When 25-year-old Portland, Oregon, resident Julia Hunsaker decided to marry her longtime boyfriend, Connor, she said forever to both him and his name, going from Julia Hunsaker to Julia Martin, with two simple words: “I do.”
Her decision would undoubtedly please the estimated 60 percent of the nation who believe women should take their husband’s name in marriage. But to a different subset of America—led by fiercely independent women’s groups like the Lucy Stone League—it’s a step in the wrong direction. After waging a war against the name-change game for the past two decades, women who kept their name, or hyphenated it, are watching the trend reverse before their own eyes.
The most comprehensive data on the subject is a 35-year retrospective titled "The Bride is Keeping Her Name," published by the Journal of Social Behavior in 2009. Looking at roughly 2,400 wedding announcements printed in The New York Times from 1971 through 2005, researchers began to see a decline in women keeping their maiden names, beginning as early as the ’90s. While roughly 23 percent retained their maiden name in that decade, by the 2000s, the number had dropped to just 18 percent. A more recent study, published in 2011 by Names: A Journal of Onomastics, illustrates that it’s the younger generation of brides leading the charge. Women who married between the ages of 35 and 39, the study found, were 6.4 times more likely to keep their maiden names than those who married between the ages of 20 and 24.
Adopting your husband’s name in marriage, then, is undoubtedly the trend. But how to prove—as many have speculated—that it’s actually trendy?
Enter the belle of the wedding season ball: Facebook. Teaming up with The Daily Beast, the social-media powerhouse zeroed in on 14 million married females, ranging in age from 20 to 79, who are currently active on Facebook and wed in the United States. From this pool, Facebook determined that 65 percent of women in their 20s and 30s changed their name in marriage. The percentage continues to rise for women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s—to 68 percent, 75 percent, and then 80 percent. While the data do not account for those who change their names legally, but not on Facebook (and vice versa), it reflects that for the married female population, keeping your maiden name is so last decade.
For Julia, the reason was plain: she wanted to.
“It’s exciting! I think women like taking a new name because it is a new start,” she says. “I get to take these new years of my life to define who I am as ‘Mrs. Julia Hunsaker Martin,’” she says. “It’s a different Julia than the one before.”
For others, like Meghan Leimenstoll (née McDonald), a 30-year-old former marketing executive in Baltimore, the move was inevitable. “I always knew I wanted to change my last name when I got married,” Leimenstoll says. “To me it's part of the transition from ‘me’ to ‘we’— even with a mouthful like ‘Leimenstoll,’ I was proud to take my husband's last name.” Lizzy Wayne (née Peckskamp), a 28-year-old mother of one in Cincinnati, says her choice hinged on family. “My decision was set in stone when we confirmed that we would be having children— I wanted the same last name as my kids.”
Prof. Donna L. Lillian, who teaches a class at Appalachian State University on the topic, has been studying the trend since the 1980s. While Lillian believes a confluence of factors have contributed to the change, she sees the increasing number of young brides taking their husband’s last name as a product of watching their mothers’ struggle with hyphens and dual identities. “Some of the younger women I've surveyed said they planned to take their husband’s surname ... since their mother had received so much hassle” about keeping hers, she tells The Daily Beast in an email. They “don’t want to go through the same amount of hassle.”
For the soon-to-be-married Samantha Moyers, a 25-year-old teacher in Bel Air, Maryland, it was precisely this—a keen awareness of the “hassle” that not dropping your maiden name entails—that led to her decision to take her husband’s name. “I know people who are married and have two different last names, or a hyphenated one, and I think it's weird,” she says. “I think it would be annoying to constantly correct people if for some reason I decided not to take my husband's name.” On top of avoiding the hassle of a double-barrel name, Moyers offers another basic logic. “Samantha Lindsey Hoffman,” she says, “has a nice ring to it.”
Others, like Elizabeth Mitchell, a 28-year-old doctor in Columbus, Ohio, disagree. “I decided to keep my last name mostly for professional reasons,” Mitchell says. But she’s quick to point out that personal reasons played a part of the decision as well. “‘Mitchell’ just seems like a part of me and who I am.” Although she discussed different options with her husband-to-be, in the end, she says, the decision was all hers. “I discussed the decision with him beforehand, but my mind was already pretty well made up ... He didn't have much say in the matter. Is that bad?!”
If one were to ask acclaimed author Anna Quindlen, she’d likely say it was just right.
In a now famous piece from her New York Times column “Life in the 30s,” the former Newsweek columnist captured the intimate nature of our own names, in a way few had before. Her essay, “The Name Is Mine,” is as relevant in 2013 as it was at its publication in 1987. “It was mine. It belonged to me,” Quindlen says of her maiden name. “I don't even share a checking account with my husband. Damned if I was going to be hidden beneath the umbrella of his identity.” It wasn’t until her older son began questioning the discrepancy between his parents’ names, she writes, that the consequences of her decision began to sink in. “He just wanted to make sure I was one of them,” she writes, “And I am—and then again, I am not.”
In The Guardian, Jill Filipovic takes Quindlen’s point global. “When women see our names as temporary or not really ours ... that impacts our perception of ourselves and our role in the world. It lessens the belief that our existence is valuable unto itself, and that as individuals we are already whole.”
Anna Quindlen’s essay “The Name Is Mine” is as relevant in 2013 as it was at its publication in 1987.
Courtney Gasper (née McGraw), a 28-year-old registered social worker in Michigan, brings Filipovic’s point to life. While she considered keeping her own name, Gasper says she eventually decided against it after worrying that she and her husband might not feel like a family if she didn’t. Still, Gasper takes issue with the fact that men are never asked to alter their identities. “I brought up the idea of David taking my last name, because it seems so unfair that women are the ones making that important change,” she says. “He laughed it off—not in a demeaning way—but it's obviously something that is unheard of.”
Cristina Lucia Stasia, the president of the Lucy Stone League—a women’s rights organization created in 1921 and named for the first American woman to retain her name—is working hard to change that. Stasia says the increase in women taking their husband’s is a reflection of our dysfunctional, sexist society. “It’s not that women aren’t smart enough,” she tells The Daily Beast. “It’s that they’re conditioned from the day they were born to think that, as women, it’s their job to take their husband’s last name.” Stasia takes issue with the claim—made by many—that choosing to change your name is as empowering as keeping the one you were born with. “What’s empowering about taking your husband’s name?” she asks. “It’s Disney princess movies, it’s Mrs. Gosling T-shirts. We’re not supposed to think about the fact that we have our own identity. We’re just supposed to accept this sexist paradigm.”
When I ask Stasia what advice she’d give to women grappling with the decision, she gives me an unexpected answer: look at gay marriage. “What gay marriage is teaching us is that there are other ways to do things. Here, couples have to make decisions based on things other than traditions. There is no other option.” Stasia hopes that through this example, women will see that the traditional, archaic notions of marriage are just that—archaic. “The answers to these questions—like who is paying for the wedding—don’t come down to anatomy. They shouldn’t.”