Readers respond: What’s In a Name?
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.”
The fairy-tale wedding has enduring appeal
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.”