Mrs. Feminist

Ninety percent of married women choose to take their husband's name. But don't call them traditional.

Published October 16, 2003 8:39PM (EDT)

Lynn Harris-Adelson

Lynn Harris Adelson

Lynn Adelson

Rabbi and Mrs. Adelson

Rabbi and Mrs. Harris-Adelson

Lynn Harris and David Adelson

Lynn and David Hadelson

Lynn and David Harrelson

Lynn Duchovny

I digress. The point is, my recent doodles show that when I get married in a few weeks, my name and I will have many options. And as a longtime, passionate, dedicated feminist, I intend to take my husband's name.

OK, maybe "tack on" my husband's name is more accurate. I'm going to keep my long-used byline (in the perhaps vain hope that someday that damn E. Lynn Harris will be confused with me), and add "Adelson" after Harris elsewhere. But still. After Nov. 16, if you call me Mrs. Adelson, I will not flinch.

Shocked? Sure, if you live and walk among the bylined and Ivied and later-married, it may feel as if "everyone" -- except Jamie-Lynn Discala, née Sigler -- keeps her name after saying her vows. (Almost half the married women in the Harvard-Radcliffe class of 1990 kept or hyphenated their names.) If you read the New York Times wedding pages, and shut up, you do, the phrase "the bride, who is keeping her name" seems like the norm, unless his name is Rockefeller.

But a woman who keeps her name is anything but the norm. Since the census data does not include names, it's difficult to get exact numbers on how many women have changed theirs. That said, figures from several recent studies suggest that today about 90 percent of marrying women take the husband's name in some form. (About 25 percent, like me, bump maiden to middle.)

Ninety percent? In this day and age? Yes.

According to Harvard economist Claudia Goldin -- who extrapolated from and "normalized" figures derived from Times wedding announcements, Harvard alumni records, and Massachusetts birth records -- the percentage of 30-something college-educated women keeping their names actually dropped from 27 percent to 19 percent between 1990 and 2000. A decrease occurred even among women 35 to 39 with established careers, normally the group most likely to be "keepers."

What's going on?

It's easy to say -- as Goldin and others have -- that more women are taking their husbands' names because we, as a country, are returning to traditional values. It's also easy to toss out that neo-chestnut about how women say they want autonomy, but deep down, they will always need to cleave, Cleaver-style, to a husband. It's also easy to say that this trend is a bad thing.

Too easy, actually. Of course the system is patriarchal. Of course names, and who bestows them, are important; they are linked -- some say are equal -- to identity. And the Lucy Stone League, an organization dedicated to fostering equality in United States naming practices, has a point when it says: "Until naming practices are equal, women will not be considered equal to men in the U.S. In fact, the measure of naming should be used as an index of the real freedom of women and girls in our society."

But when you actually talk to women who change their names, you hear them speak of desires at once more complicated and much simpler -- not to mention more enlightened -- than a retreat to cozy, scary conservatism. Today, a woman's decision to take her husband's name is not necessarily, or merely, "retro." When it comes to such political-slash-personal acts, the stakes have changed, and therefore so have the statements we're making with them. I would argue that we're not losing battles; we're choosing them. We're not retreating; we're showing, subtly, how far we've come.

"I see [the name issue] as a personal choice and a blessing of feminism that we have this choice," says Marjorie Ingall, 36, a married New York writer who kept her name and whose daughter bears her surname. "It's a little old-school to criticize women for any name choice. Wicked old-school is 'You're not taking his name!' More recent -- but still old-school -- is 'You're not keeping your name?'"

A little history: If you think taking a man's name is "positively medieval," you're a little off. In European feudal times, gentry trumped gender: The more powerful surname, his or hers, was retained. But in the later Middle Ages, as property got more scarce, "there was a closing off of the women's right to inherit land," says Stephanie Coontz, a historian at Evergreen State College and the co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families. Once women could offer only movable goods as de facto dowry, she says, "the paternal line became much more emphasized."

