My first boyfriend was both a staunch feminist and at the same time cherry-picked his sexist traditions. He both insisted on calling me – at 18 years old – a woman, but also insisted (with equal vehemence) that any woman would be lucky – lucky! – to take his beautiful last name. Von Berger. It meant “from the mountains.” Really, what woman wouldn’t want that name? Apparently, me. My last name, I argued, goes perfectly well with my first name. And it is part of me. My feeble arguments didn’t make much of an impression on him. It didn’t stop his first wife from taking his last name. Nor his second wife.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have offered different arguments to his claims about his last name. I would have been an even stauncher no. In fact, I hope more men (and women) will reconsider what it means to take a man’s last name.
Seventy percent of U.S. adults believe a woman should take her husband’s last name
In a recent survey, more than 70% of U.S. adults believed that a woman should take her husband’s last name after she gets married. Frankly, I was shocked to read that, but I wasn’t prepared to find about half of those adults think it should be required that a woman take her husband’s last name after marriage. This same study showed that half of those who thought a woman should take her husband’s last name also said she should prioritize her family and marriage and marriage ahead of herself.
It saddened and angered me to read this, and I thought, Dear Men, where are you in this? Where is the support in women being who they need to be? And what about men who choose to prioritize their families and marriage over themselves because they need or want to? This sexism cuts both ways. Women are boxed into a singular focus on family and relationship whereas men are boxed into focusing on career and singular identity. Who wins in all of that?
Some might argue that having the same last name makes people a family. Last names don’t make a family. If they did, Icelanders would be screwed. In a culture where last names are derived from parents’ names, each member of the family could end up with a different last name. Furthermore, with current U.S. divorce rates hovering between 43% to 46%, what would it mean for those families? That which makes a family transcends their name.
When no Female Person had a Legal Identity
An article in Seattle Bride magazine (of all places) reported that women didn’t start taking their husband’s last names until the ninth century in England. And “taking” isn’t quite the right word. It was the law.
Lawmakers devoted time to families and marriage, where it intersected with the law, and that’s when we saw the birth of the doctrine of “coverture.”
If you don’t know that word (I didn’t), it is worthwhile checking out its meaning. Coverture held that no female person had a legal identity. At birth, a female would be given her father’s last name. It would change upon marriage to her husband’s last name. It meant women couldn’t enter into contracts, engage with the law, or have ownership with respect to real estate or personal property. It also meant a woman, once married, owned nothing. She had no rights to her children, her body (no such thing as marital rape), and no claim to money she earned. In as recent as 1966, in the United States Supreme Court case United States v. Yazell, we still saw the impact of coverture on a woman’s lack of ownership around her property. In fact, former Justice Abe Fortas claimed “[c]overture… rests on the old common-law fiction that the husband and wife are one, [and] the one is the husband.”
So, where do we stand with coverture now and why should we care? In her 2012 article, Catherine Allgor, Ph.D. details how a loan officer refused to make her the primary borrower of a loan even though she made more money than her husband, had a longer work history than he had, and was older. The loan officer (a woman) told her “it’s a man’s world.” Is that what we want for the women in our lives?
Now, bit by bit coverture has been disappearing but has never fully gone away. This is why women weren’t commonly on juries until the 1960’s and spousal rape first became a crime in 1979. The list goes on, but importantly, it highlights the inability of women to simply be their own person in society. Is this what men want for their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers? Is this what man would want as part of his marriage?
Choosing the Right Last Name
For some, knowing a history that has erased and oppressed women might be enough not to follow tradition. For others, acknowledging that history, what has changed, and what changes are coming is enough to empower them and choose to take a man’s last name. In this country, names can still be changed (not true in some other countries), which means some couples decide to hyphenate names, create new last names, or simply make no changes. For my own self, I never took my husband’s last name because it simply didn’t make sense to. In the end, is there one right choice around taking a new last name? Definitely not. But when asking “What’s in a name?” the answer certainly isn’t simple.
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