It is a common societal practice for women to adopt their husband’s name and for them to share the same last name with their children. There is great meaning to this practice, as family identity and culture are often rooted in the names and heritage they share.
What does mother’s maiden name mean? Mother’s maiden name is the family surname a woman carries from birth from her mother and father before she gets married. It is the name of her bloodline that her descendants can use to trace their matriarchal heritage.
Long ago, it was practically illegal for a woman to keep her maiden name after marriage. To make a contract or purchase land, she had to use her husband’s name.
Today, women are on much more equal footing legally. But, 80% of women continue the tradition and change their name after marriage, although it’s now a choice rather than an obligation (source). This choice shapes the identity of the family, as mothers share the last names of their husbands and children.
Maiden Name to Married Name: A Brief History
It used to be that a mother’s maiden name held little value, at least as far as society was concerned. The assumption was (and still is for the majority of Americans) that when a woman got married, she would change her last name.
How did it get to be this way?
The practice of this name change can be linked to the concept of coverture, a legal doctrine which transferred a woman’s legal rights and obligations to her husband upon marriage. Essentially, a woman was property, transferred from her father to her husband. While single women were allowed to act using their birth name, women who were married could not.
Other rituals and traditions surrounding marriage also reflect the laws of this time. For example, the giving away of the bride is a clear show of this arrangement. The bride walks in with her father, to be handed off to her soon-to-be husband.
Laws that supported or continued ideas similar to coverture persisted in the United States into the 1980s, requiring that married women change their name to exercise their rights, such as the ability to vote or obtain a driver’s license. (source)
During this time, women who kept their maiden names also retained the title “Miss” rather than adopting “Mrs.” to signify their status as married. Eventually, the title “Ms.” arose to refer to either a married or unmarried woman. (source)
Today, most of these laws have been abolished. Besides, gender roles have changed significantly. For example, more and more women are in the workforce, and the traditional model of the wife as a homemaker and the father as the breadwinner is no longer standard. Today, only 22% of families operate relying on only the man’s income.
A Shifting Perspective
Today, women are more open to the idea of keeping their surname upon marriage. As you may imagine, as the women’s movement arose, resulting in the abolishment of patriarchal laws that required women to change their names, more and more women kept their maiden names.
The feminist’s movement brought with it a series of changes that increased women’s freedoms. For example, birth control in the form of the pill became available in the 1960s. As social norms also loosened, young women began using birth control to delay marriage. Also, they were more likely to be able to complete college degrees or achieve career-related goals before starting a family.
These changes brought about by the feminist movement are likely the reason that the percentage of women who kept their maiden names after marriage jumped from 2-4% in 1975 to 20% in 2001.
However, the instance of a mother’s maiden name being retained didn’t grow in a steadily increasing fashion. There was a peak for keeping a maiden name in the 1980s that eventually plateaued and decreased slightly in the 1990s.
Researchers have many theories regarding why this may have occurred. One theory is that women felt less of a need to keep their names to make a public declaration in support of women’s rights now that fewer inequalities existed. (source)
Despite a slight decline or plateau, more women keep their maiden names today than they have in the past, reflecting a shift in perspective. It’s more acceptable, if not entirely acceptable, for women to keep their names today.
The Significance of a Mother’s Maiden Name: Why Women Keep It
The mother’s maiden name is the last name she’s had her whole life, typically the family name of her father which was given to her at birth. Upon marriage, why do some women and mothers decide to keep their maiden name?
There are many reasons a woman may decide to keep her maiden name, some practical and some that are more related to emotions and psychology. Here are some of the main factors that may influence women to decide to keep her birth name:
Career: Especially as the average age of marriage has increased, many women have made a name for themselves in their professional field before marriage. This is exactly what happened to writer Laura Johnston. According to Johnston, her established byline was not something she wanted to have to change. Especially in creative careers where one attracts a following and reputation with one’s name, it can be detrimental to make a change.
Identity: Changing one’s last name can feel like you’re changing your identity. After all, most women don’t get married until their mid to late 20s. Making a change in identity at this point may even go as far as to feel disorienting.
As Joni Erdmann notes, when she changed her name upon marriage at age 22, she quickly regretted it. Her husband’s name, McClain suggested Irish heritage when she was actually of German heritage, which is easy to tell from her maiden name, Erdmann. Now, she’s gone back to using her maiden name which feels more natural to her. (source)
This example demonstrates that the significance of the maiden name is part identity, which includes heritage, belonging to a family or cultural group, and more. As interracial marriages increase, the identity issue becomes an even more critical consideration (source). By adopting her husband’s name, a woman might feel like she’s rejecting her culture, language, and heritage.
Convenience: Even if done upon marriage, changing one’s last name requires a lot of paperwork. From changing all of your legal IDs and documents to your credit card, updating your banking info, and more, there’s a lot to arrange. Because of the trouble involved, it’s natural that some women prefer not to go through the tedious process of changing their surname.
Why Is the Mother’s Married Name Important?
While a mother’s maiden name carries part of her identity, career, and may be convenient to maintain, there are also many arguments for women to change their names. It would appear that these are strong arguments, given that 94% of married women in the United States use their husband’s last names. (source)
Keep in mind; this figure is more significant for older women and lower for younger women. Here are some of the main reasons the married name is essential:
Family Identity: When forming a family, a mother’s maiden name may take a backseat to the unity of the family, leading her to adopt a married name. In many families, there’s a sense of team membership that gives the feeling that everyone works together toward the same goals. This is the reason that Laura Coffey cites for changing her name after 20 years of marriage.
