More and more women are keeping their maiden names these days, which doesn't seem surprising until you learn that this number has been on the decline for a while. According to an analysis by The Upshot based on a Google Consumer Survey, 17 percent of women kept their last names in the '70s, compared to 14 percent in the '80s and 18 percent in the '90s. According to another analysis by The New York Times based on its wedding announcements, the number hit a low of 16.2 percent in 1990 but has been on the rise since, with 26 percent of women in 2000 and 29.5 percent last year keeping their last names. The Upshot's study, which covers a broader range of demographics, found 19 percent of women in the 2000s and 22 percent in the 2010s keeping their last names.
The New York Times describes some modern women's reasons for keeping their birth-given last names as "practical, not political," but also acknowledges that "from the time that the equal rights activist Lucy Stone became famous for keeping her name when she married in 1855, maiden names have been politically charged." So perhaps, taking inspiration from the second-wave feminist mantra "the personal is political," we should acknowledge that the practical is political, too — because it took a long political struggle for women to have the practical option of keeping their last names.
Here are a few practical reasons the women who told their stories to The Times, plus some commenters, gave for keeping their last names and why they are feminist, even if not obviously so.
1. "It's just my name for 33 years of my life."
“It’s not necessarily a feminist reason," Donna Suh told The Times, adding that keeping her name helps people find her on social media and prevents the confusion of seeing an Asian woman with a white name. Preserving your individual and racial identity sounds pretty feminist to me, though, and wouldn't be possible without feminism. As Amy Poehler points out in the quote above, even when feminism is not directly impacting our decisions, it provided our ability to make them.
2. "They’ve already lived in a household with two names, so maybe it seems normal to them.”
Sociologist Laurie Scheuble told The Times that, despite the huge social stigma of women keeping their own last names, the practice is becoming less uncomfortable now that many children see it modeled in their own households. She also cited an increase in women's education (women with advanced degrees are five to 10 times more likely to keep their maiden names), the upsurge of couples living together before marriage (perhaps the fact that more unmarried couples have kids also contributes), and the example set by celebrities who keep their last names (and even pass them on to their husbands, thanks to Zoe and Marco Saldana). Like interracial and same-sex couples, the more commonplace couples with different last names become, the less outrageous they'll seem.
3. More women have "made a name" for themselves before marriage.
A Harvard study demonstrated that the likelihood of keeping one's maiden name increases by one percent for each year a marriage is delayed. Claudia Goldin, an author of the study, told The Times that this is because older women have literally "made a name" for themselves and want to keep the name that's tied to their professional accomplishments. So, perhaps we can owe the increase in maiden names in part to the trend of Americans getting married at older ages than ever. And we definitely owe this ability for women to identify with their own careers', rather than their husbands', to feminism.
4. "Gay marriage adds another wrinkle."
A commenter under the name Judge Q pointed out that, with gay marriage now legal across the U.S., it is no longer obvious who should take who's name, which may lead less traditional arrangements to become more commonplace. Michael Hollan of YourTango makes the broader point that gay marriage may help dismantle a lot of assumptions about marriage, including that it's a time when "men get jobs" and "women cook and clean and get pregnant."
5. "We were not going to have children so neither of us thought it crucial that I change my name."
Women who don't want children are still met with skepticism and assurance that their good old "material instinct" will kick in. But thanks to feminism, more people understand that a woman can derive meaning from accomplishments other than motherhood. Perhaps in part for this reason, fewer couples are planning to have children, so fewer are dealing with the confusion of whose last name the kids will take if the parents' names are different. The commenter Doc Martin, who brought up this explanation, also said she keeps her last name to retain a sense of independence.
At the same time, many women have reasons for changing their last names that they find meaningful and empowering rather than mere affirmations of a patriarchal institution. “It’s like you’re a unit if you have the same last name,” Sarah Marino, who is the breadwinner in her marriage but took her husband's name, told The Times. "I don’t tie my personal success and me trying to be a successful woman lawyer to keeping my original name.” She makes a great point that this decision should not be used as a metric of how feminist a woman or a relationship is. History and family studies professor Stephanie Coontz echoed this sentiment:
You had a militancy about it in the ’70s, a period when in many states, marriage was still legally defined as an unequal relationship... Many women are saying now: "This is not such a big deal to me. How you treat me and what you pay me is a huge deal to me."
But if I get married, I plan on keeping my last name because I want to be addressed in a way that feels familiar to me, recognizable on Google search (though, now that I think about it, it would be nice to have certain traces of my online presence unsearchable), and acknowledged consistently throughout my career. And all those reasons are feminist.