Why Women Traditionally Took Their Husband’s Last Names

It all comes down to one word: coverture.

A white, lit-up Mr. and Mrs. sign at a wedding.

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When it comes to marriage, there are certain traditions, such as the white wedding dress and the diamond engagement ring, that seem completely ingrained in modern wedding culture. In heterosexual relationships, a woman taking her husband’s last name has historically also seemed like a given. But in these more enfranchised, feminist times—when women who change their names do so of their own volition, and women who do not are equally justified in the choice—it’s worth revisiting the history of this longstanding tradition.

Read on for a look at the laws that brought this custom into practice, why women still opt to take their husbands’ last names, and alternatives to consider if you decide it’s not the right move for you.

The History of Women Taking Their Husband’s Last Name

In mainland Europe in the Dark Ages (roughly 500 to 1000 A.D.), populations were so sparse, spread out, and loosely organized that last names were not necessarily needed to function in society. As populations grew through the Middle Ages and society became more organized, though, codified practices were needed to help these societies and the partnerships within them efficiently operate. “Before widespread literacy, some laws were coded in writing, but they were more often based in custom,” says historian Catherine Allgor. This is known as common law. 

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Common law was formed in deeply patriarchal societies. As such, laws regarding women were not only unfavorable to the female gender, they barely acknowledged its existence. Under English common law, the concept of coverture most clearly asserted this. It is also the basis for a woman taking a man’s last name in a heterosexual marriage. 

What Is Coverture?

According to Oxford Language—in the context of the historical definition— coverture is the legal status of a married woman, considered to be under her husband's protection and authority.

“Coverture is a legal formation that held that no female person had a legal identity,” explains Allgor. “A female baby was covered by her father’s identity, and then, when she was married, by her husband’s.” Under coverture, a husband and wife became “one” under marriage. “It sounds romantic, but the ‘one’ was the husband,” Allgor continues. “She becomes, and this is the phrase, ‘legally dead.’ So it’s not that women take the last names of their husbands, which is how we think of it—it’s that they become part of [the husband’s] body. She does not exist in law, only the husband does.” Eerily enough, this is why characters in the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale are renamed things like “Offred” and “Ofglen” in the dystopian society of Gilead—these women are literally considered “of” the specific men that rule them. 

Codified into written law by William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England in 1765, coverture negated a female’s existence as an independent identity. As a result, her rights were severely limited. “Married women could not make contracts, because they couldn’t own businesses,” Allgor says. “Married women owned nothing—not even the clothes on their backs. They had no rights to their children, and no rights to their bodies, so men could send their wives out to labor, and [the men] could collect the wages. He also had an absolute right to sexual access. Within marriage, a woman’s consent was implied, so rape was legitimate.”  

While not always put fully into practice in real life—“You can’t really run a society where women are this oppressed,” Allgor notes—these customs carried over from England to America during the establishment of the colonies. Though there were opportunities to formally abolish or amend coverture during the creation of the U.S. Constitution in the 1780s—Abigail Adams addressed the very matter in her “Remember the Ladies” letter to her husband, Constitutional Convention member John Adams—the first break in coverture the U.S. didn’t arrive until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1848

So, what happened from there? “Over the years it got amended by this law or that act so that women could do things like go to school, get driver’s licenses, and work,” Allgor explains, but we’ve never fully gotten rid of it. It’s the reason why, for example, despite earning the right to vote in 1920, American women who married non-U.S. citizens lost their citizenship under the Expatriate Act until 1922. It’s also the foundation for why, prior to the 1970s in the U.S., marital rape was still legal, and a woman could not obtain a driver’s license, get a passport, or register to vote unless she took her husband’s last name. 

As for what it would take to formally abolish coverture? For Allgor, the answer is simple: finally passing the Equal Rights Amendment.

Why Do Women Still Take Their Husband’s Last Name? 

There’s no denying that the history of why women take their husbands’ last names is hard to stomach. For some women, though, enough time has passed that the joining of two into one feels more joyfully symbolic than depressingly literal. In that, there can be plenty to appreciate about the tradition. Perhaps no one has more publicly expressed this sentiment in recent times than Jennifer Lopez, who legally took her husband Ben Affleck’s last name after their July wedding. “People are still going to call me Jennifer Lopez. But my legal name will be Mrs. Affleck because we’re joined together. We’re husband and wife. I’m proud of that,” she stated in Vogue’s December cover story. “It still carries tradition and romance to me.” 

