Why Do Women Still Change Their Surnames?

I’ve never understood why changing your surname because you happen to marry someone is so necessary.

It never occurred to me when I got married -- twice. I was perfectly happy with the name I’d had all my life. It was part of my identity, my sense of self and my autonomy. It was profoundly me.

The day before my second wedding in 1999, my Greek mother-in-law came to stay in the home I shared with her son. We sat around the table drinking Turkish coffee. She told me, smiling, that tomorrow I would be Mrs –. Full of the self-righteous zeal of youth, I said I would most certainly not. And I didn’t let up. I gave my sweet, well-meaning, loving mother-in-law a lecture. My mum hissed at me through gritted teeth: ‘Give it a bloody rest!’ I’d never heard her swear before.

More than 80 percent of women in Australia take their husband’s surname.  In the US, it’s closer to 94 percent. This overwhelming majority cuts through culture, age, education and socio-economic divides. Newlywed Alicia, 28, "wanted to sacrifice part of my identity to in order to 'prove' how much I loved him." Anecdotally, more millennials are in fact changing their names compared to their mothers, who were forged in the feminist politics of the 1970's.

Newlywed Alicia said she "wanted to sacrifice part of my identity to 'prove' how much I loved him." (Image: Getty)

Some women change their names for purely practical reasons. To ensure permanent residency. For ease on international flights with children. Because they hate the sound of their birth names or to distance themselves from abusive backgrounds. Some change their names as a mark of commitment. Penny, 46, remembers "when our first son died during labour I really wanted my husband’s surname for me and our son as he was a deep part of our relationship." Tamara, 50, changed her name for work. "I had two separate versions of me. The military one and the mother."

It’s still rare for a child to take its mother’s surname or even both parents’ names. My daughter does. She’s 13 and has known since she was old enough to ask that it’s okay if she keeps both surnames, one or none. She can change her name to Honey-Child Moonbeam as far as we’re concerned. It’s her choice. It’s even rarer for a man to take his wife’s surname upon marriage or for the couple to create an entirely new, intentional name to honour their union.

A child taking their mother's surname, or both parents' surnames, is still rare. (Image: Getty)

Karen, 40, married into a Turkish family and upon divorce, changed her name to Hope, freeing herself from the past. Artemiss, 47, believes her surname "carries energy, like a house you’ve lived in for a while", and like her mother in pre-Revolution Iran, chose not to change. Anne, 47, "never intended to take someone’s name and my children have my last name, not either of their dads". For Rosie, 40, "it’s a question of equity".

Keeping my father’s surname is not smashing the patriarchy, as I so fondly thought in my 20s. It’s just another man’s name. Nor is reverting to my mother’s ‘maiden’ name, which is also her father’s name. And on it goes, through history. The erasure of women’s names never ends. Who was the first woman to take her husband’s name? And what was her name before that?

The habit of women changing their surnames originates in property ownership. Women were chattels, the same way a cow or a piece of land was. They went from being their father’s property to their husband’s. This came to pass as hunter-gatherer society transitioned to settled agriculture. With collateral, everything needed to be owned and named.
Women historically went from being their father's property to being their husband's. (American wedding couple circa 1905. Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

In 1983, Greece’s leftist government made it illegal for women to change their names, among other feminist reforms to childcare and divorce. On the flipside, in some villages women take their husband’s first names as well. Culture and religion trump the legal system. Pandeli’s wife becomes Pandelina, harking back to 1950's Australia. I still get wedding invitations in the mail addressed to ‘Mr and Mrs -’ Really? I’m 45 and have had the same name all my life.

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In China, women traditionally keep their own names though the children take their father’s. In India, children can have both their mother’s and father’s names. A similar custom exists in Italy, Spain and Portugal. In Islamic religion and Arabic culture, women have the right to keep their birth names when they marry, a convention which dates back 1,400 years.

So why are we so uptight about it? Why do people get anxious or defensive?

In a recent US study, men whose wives kept their names were perceived as being less masculine. We have a long way to go before more men will even consider taking their wives’ surnames. And if that makes us uncomfortable as a society, maybe we need to examine our assumptions.

Susan, 44, sums it up. "Who am I? Why must I be named and owned?"