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While the concept of taking your husband’s last name is ingrained in our culture and viewed almost as a right of passage, it wasn’t always customary. In medieval England, surnames didn't even exist. The citizenry was known only by their first name. But as the population grew, however, keeping track of who’s who became a bit more difficult, and the modern convention (relatively speaking) of using surnames as an identifier soon became the norm.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and women take their husbands in sickness and in health—and their last name. But where did this tradition even come from? Why do women take their husband’s last names? And are there alternatives? Ahead, we take a look at the history behind this common practice.
History of Women Taking Their Husband’s Last Name
The practice of assuming your husband’s name was birthed in a deeply patriarchal society, and centuries later, the tradition still stands. Believe it or not, the practice of women taking their husband’s last name is a vestige of a law that dates back to the 11th century. Sometime after the Norman Conquest, the Normans introduced the idea of coverture to the English and the seeds of a long-standing tradition were planted.
Under English common law, coverture asserted that once married, a woman’s identity was “covered” by her husband. From the moment of her marriage, a woman was known as a “feme covert” or covered woman; she and her husband essentially became one. With her identity essentially erased under the law of coverture, women could not own property or enter into contracts on their own. Husbands had complete control over their wives, legally and financially. More alarmingly, the law limited a woman’s recourse in rape and domestic violence cases, and they had no legal rights over their children.
There was no expiration date of coverture laws per se. Instead, the laws just sort of fell out of favor and faded away. No doubt, the suffrage movement of the 19th century helped contribute to its demise. Feminists (both then and now) were quick to point out that a woman’s name change was an irrefutable act of submission. Many argued that when women take their husband’s last name, it simply laid bare their perceived inferiority to men.
While the practice of women taking their husband’s last name is not on any lawbook, common practices still forced their hands. Prior to the 1970s, women could not get passports, driver’s licenses, or register to vote unless they adopted their husband’s last name. While women earned the right to vote in 1920, the fine print read that they can only do so using their husband’s last name. It wasn’t until over a half-century later that a Tennesse court upheld women’s right to vote using their maiden name, courtesy of Dunn V. Palermo.
Frequently Asked Questions About Taking Your Husband's Last Name
Why do most women still take their husband's last name?
For some, taking their husband's last name simply serves to solidify the commitment. It's a gesture that leaves no room for doubt—changing their surname after marriage shows that they're all in. For others, taking their husbands' surname is more about the status of the family unit— when there is a family unit to speak of.
Although research proves otherwise, many fear that differing surnames will confuse their kids and meddle with their sense of identity. It's more likely, however, that a shared last name will raise fewer eyebrows and sidestep intrusive questions.
How many women choose to take their husband's last name?
Through a series of Google Consumer Surveys, The New York Times reported that as much as 70% of women (in the U.S.) opted to take their husband’s family name after marriage. And save for Spain and Iceland, Western Europe seems to follow the same pattern. According to a 2016 survey, as much as 90% of British women hold fast to the tradition and take their husband’s name upon marriage. On the other hand, in 1983, Greece passed a Family Law Reform that required women to retain their surname after marriage and even pass it on to their children.
Is it common for men to take their wife’s surname?
While some men opt to take their wife’s last name, that really flies in the face of tradition, so it’s not a popular choice for most couples. Research has shown that only about 3% of men have chosen this option. Additionally, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that there is a certain stigma associated with men taking their wife’s last name that may be hard to circumvent.
Can I change my name to be the same as my same-sex partner?
Yes! When the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country in 2015, part of the ruling allowed for same-sex partners to change their names just as opposite-sex couples do.
Do I have to pay to change my name after I get married?
The cost of changing your name after marriage varies from person to person. For example, if your passport was issued within a year of your marriage, the replacement with your name change is free. For a passport older than one year, however, there is a charge for a new issue. Additionally, you will have to pay to replace your driver’s license, which, again, varies by state and jurisdiction. Typically, the cost of a replacement is $50 or less. A new social security card, however, is free for marital name changes; just be sure to work directly with the Social Security Administration.
Alternatives to Taking Your Husband's Last Name
There’s nothing wrong with taking your husband’s last name, and the majority of women around the world are holding firm to the tradition. But this particular tradition may not be right for everyone. If you’re not entirely sold on the idea of taking your husband’s name after marriage, here are a few alternatives.
Keep Your Last Name
Remember, there’s no (current) law that says you must change your name. So, keep it simple, skip the mountain of paperwork and keep your last name. How’s that for easy?
Hyphenate Your Last Name
Back in the day, when marriages were more of an alliance between families, hyphenation was common practice. If you don’t want to lose your last name, but you don’t want to slight your spouse, try hyphenating your last name for a solution that offers equal representation.
Make Your Maiden Name Your Middle Name
Looking back at history, it would seem that Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Coretta Scott King were ahead of their time as the practice of taking your husband’s last name and using your given last name as your middle name is pretty on-trend right now.
Have Your Husband Take Your Last Name
If you really want to turn the tradition on its head, your husband can take your last name. As you may have guessed, this is probably the least popular option, but an option nevertheless.
Create a New Last Name
For a truly avant-garde approach to the name game after marriage, spouses are increasingly dropping their given surnames entirely and creating (or choosing) one that belongs to both of them from the “I do.” Some thought starters for creating a new last name include inventing a mashup of both of your names, digging one up from your family histories, or choosing a new name that has no ties or meaning to either party.