Then English common law established the deceptively elegant-sounding "coverture," meaning that women were legally covered -- as in subsumed -- by the identity of their husbands. In 1879, when Massachusetts feminist Lucy Stone informed the courts that there was no law requiring her to change her name, what do you know, they drafted one. Amazingly, until the mid-1970s, various state laws prohibited women from registering to vote or getting driver's licenses if they didn't use their husbands' names.

Indeed, laws requiring women to take their husbands' names are excellent ones to shrug off, especially if doing so also involves sticking it to the DMV. But during past century's "second wave" of feminism, many women wanted to both form a life partnership and make it clear that a fish doesn't need a bicycle. Sure enough, Dr. Goldin's data shows a "sharp increase" in women keeping their names between 1975 and 1985.

Then things get weird. "The decrease in 'keeping' [one's name] in the 1990s is more difficult to explain and may be a reflection of a growing traditionalism in American society," says Goldin. She maintains that couples now -- in times of less seismic cultural change than those of their parents -- have a more old-fashioned, romanticized sense of marriage, complete with long engagements and giant weddings. "There's a sense among young people that they can magically put together a marriage that will stick," she says. "And taking someone's last name is part of what many think of as that special glue that will hold them together."

The women I spoke to are not necessarily so starry-eyed. Why take his name? "Because my maiden name was Beaver," says Meg McCormick, 36, a human resources manager in Darnestown, Md. Then there's Donna Perkins, 27, whose maiden name was Reed. "I took my husband's name without a second thought," says Perkins, who works in public health in St. Louis. "I'd rather be old-fashioned by taking my husband's name than by having a name associated with vacuuming in pearls." Then there are the issues of cumbersome hyphenates, affronted in-laws, children's surnames. More broadly, for many women, née Slutsky or not, taking a husband's name is "just easier."

Easier because -- yes -- it's the "norm." "I took my husband's name without really thinking about it, but also because I liked Davies better than Griffith," says Lara Davies, 30, who works in fundraising at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Denver. "I would say 95 percent of my friends have changed their names."

"I like the ease of Kathy and John Bachmann," agrees a 32-year-old corporate strategist in Montclair, N.J. "I had a twinge of identity crisis, but it was fleeting. Ultimately, I changed my name so that the future kiddies wouldn't live a confusing life."

Yeah, but to some, "easy" equals "insidious." Morrison Bonpasse, president of the Lucy Stone League, for example, begged me to reconsider my own choice. "People don't realize how important it is," he says. "It's a sexist tradition and it's wrong." He allows that women may happen to change their names "for nonsexist reasons," but that, of course, doesn't help change the system. "There are a lot of good reasons to change one's name. My concern is that these choices weigh more heavily on women. In a perfect world, people would just exercise their personal choice." However, he says, a perfect world is one in which men change their names as often as women do.

More than fair. But let's also be fair to the women who do change their names. Let's not assume that they're just caving, or that when they marry they move to a starter home in Stepford. "My husband is an at-home dad who quit his job willingly," says Mary Stenmark, 33, an advertising executive in Woodbridge, Va., who took her husband's name. "Before we got pregnant we decided to have one of us stay at home with our child. Since I made more money it just made more sense."

These women know their solution may not be ideal. But hey, the revolution is imperfect, incomplete. The name issue is a battle -- one of many remaining -- that lots of hardy, weary women are consciously choosing not to choose. "I work as a counselor in a public high school. Having seen the issues out there -- poverty, crime, drugs, hatred -- I just didn't see taking my husband's name as a big issue," says Julie Groene, 35, of Colchester, Ct. "As the Marines would say, 'Soldier, is this the hill you want to die on?' For me the answer is no."

So instead, they are doing what they can, making meaning of their own, focusing on what they do with their lives as much as what they do with their names. And by the way, isn't that the whole idea of feminism?

"I'm a little self-conscious knowing it's somewhat unpopular among our peers to take your husband's name, but I'm also comfortable enough with my strong sense of feminism to allow for what some might see as a contradiction in politics," says Jaclyn Savolainen, 30, a calligrapher in Brooklyn. "Like saying, 'Hey, I'm a stay-at-home mom who took her husband's name and earns a fraction of our household income but none of that makes me any less of a feminist. Because for me, feminism is about respecting women and men and being able to make whatever lifestyle choices you want."