“But when our team gained a third member, my son, I suddenly felt like I wasn’t quite displaying the team spirit with gusto. It was as if some paperwork had slipped my mind somehow, and I had missed out on ordering the team jersey,” Coffey said. Now, she’ll be a full part of the team, as in honor of her and her husband’s 20th wedding anniversary, she’s changing her name, at least personally. Coffey, who’s a writer, will maintain her maiden name for professional purposes. (source)
Attitudes: Unfortunately, many attitudes towards women not changing their names are quite negative. However, the views on mother’s who keep their maiden name vary based on how educated the person is. For example, last name choice doesn’t affect the views of men and women who are highly educated. However, men with low education tend to view women who retain their maiden name “as less committed wives.” (source)
In another study, researchers found that people viewed women who keep their birth name as “selfish and uncommitted to their marriage and family.” People may even hold wives with a different surname to a higher standard than other women. (source)
Perceptions of men who are married to women who don’t change their name also change. People think these men have less power in their relationships. (source)
Although women may not know the research, it’s likely that they’ve felt the pressure. Perhaps they’ve heard comments of relatives disparaging mother’s who keep their maiden names, such as “Poor Johnny, he must be so confused why his mama has a different name. I don’t know why she wouldn’t want to have the same name as her kids.”
Or, they hear comments with relation to the husband wondering, “Why wouldn’t she want to change her name? What’s holding her back?”
Tradition and societal norms ultimately play a significant role in our relationships and families. Going against the grain will almost always cause friction.
Mother’s Relationship to Children
Many women decide to change their name when considering future or existing children. For example, Katie Martin wanted to change her last name so that she could share a name with her kids. She doesn’t want people to question her relationship to her kids or husband, asking questions like “Are the children her kids? His kids? Is this a second marriage?” (source)
Furthermore, schools and doctor’s offices might refer to you by your children’s last name anyway, creating some confusion.
For many women, children are the primary reason a mother’s maiden name is abandoned. They want recognition as the children’s mother in the form of a shared name. The most acceptable and easy way to get there for most women is to adopt their husband’s name.
Some women relish the choice to choose a new name. Perhaps they’ve had a traumatic or abusive childhood and want to separate themselves from their family. Or maybe they like their husband’s name. Other women feel like they’re starting a new life in marriage and like how a name change helps commemorate this milestone.
Brianna Brailey changed her last name for professional reasons. Because her maiden name was pretty typical, it was hard for her to stand out online. But, with her name change, she’s noticed that searches lead directly to her social media pages and website. (source)
Alternative Practices for Family Names
Although most women either keep their maiden name or adopt their husband’s last name upon marriage, there are alternatives.
What are they?
Hyphenation: Some couples decide to hyphenate both of their last names to create a new name for both people. This helps ensure that the whole family, including the husband, wife, and any children, maintains the same identity. Furthermore, no one must reject their heritage or culture.
A New Name: In some cases, couples may invent a whole new last name to use together. Some examples include a pure combination of last names such as Bryn Hunt and Richard Palmer, who adopted the surname Huntpalmer in 2010. Others get creative, like Geoff Werner-Allen and Suzanna Chapman who changed their name to Challens. (source)
Middle Name: Other women keep their maiden name as a middle name. There are some prominent examples of this practice, including supreme court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor. While conforming to the societal expectation of changing their name, professionally, they reference accomplishments before marriage by retaining their maiden name as an important identifier.
Two Names: For women who face serious professional consequences for changing their name, using two names can be a solution. A mother might keep her maiden name for work and switch her name for personal purposes. This is easy in some industries. For example, a mother’s maiden name is easy to maintain for artists and writers. It serves as their pen name or artistic name. But, for everything else, they can use their legally changed name.
In addition to these alternative practices, it’s interesting to note what happens in countries other than the USA. Many cultures around the world have other naming practices that don’t assume a woman will change her name upon marriage.
For example, in Spanish speaking cultures, including Central and South America and Spain, children are given two last names at birth. The first last name is from the father and the second from the mother.
Let’s imagine a child name Juan is born. He receives the surnames González Lopez (González being the paternal name and Lopez being the maternal name). Then, he grows up and marries Maria Hernández Sanchez. Maria’s name doesn’t change, but she adds her husband’s paternal surname to her own, becoming Maria Hernández Sanchez de González. The two have a child, who is named Diego González Hernández, thus inheriting the surnames of his two grandfathers.
While these alternative practices aren’t prevalent, as gender roles and perspectives continue to shift, more couples may be willing to discuss these options. With many of these alternative practices, women get the best of both worlds. While preserving their heritage and professional identity, they also share a name with their newly formed family.
The Final Word on Surnames After Marriage
Essentially, the choice about what to do about a surname after marriage is something couples must decide together. While the woman is the one who is usually affected more by the decision, both the husband and wife must talk about their feelings, ideas, and concerns.
Yes, there are both advantages and disadvantages to a mother keeping her maiden name. Professional concerns, identity, societal attitudes, the family unit, children, and convenience all come into play. A careful evaluation of all of these factors and the unique aspects that we all bring to the table as individuals is merited to discover the best outcome for each couple.
In a true partnership as marriage and family life requires, the couple should work to find a solution that works for everyone involved. To learn more about some strategies to do so, check out this article.