Letters: What’s In a Name?

Readers discuss what it means to adopt a spouse’s last name—or not.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Why Don’t More Men Take Their Wives’ Last Names?

In July, Caroline Kitchener wrote about a dilemma many couples face in the run-up to marriage: What is to be done about the last name?

I am one of the statistically insignificant men who did what the article discussed: When we married seven years ago, my wife kept her last name and I took it. Our decision was based on the fact that my wife was well-established in business and did not want to change her name, while I put a premium on family unity and our all having the same last name. So I made the switch.

Although I would do it again, I have to admit it was a very jarring event. I can really relate to women who go through this and have identity issues, because that is what I felt. Plus, the paperwork!

I liked how your article points out that there is really nothing that can be done in this area that is perfectly fair and hassle-free. Even a default where each partner keeps their own last name creates issues down the road.

Having thought about this a bit, and being the father of five children who all have my wife’s last name, I do think that, no matter what happens at marriage, it makes much more sense for children to carry the mother’s last name. I realize that this goes against tradition, and any change in this area will be rather slow, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this trend picks up steam in the coming years and decades.

In any event, I am very proud of my decision. I was born Mark Perry Harper, and I changed my name to Marc Harper Tyler, doing what a lot of women do by taking my “maiden name” and turning it into my middle name.

Mark H. Tyler
La Mesa, Calif.

Five years ago, I took my wife’s last name (Strandjord) when we married. It’s a mouthful of a name. But I love it.

I’m a lawyer now, working in Denver, and though I suppose there’s a stigma around taking your wife’s name, I have to admit, I don’t really feel it. The world is filled with more and more professional women in powerful positions, and it’s amazing the kind of progressive points you can rack up when you mention the fact that you took your wife’s last name. Not only does it make you look more open-minded, but in a world bombarded with hyper-male toxicity and sexual harassment, I like to think it acts as a signal to employers that you’re not going to be a problem in the office.

I could probably go on for pages and pages about this. But I do think there’s some hidden perks with taking your wife’s last name. And it’d do some good to see a piece exploring that aspect.

Jay Strandjord
Boulder, Colo.

I guess before we ask this question, we should be answering the question, Why don’t more women keep their own last name?

Arriving in the U.S. in the my late 20s from India I was surprised by how uncommon it was for women to keep their names after marriage. To this day, I get asked why I have not changed my name; my answer is, “For the same reason that my husband did not change his.”

Madhura Pradhan
Cherry Hill, N.J.

Twenty years ago, as an undergrad at the University of Scranton, I took a course on late-19th- and early-20th-century Italian feminism.

Our professoressa was married and had taken her husband’s last name. It seemed strange that she didn’t keep her name, especially since the course focused on the patriarchy, with the ultimate goal of abandoning writing rules created by men. She had a simple response to why she took it, which was enlightening to me. She said she took her husband’s last name because if she kept her own she was still just taking her father’s.

Jim Johnston
Matawan, N.J.

Why no mention of the possibility of a couple choosing a totally new name for themselves and their children to be used after marriage? Might make record-keeping a bit trickier and challenge genealogists, but so what?

Marilyn Bernhardt
Sedona, Ariz.

I am an academic who retained my original surname, and I enjoyed the article, particularly the overview of Powell’s new research. However, “maiden name,” used at several points in the article, is itself a pretty loaded term, one that reinforces the very norm that is under question in that research, reifying dubious notions of female purity and virginity. I’ve kept my original name through 30 years of egalitarian marriage; isn’t it a little absurd to call it my “maiden” name? “Original surname,” also an accessible two-word phrase, seems more precise, neutral, and usable for all genders.  

Lori Askeland
Professor of English, Wittenberg University
Springfield, Ohio

I thought you might be interested to know that here in Quebec, the woman must keep her own last name upon marriage. This is so that government records—Medicare, driver’s licenses, taxes, etc.—remain consistent throughout the woman’s life. In fact, one has to actually petition the courts to be allowed to take the man’s last name.

Alison S. Coad
Montreal, Quebec

When my husband offered to take my last name, I was elated! I am very attached to my last name—Berkowitz!—because it connects me to my siblings, my parents, my history. My husband, on the other hand, did not feel that same sense of connection to his. His father passed away and he has no siblings. Also, I am Jewish and he is Christian. In addition to wanting me to keep the name that means so much to me, he said, “If we have children, they won’t have to look hard to see their Christian roots, but they won’t as easily see their Jewishness reflected around them. If they have your last name, it will always serve as a little reminder.”

