In the run-up to marriage, many couples, particularly those of a more progressive bent, will encounter a problem: What is to be done about the last name?
Some have attempted work-arounds: the Smiths and Taylors who have become Smith-Taylors, Taylor-Smiths, or—more creative—Smilors. But there just isn’t always a good, fair option. (While many straight couples fall back on the option of a woman taking her husband’s last name, same-sex couples have no analogous default.)
And so it is that, even after generations of feminist progress, the expectation, at least for straight couples, has remained: Women take the man’s last name. Seventy-two percent of adults polled in a 2011 study said they believe a woman should give up her maiden name when she gets married, and half of those who responded said they believe that it should be a legal requirement, not a choice. In some states, married women could not legally vote under their maiden name until the mid-1970s.
The opposite—a man taking his wife’s name—remains incredibly rare: In a recent study of 877 heterosexual married men, less than 3 percent took their wife’s name when they got married. When her fiancé, Avery, announced that he wanted to take her last name, Becca Lamb, a 23-year-old administrative assistant living in Washington, D.C., told me that, at first, she said no: “It shocked me. I had always expected to take my husband’s last name someday. I didn’t want to do anything too out of the norm.”
But the prospect of a married man adopting his wife’s last name hasn’t always been so startling in Western cultures. In medieval England, men who married women from wealthier, more prestigious families would sometimes take their wife’s last name, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of marriage and family history at Evergreen State College. From the 12th to the 15th century, Coontz told me, in many “highly hierarchical societies” in England and France, “class outweighed gender.” It was common during this period for upper-class English families to take the name of their estates. If a bride-to-be was associated with a particularly flashy castle, the man, Coontz says, would want to benefit from the association. “Men dreamed of marrying a princess,” she says. “It wasn’t just women dreaming of marrying a prince.”
In America today, many men tend to have the same hang-up about surrendering their last names, says Brian Powell, a professor of family and gender at Indiana University Bloomington who has studied attitudes toward marital name changes: They worry they’ll be seen as less of a man. And it seems they’re probably right. In a forthcoming study, Kristin Kelley, a doctoral student working with Powell, presented people with a series of hypothetical couples that had made different choices about their last name, and gauged the subjects’ reactions. She found that a woman’s keeping her last name or choosing to hyphenate changes how others view her relationship. “It increases the likelihood that others will think of the man as less dominant—as weaker in the household,” Powell says. “With any nontraditional name choice, the man’s status went down.” The social stigma a man would experience for changing his own last name at marriage, Powell told me, would likely be even greater.
Of course, the man-takes-wife’s-name solution, like hyphenation and the last-name mishmash, is imperfect. Even though it may turn gender convention on its head—a plus for some couples—nevertheless one partner is giving up his name and, in a sense, losing a slice of the person he was before he got married. It comes with other challenges too: Because so few men opt to change their name, couples who make the unconventional choice are well aware they’ll stick out, eliciting questions for as long as anyone can remember their names before marriage. Lamb told me that there was no way for her husband to “casually” take her name. It would be a big deal, no matter how hard she tried to play it down. “And I didn’t want my marriage to be a political statement,” she said.
But by thinking this way, Lamb said, she knew she was perpetuating the same norms that she felt stuck in. Men don’t take their wife’s last name, Becca’s husband, Avery, told me, because they lack examples of other men doing the same thing. “When we told the people in our life that I was taking Becca’s last name, some said they didn’t even know you could do that.”
For some couples, it comes down to the particulars of the various name options before them. When he and his then-girlfriend decided to get married, David Slusky, an economist based in Lawrence, Kansas, carefully considered what a name change would mean for both him and his future wife. At the time, he was a management consultant about to transition into academia, but his wife was already in graduate school, publishing academic papers, and building a reputation in her chosen field. “Your name is your brand,” Slusky told me. “And when I got married, I happened to be at a moment in my career when rebranding wouldn’t really hurt me.” Once he had that thought, Slusky says, the choice was easy. For Jonah Gellar, who also took his wife’s last name, the choice came down to making sure both surnames survived. His ex-wife (they have since divorced), Debbie, was the last Gellar likely to have kids, but Jonah was the first of three siblings. “I figured one of them could worry about our last name.” The decision, he says, brought him closer to Debbie and the rest of her family.
It wasn’t until the very end of our conversation that he mentioned the other reason he wanted to change his name. “My last name used to be Falk,” he said, sheepishly. “Pronounced ‘phallic.’”