lucy Stone was a 19th century feminist who fought against this tradition. Of course, if a couple has children there's always the issue of what last name do the children get. It can be a convenient convention for the entire family to share a last name, which is why I took my wife's name (at the time it required a legal name change before a judge; now because of marriage equality things are legally much easier). Some couples give male children the father's last name and female children the mother's. Some create a mashup last name. There's no wrong answer as long as it smashes the patriarchy.
posted by rikschell at 4:52 AM on December 18, 2018 [14 favorites]

Until recently this was considered the default position. Women had no independent legal or financial status, and were legally considered property of their fathers and then their husbands. Not sure if you are looking just for US examples, but when my aunt was married in the 1970s in India, her husband/in-laws even changed her first name, because she was now "theirs." This was professional, middle-class, city-dwelling, well-educated society, but old traditions die hard.
posted by basalganglia at 5:29 AM on December 18, 2018

Stephanie Coontz's Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage might be what you're looking for.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:18 AM on December 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

It might help to know what culture you are coming at this from, if not American.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:46 AM on December 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Since 1981, women in Quebec have had to keep their maiden name. This short article mentions other places with similar rules. They talk about France about being a "pionneer" in that area, but the mrs and I lived there for a while and the fact that we didn't have the same last name (despite being married) created endless confusion amongst the locals (which shows that rules and the customs can be quite different).
posted by bluefrog at 7:53 AM on December 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

It can be a convenient convention for the entire family to share a last name.

It can be an issue, especially if the mother is the primary contact person with the children's school. My mother took her maiden name back after divorce; since our father wasn't seeking joint custody or visitation, my sister and I asked if we could change our last name, too. Judge said no. So, Mom had to get used to correcting every single school staff member who called her by our surname, and having to call and verify that she *was* our mother when permission slips or absence notes were signed with the “wrong” name.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:12 AM on December 18, 2018

Marital Name Changing Attitudes and Plans of College Students: Comparing Change Over Time and Across Regions by Laurie K. Scheuble, David R. Johnson, and Katherine M. Johnson has a great literature review that I think you'll like.

Although their conclusions about regionality -- "We also found regional differences: women in the East were significantly more likely than women in the Midwest to plan to keep their birth surname upon marriage." -- have not been true among my network. The vast majority of East Coast women I know took their spouse's names; the vast majority of West Coast women I know kept their names.

Another paper: Hillary Rodham Versus Hillary Clinton: Consequences of Surname Choice in Marriage by Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer.
posted by emkelley at 11:21 AM on December 18, 2018

> It can be an issue, especially if the mother is the primary contact person with the children's school

It never has been for me, as a parent in this century. My husband and son have one last name and my daughter and I have another, and I've never had the anyone at their schools blink an eye at it. I wonder what percentage of families in our district are uni-named. If you consider blended families, feminist families, gay families, divorced families, families from cultures with other naming traditions, etc, it would be very strange for a district to expect one name for everyone concerned.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:31 AM on December 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

It can be an issue, especially if the mother is the primary contact person with the children's school

It never has been for me, as a parent in this century.

Since we're citing anecdata: My wife's surname isn't the same as mine or our kids', and their school lists her name as HerFirstname MySurname (HerSurname) on all documentation. I don't know if that's an issue, really, but it is certainly offensive.
posted by bradf at 8:54 AM on December 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

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