Our names lie at the heart of our identity. Yet, in Britain nearly all married women (roughly 90% in a 2016 survey) abandoned their original surname and choose to take their husband’s instead. The survey even found that most younger married women (those between the ages of 18-24) made the same decision. Some women, incorrectly, think it is a legal requirement. Most countries in western Europe and the United States follow the same pattern.
This change in women’s identity, by taking a husband’s last name, has emerged from from patriarchal history where wives had no surname except “wife of X.” The wife was the husband’s possession and until the late 19th-century, women in England ceded all property and parental rights their husband upon marriage. So, how has a practice born out of women’s subordination to men remained so entrenched in an age of women’s emancipation?
To better understand this, we found a research study that interviewed soon to be, or recently married couples living in both England and Norway. Norway makes an interesting comparison because although it is regularly ranked among the top four countries in the world for gender equality, most Norwegian wives still take their husband’s name.
Patriarchy And Resistance
The study we looked at found that patriarchal power has not gone away. In England, for example, some husbands made marriage conditional on their wives taking their name. Mandy gives a striking example: I actually didn’t want to change my name but.. he said if that hadn’t changed there would have been no point getting married.. he said the wedding would mean nothing.
More often, male preeminence in names was just taken for granted. English women frequently called upon tradition: “it’s traditional and conventional (Eleanor), or felt that name change was “the right thing to do” (Lucy). For Jess the meaning of her wedding was “that I’ll take my partner’s surname and stand by my vows.”
The study also found that such views were much less common in Norway – where most women keep their own name as a secondary, middle, surname to preserve their own identity.
For some English women, taking the husband’s name was not only assumed and unquestioned, it was eagerly awaited. As Abigail put it, “I’m so looking forward to being a wife and having my surname changed.” Adele thought “it’s nice to be able to say ‘husband’ and take someone else’s name and call yourself ‘Mrs’.”
The flip side of patriarchal power was that some women did not want to feel like they were losing their identity. As Rebecca explained: I would like to keep my own name.. I need to be me and I wouldn’t want to lose who I am. In Norway, Caroline felt the same way: I am who I am, so I have no need to change my name.
Two Norwegian women also raised explicit feminist objections. Anna felt that name change “says a lot about the patriarchal culture.” While Oda criticized women for not thinking about what a name means and men for the “weird” practice of imposing their names on other people.
The ‘Good Family’
Many name changers acted between these two poles of male power and women’s resistance. But it seems taking the husband’s name is also seen as being a good way to show others this is a “good family.” As Claire says, “I would like [others] to know that we were a family and I think names is quite a good way of doing that.”
In both countries, the research study found a common surname symbolizing the family as a unit was primarily associated with having children. Erin in Norway had been struggling between “the feminist me” and her husband who wanted her to take his name – though she felt this was “not urgent, at least not until you have children.”
Supposedly, different parental names could be confusing to some people. One woman in the study felt that “the kids won’t know whether they’re coming or going.” However, evidence suggests children are not at all confused about who’s in their family, whatever surname they might have. It actually sounds like nonconformity creates adult discomfort.
Some English women also felt that not changing your name indicated less commitment to the marriage – as Zoe explains: I think if you’ve kept your name it’s kind of like saying I’m not really that committed to you. This feeling was not directly expressed by the Norwegian couples – probably because of the widespread practice of using the wife’s surname as a secondary, middle, family name.
Not The Norm
Clearly, showing others you are a “good family” is not a seamless, uncontested process. The display needs validation by others – and this makes adopting the husband’s name all the more likely. This study found the possibility of a joint name or using the women’s name was rarely considered among English couples. So although some women may be actively involved in choosing their marital name, taking the man’s name still appears to be the norm for most couples getting married.