Emily Heist Moss wonders if it still makes sense for a woman to take the last name of her husband.
Emily and Eric Chase-Sosnoff just got married. While her newly hyphenated name doesn’t attract much attention, his draws more than a few raised eyebrows. “We know that we want to have children, and it seems unfair to me that most women who keep their last names end up giving their children their husbands’ names only. I want our whole family to have one last name, but it’s not fair to just choose one.” For the Chase-Sosnoffs, it was a question of equality, “I don’t really see the point in hyphenating if the woman is the only person to do it. It’s still unequal, and you don’t have a single family name.”
I’m impressed. With all my internal wrestling about this very hypothetical, currently non-existent problem, the Chase-Sosnoff solution is one I hadn’t imagined. Despite having met progressive men devoted to equality, it never occurred to me that I might meet a man who would be willing to buck tradition in favor of fairness. Requesting that he change the name he’s lived with his entire life, the name his parents gave him, the name he’s attached to professional and personal accomplishments, seemed a gigantic and unreasonable thing to ask. And yet, this gigantic thing is something convention dictates women do without batting an eyelash.
For a lot of couples, sharing a name is an important symbol of familial unity. The paper trail it creates both mimics emotional ties and serves the pragmatic purpose of clarifying relationships to the world at large. As a product of parents with different names, I absolutely see the practical value. What I can’t wrap my head around, however, is the default position that the female partner should be one the to cede her name. Jacqueline described the predicament like this, “As long as it is still common for women to automatically give up their names for their husbands, I will never feel comfortable doing so.” The action isn’t the problem—after all, people change their names for a huge array of reasons—but the gendered assumption is.
Ben, a married 30-year-old, was “thrilled” his wife kept her name, “I would feel like she was giving up her identity to take on mine, which has a lot of echoes of coverture I’m not comfortable with.” Harry, 44 and married, views it a little differently. He was “flattered and floored” when his wife adopted his surname. “It seemed like a huge sign of trust… The willingness of this strong and independent woman to take my name as hers was a public and unmistakable sign of her belief in me and in us.” He’s right; altering something so fundamental for a partner is an incredible leap of faith on anyone’s part. What I don’t understand is why this particular sign of trust shouldn’t be reciprocal.
Let me make clear that I have zero qualms about individual couples’ decisions on who takes whose name and what they call their kids. That’s your own business. On a macro scale, however, I have deep reservations about the pervasive and often unchallenged adoption of such an antiquated and sexist tradition. Historically, the practice is rooted in the legal doctrine of coverture, when a woman’s identity was incorporated into her husband’s. Even though most couples now approach marriage as a partnership between equals, this pesky naming tradition remains.
Not everyone is willing to forsake the convenience of a married name to bolster the cause of gender equality, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated when my peers, who advocate progressive values in all other realms, seem to nonchalantly accept this custom. My frustration is echoed by 30-year-old Virginia who writes, “There is a teensy part of me that always thinks, ‘Why did you forget what we fought for?’” Bryn, 20, is especially “judge-y” when female friends who she respects and admires change their names, “What is the point? Is it to further solidify your union with your partner? Because if so, ew. There are so many icky implications of ownership and dominance that accompany that choice.”
The convenience of a shared name is not lost on me, or unappreciated. But what are the alternatives to the one-sided standard we have now? There’s the Icelandic tradition of boys taking their father’s first name plus “son” (i.e. Johannsson) and the girl’s get the mother’s first name plus “daughter” (i.e. Karinsdottir). There’s the melding option, as displayed by Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose name is derived from his (Villar) and his wife’s (Raigosa) and is shared by their children.
There’s accepting and celebrating the notion that names don’t necessarily have much to do with family unity after all. Ben pointed out that, in this day and age, “There are so many families out there with kids from previous relationships or from unmarried parents that anyone who can’t handle having to deal with kids and parents with different last names needs to suck it up and join the 21st century.” Twenty-three-year-old Christopher finds the family unity argument old-fashioned and insulting, “How could you pay attention to the wide variety of families and still feel like the only way to make your family cohesive is to take your husband’s name? It feels like a very close-minded, privileged understanding of families.” Bryn builds on her earlier criticism, “The decision to relinquish one’s own name and substitute someone else’s regardless of gender is, like so many traditions associated with marriage, bizarrely transactional.”
And then there’s hyphenation, like the Chase-Sosnoffs. But what happens when Jenny Chase-Sosnoff marries Bobby Smith-Jones or Johnny Chase-Sosnoff marries Beverly Johnson-Brown? No parent is cruel enough to saddle a child with Chase-Sosnoff-Smith-Jones or Chase-Sosnoff-Johnson-Brown. Emily has an answer for that. Imagine a world where everyone is hyphenated and the women bring the maternal name to the table and the men bring the paternal. Jenny and Bobby become the Chase-Joneses; Johnny and Beverly become the Johnson-Sosnoffs. Of course there’s a downside, as Emily explains, “Critics complain that this model is bad because female children erase the male family name and male children erase the female family name. But in the status quo, the female lineage is always extinguished. At least with this model the maternal and paternal lines are extinguished with equal frequency (and, of course, maintained with equal frequency.)” Maybe in a few years we’ll embed ancestry chips in our forearms to store generations of names and the whole question will be moot. Who knows!
I’m not advocating a particular solution for any couple or family, because, as most of my survey respondents affirmed, it is a very personal decision. Some women wrote about feeling disconnected from an absent father and resenting his name. Others wrote about wanting to honor a particular heritage by adopting an old family name instead of a husband’s. I’m learning that the reasons to change or not change your name, for men and women, run deep and are never simple.
Whatever personal, historical, religious, cultural, practical and emotional considerations go into this choice, all I’m asking is that “tradition” not be the primary rationale, and that gender not be the definitive criteria for decision-making. If sharing a name with your spouse is important to you, for whichever reason, it’s only fair that you be willing to give as much as you get.
—Photo jack dorsey/Flickr