It wasn’t that long ago that women were considered the legal property of men. Ownership of a woman was transferred from her father to husband upon marriage, and signified by her swapping out her father’s last name for her husband’s.
Treating women as literal chattel seems unthinkable today, but the name-changing convention persists. For all the progress we’ve made in some ways, the percentage of women who keep their maiden names after marriage is nearly the same it was four decade ago.
The percentage of American women who kept their maiden names after marriage steadily increased in the 1970s and 1980s before peaking at 23 percent in the ’90s, according to a 2009 study of New York Times wedding announcements from 1971 through 2005. (It is worth noting, of course, that New York Times wedding announcements are hardly representative of all Americans.) But the trend regressed to 18 percent in the 2000s, a decline corroborated by data culled from Massachusetts state birth records.
The maiden name movement has rebounded somewhat since then, with about 20 percent of women keeping theirs post-marriage in the mid-2010s, per a recent analysis by Google and The New York Times. But that leaves four in five women surrendering their birth-given surnames, which seems strikingly low considering the progress made toward gender equality on other fronts. Keeping one’s maiden name was a central tenet of the women’s movement in the 1970s, but the practice has only become marginally more common.
So why does this patriarchal, seemingly arcane institution persist?
It may be due to millennials’ relatively conservative social politics, speculates Moira Weigel, author of Labor of Love, a recent book about the history of romance and dating.
“I have anecdotally heard that fewer women are keeping their maiden names,” Weigel says. “It doesn’t really surprise me; there has been a lot of writing about the comparative traditionalism of millennials.” And that conservatism manifests in few women keeping their maiden names.
That makes it perhaps slightly less surprising that so many men still believe that women should change their last names upon marrying. Men’s Health readers had a collective conniption in 2013 when asked about the possibility of their wives keeping their maiden names, with 63.3 percent saying they’d be upset about it.
“One family, one name. If she didn’t take my name, I’d seriously question her faith in us lasting as a couple. And I don’t want hyphenated kids,” wrote in Brandon Robert Joseph Peyton, an easily emasculated man-child with four first names.
“Hyphenation is a direct ‘f*ck you’ to a man’s masculinity,” wrote an anonymous reader who, interestingly, wasn’t manly enough to leave his own name.
And virtually all respondents (96.3 percent) said they wouldn’t take their wife’s maiden name as their own. “Call it pride or ego, whatever. It’s not happening,” wrote an anonymous respondent.
“Women taking their husbands’ names is still incredibly culturally entrenched and romanticized, from the time girls are little,” says feminist author Jill Filipovic. “Given that, I understand why so many women make that choice, but it’s still an incredibly sexist tradition.”
One theory is that, with more women forsaking marriage and the marriage rate at a historic low, women who do marry are more likely to have a traditional view of the institution and thus take their husband’s names. There might be fewer married women changing their names, but the percentage remains high.
There’s also the sense that name-changing is less politicized for today’s generation than it was for feminists of an earlier era.
“I strongly identify as feminist and I did keep my name when I married,” Weigel says. “But I do not necessarily see this as a key feminist issue. After all, the maiden name is simply your dad’s name. Either way, the name marks you as the property of a man.”