Why Do Women Typically Take Their Husband's Last Name?

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PHOTO BY JAMI LAREE JESKEY /Design by Michela Buttignol

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 they take their last name. But where did this tradition even come from? Why do women take their husband’s last names? And are there alternatives? What if same-sex couples want to do the same? Ahead, we take a look at the history behind this common practice, answer frequently asked questions, and offer alternatives to taking your husband's surname.

The History and Meaning 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 a woman taking her 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 late 19th and early 20th 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 Tennessee court upheld women’s right to vote using their maiden name, courtesy of Dunn v. Palermo.

Taking Your Husband's Last Name FAQs

It's a big decision to change your last name, even on occasion as momentous as your marriage. Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about the practice.

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 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.

Having a different last name than your spouse is unlikely to confuse your children. While a shared last name may sidestep intrusive questions, research shows that having parents with different surnames rarely meddles with a child's identity.

How many women choose to take their husband's last name?

Through a series of Google Consumer Surveys, the New York Times reported that over 70 percent 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 percent 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 flies in the face of tradition, and it’s not a popular choice among couples: Research shows that only about 3 percent of men have chosen this option. Additionally, the decision has been known to elicit intrusive questions and comments from friends, family, and strangers alike.

Can I change my name to be the same as my same-sex spouse?

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 or are in a same-sex relationship, here are a few alternatives. 

Keep Your Last Name 

Remember, there’s no (current) law in the U.S. that says you must change your name. So, keep it simple, skip the mountain of paperwork, and leave your last name as is. 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 or 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. It's not the most common practice, but it's certainly an option.

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. 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.

Article Sources
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  1. Davies, Hayley. Sharing Surnames: Children, Family And KinshipSociology, vol 45, no. 4, 2011, pp. 554-569. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/0038038511406600

  2. Duncan, Simon et al. Understanding Tradition: Marital Name Change In Britain And NorwaySociological Research Online, vol 25, no. 3, 2019, pp. 438-455. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/1360780419892637

  3. Shafer, Emily Fitzgibbons, and MacKenzie A. Christensen. Flipping the (Surname) Script: Men’s Nontraditional Surname Choice at MarriageJournal Of Family Issues, vol 39, no. 11, 2018, pp. 3055-3074. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/0192513x18770218

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