For some, the change itself is a simple matter of self-determination. "I am glad that I get to be exactly who I want to be at this point in my life, so changing my name was my choice -- not something I did because I felt it was expected of me or because I couldn't think of reasons not to," says Jill LaPoint, 33, a stay-at-home mom in Lawrence, Kan.

Taking your husband's surname, traditionally, makes you an auxiliary, an adjunct, the cute female sidekick, a spinoff, a derivative, Mrs. Him. But for some women now, it's an assumption, rather than a loss, of power -- shared power. "Instead of feeling like I 'belong' to my husband now that I have his last name, I feel like we are on equal footing, says Amy Owings, 34, a executive assistant in Overland Park, Kan. "We are both Owings, so now I claim him as much as he claims me."

And how's this for healthy revisionism: Most empowering for some women is the very freedom to choose a husband's name over what is -- nota bene -- their dad's. "I didn't really want to be connected to my father any longer," says Jody Haller, 31, a pet sitter in Austin, Texas. "He hasn't been in my life since I was quite young, so it seemed like too much of a tie to him."

Likewise, says Juliet Siler Eastland, 35, who works in nonprofits in New York: "I've had my original name -- also a patriarchal hand-me-down -- all my life. It was time to move away from my single identity. Having the same name [as my husband] is more important for me. It means I've chosen, as an adult, to join forces with someone other than my father."

Today, notably, even "keepers" don't necessarily feel that they're making the statement they would have been making a few decades ago.

"I guess I'm misty-eyed for the days when keeping your name seemed like a small act of political defiance, " says Alexandra Jacobs, an L.A. writer who toyed with changing her name ("It would have been a chance to expunge all the articles I was ashamed of") and hyphenating ("But Jacobs-Bines sounds like a disease"). Ultimately, she says, "another journalist convinced me that my byline was a commodity."

Other keepers say they do so because "it's unique" or "there are already a million other Lisa Sullivans" or "I've always been 'one of the Foley girls'" or, simply, "it's who I am." But no one told me she kept her name to fight the power. For many, in fact, keeping their names was not a decision; that is, they never considered anything else. "I just always knew I would keep my name," says Rabbi Susan Fendrick of Newton, Mass. That practically a priori knowledge is, of course, powerful in itself. That, to me, says we've come a long, long way in transforming the institution of marriage, and who we are within and without it.

It's still unfortunate, though, that in the context of this debate, the opposite of "keeping" is presumed to be "losing." According to Donal Carbaugh, professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, some Native American tribes have the tradition of changing individuals' names at different life milestones. "The idea is that you're not losing anything, you're gaining," he says. "That's not a traditional American view, but there's no reason not to see changing your name that way."

Melissa Clayton Tydlaska, 31, a movie-industry lawyer in Los Angeles, would concur. She added Tydlaska (pronounced "Alaska" with a T) but drops Clayton in voice mails and doesn't mind being introduced without it. "I don't care less about feminism than I did before, but I'm still a little defensive about my decision to change my name," says Tydlaska, who was a women's studies major in college. "I would have kept my own name [alone], but there's a symbolism to me that says 'family' when you have the same last name -- not for the sake of 'the children,' because we aren't sure we want them, but for ourselves." She didn't want her husband to take her name, mainly because of "the amount of shit he'd have to put up with." Result: a tricky new name that takes up two lines on her driver's license. "Although having a new name is strange, there's the plus side of the constant reminder that I decided to get married -- and that's a nice thing. I didn't lose anything -- I got something -- and that's how I think of marriage: not losing myself but gaining an intangible."

All this symbolism, all these somersaults: They're not just excuses from Venus for letting Mars rule. We don't have to make the statements we used to -- not because feminism has failed or finished, but on the contrary: because it is still, if sometimes silently or fitfully, at work. If you think my principles, my convictions, my very identity, can be erased in the blink of a "Harris," then Lucy Stone really did bust her ass for nothing.

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By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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