For others, the reasoning can be as simple as spelling and sound. “I was excited to take a last name that people would spell correctly,” says Ivy Solomon of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “My maiden name wasn’t as beautiful as his,” says Sarah Bradshaw of Greenville, South Carolina. “Plus, I adore him, and wanted everyone to know that we belong together.”  

There’s also the thought of family—both current and future. “I wanted the same last name as my ‘future children,’ who are now here,” says Sophie Zeigler of St. Michaels, Maryland. “If it weren’t for kids, I probably would have kept my maiden name.” For Ashley Paul of  Simpsonville, South Carolina, the sentiment extends beyond her own kids. “For me, it’s a symbol of becoming a part of his family,” she says. “His parents are now my bonus parents. His siblings are my bonus siblings.” 

The tradition can also be a unique way of honoring a loved one’s wishes. “My mom, a single mom, loved my husband’s family,” says Philadelphia’s Dana Staab. “She got introduced to my parents-in-law at our wedding reception and they came out to ‘We Are Family.’ I couldn’t wait to change my name, my mom wanted it so much for me. I did it with such pride and excitement. She passed away 63 days later.” 

How Many Women Still Take Their Husband’s Last Name? 

Despite the origins of the tradition, it seems that the majority of modern American women still opt to take their husband’s last name. In a series of Google Consumer Surveys conducted by The New York Times’s The Upshot blog in 2015, roughly 70 percent of women surveyed opted to take their husband’s last name. (Roughly 20 percent opted to keep their given last name, and 10 percent went a third route, such as hyphenating their last name.) 

Anecdotally, though, that may be changing. “For our brides and grooms, I’m seeing a lot of cases where they are of different ethnicities, and changing their last name makes them feel like they aren’t respecting their cultural identity, or perhaps it just feels weird to them to not be identified on paper as that ethnicity anymore,” says Santa Barbara, California-based destination wedding planner Alison Laesser-Keck.  

It’s also a decision some women are considering reversing. “I’ve been happily married for seven years, but will be changing my name back to my maiden name legally,” says Danielle Sykes of Kittery, Maine. “We knew we wanted to have kids and it seemed like it would make sense to have a ‘family name,’ even though I knew from the start that it wasn’t really for me. Oddly enough, after having a child, I feel even more inclined to reclaim anything that feels like it’s truly mine.”

Alternatives to Taking Your Husband’s Last Name

How you choose to identify in your marriage is entirely up to you. If the idea of taking your husband’s last name doesn’t feel right, here are a few alternatives.

Keep Your Given Name 

You’ve been you your entire life. There are no legal requirements requiring you to change that once you marry, so why not stick with what's already been working? What’s also great: you can skip all the name-change paperwork.

Make Your Given Last Name Your New Middle Name 

Another popular option, this route allows many women to feel that they haven’t completely given up their identity. “My husband is the last in his family to have the name—he’s an only child,” says New York’s Wynne Dillon Nevis. “I chose to replace my middle name with my maiden name, and our first child, a daughter, now has my former middle name.”

Hyphenate Your Last Name

This can be a great compromise, as it represents a literal fusion of your two families. Choose whichever order you think works best. Added Bonus: While some more antiquated government forms won’t accommodate for a space between two last names, they will recognize a hyphenated name.

Have Your Husband Take Your Last Name

Though not as common, it definitely happens! “When we were dating, we were surprised with our first pregnancy,” says Philadelphia’s Leah Gallo. “We were discussing baby names and the topic of last names came up. Since we weren't married yet, I wanted the baby to have my last name. He said yes, and went on to say that when we got married, he'd also take my last name.” 

Create an Entirely New Last Name 

Maybe you can’t decide whose last name to take, or maybe you both have never been fond of your respective given names. Your marriage is an opportunity to start anew, together, and an entirely new last name is a fitting way to symbolize the beginning of the journey. Just know the steps involved to make things legal will be a bit more extensive.

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