So Steven Williams became Steven Berkowitz. He works in a construction company with lots of big, burly men, many of whom still scratch their heads at this. But Steven was raised by a wonderful, intelligent woman, most of his long-term friends are women, and he’s a feminist. He takes a lot of pride in his new name, and I’m so grateful.

Allison Michelle Berkowitz
Baltimore, Md.

Long before we were married, my wife and I agreed that we would keep the last names we were born with. Of course this isn’t unheard of; we know lots of straight, progressive couples in our generation who did the same. But all of these couples, if they had children, gave their children the man’s last name.

This bothered me, so before we had children I thought up a naming plan which I presented to my wife. If we had a daughter, she would share my wife’s last name, but she’d have my last name as her middle name. If we had a son, he’d share my last name, but he’d have my wife’s last name as his middle name. In this way, we could challenge the accepted patriarchal norms, but still pass our names on to our children. She was reluctant at first, but then warmed up to the idea.

We ended up with two kids, a boy and a girl, so our last names are split down the middle. We get occasional comments and raised eyebrows, especially at the airport, and perhaps I tell people too often that it was my idea. (Yes, I’m proud that I thought it up, but I admit there’s probably an element of not wanting to appear “weaker” or “less dominant” in the relationship—after all, it was my idea...) We also took a bit of flak from the French government when my daughter applied for her French identity card in 2004 (my wife and children have dual citizenship). In a long, formal letter they sent us about the Napoleonic code, they told us we couldn’t use a last name as a middle name or use my wife’s maiden name as my daughter’s last name. Subsequently, her passport has no middle name and my last name.

David Reiss
San Francisco, Calif.

I was sorry to see that you neglected to mention that naming is “ownership.” Just like the origins of "giving away" the bride and exchange of rings (used in early Greek, Roman, and Jewish culture as payment to the father of the bride), changing a last name is an indication of who “owns” whom. It’s not romantic at all!

And while there is no charge to change the woman’s name to the husband’s when marrying, upon divorcing there is a legal fee to change the name back to the maiden name. Obviously this is a law written by and for men, who do not change their names.

Karen Brown
Albuquerque, N.M.

I’ve been fascinated by the history and culture surrounding marital surname changes since I first got engaged about a year and a half ago. I appreciated your article, but I have a major issue with a statistic in your introduction.  

Almost every journalist writing on marital surname changes insists on citing this one study from 2011 that says that 72 percent of American adults believe that a woman should take her husband’s last name at marriage, and half of adults think it should be a legal requirement. However, this study is seven years old. Just a few things have changed in American views of marriage in the past decade. As an example of such evolving attitudes, a 2011 study from the Pew Research Center showed that 46 percent of American adults supported same-sex marriage; same-sex marriage was only legal in seven states and D.C. at that point. In fact, the vast majority of states banned same-sex marriage outright, either in their laws or their constitutions. Now, there’s a 67 percent support rate and it is legal nationwide.

It would be bad enough if the data this study was based upon were from 2011. However, the 2011 study was actually based on data collected in 2006! At that time, only 35 percent of American adults supported same-sex marriage and only one state had legal same-sex marriage. To give you an idea of how out of date that information is, in 2006 you could still carry full bottles of liquid through airport security (until August of that year) and no one knew what an iPhone was yet.

The repeated use of this study in articles promotes the false idea that Americans feel the same way toward marital surname changes as they did 12 years ago. A more current study is desperately needed. And journalists need to stop citing this study as if it’s proof of anything relating to today’s society.

Rachel Dickson
Springfield, Va.

Caroline Kitchener replies:

I have to say: The responses I’ve received to this article have been some of the most delightful of my journalism career. Reporting this piece, it wasn’t easy to find a whole bunch of men who took their wives’ last names. But since publication, you have come out of the woodwork. I’ve loved hearing stories like yours, Mark, Allison, and Jay. Like I wrote in the piece, I think a big reason more men don’t choose nontraditional names at marriage is that they don’t see other men doing it. They don’t know it’s an option. Right here, with these letters, you’re doing something about that.

When I get married next year, I’ll be keeping my last name—like Mark’s wife, I’m proud of the career I’ve built in my 20s, and I don’t want to distance myself from it. The kids question, though, is a tough one. As Mark points out, there is no good answer. I like David’s suggestion here, to give the boys the father’s name and the girls the mother’s name—though I may switch those, too, and give any boys my name, to defy gendered expectations even a little bit more!