Monday, July 12, 2010

Why do women still change their names when they get married?

I posted the following article by Catherine Deveny on facebook and had the most emotional and largest number of comments ever on my facebook wall. Deveny received a huge response and posted a follow-up article a week later.

I agree, the original article is inflammatory, but this doesn't dismiss the points she made.

The question, "Why do women still change to their husband's name when they get married?"
Gets the answer: "It's easier."

Of course, it's true. There are so many problems that just go away when you change your name. From children having the same last name (most people want this), to no more questions at immigration or customs or health insurance or schools or wherever. These hassles go away when everyone in the family has the same last name.

The thing is, if "it is easier" were the complete answer, then men would be changing their names to their wife's last name just as often. BUT THEY DON'T. This is Deveny's entire focus, which almost everyone talks around. This was also true on my facebook wall by the way.

There are only a small number of options on the table in our culture (the West in general). I don't have numbers for New Zealand, but in the US, around 90% of women who get married take their husband's name. Of the remainder, the vast majority keep their names (this is apparently in decline), some hyphenate the two names together and some tiny fraction create a new name with their husband.

What percentage of men take their wife's last name? The funny thing is that it's so new and rare, that it's never been studied and no one actually knows the number. There is no doubt that it's rare, but exact numbers are elusive. Here is an interesting article about men adopting their wife's last name and the backlash of doing so.

Of my friends on facebook, one knew 5 (holy crap Batman! 5!) men who had adopted their wife's last name. Interestingly enough, a few of them did it because "It was easier." All were European, which is no surprise, since Europe is far more liberal than the US, Canada or New Zealand.

If we were seeing "It was easier" equally from men and women, it would make perfect sense, but when 90% of the women are changing their names and almost no men are, "it's easier" just doesn't cut it. Clearly, there are strong social pressures.

The simple answer seems to be that we live in a patriarchal society and not an egalitarian one. The custom of women taking the man's name after marriage is completely one sided in favor of the man, with all the sacrifices coming from the woman. The social pressure is incredibly strong, with most people having a strong opinions, especially the men who mostly wouldn't even consider changing their names.

I know that as a man, I have absolutely no interest in changing my name to my wife's last name. It's not that it's a bad name, but I've owned my name for a long time and it is unique on-line. I never expected my wife to take my last name either and we didn't even have the discussion when we got married.

But, if you want a real egalitarian society, there are only a few options:

1) everyone keeps their name
2) someone in the couple volunteers to change their name
3) failing 2, flip a coin to decide

In the case of 1) and when a couple has children, 2) and 3) apply to the children as well, so either you flip a coin for the children, or someone in the couple volunteers.

If you want everyone in the family to have the same name, then only 2 or 3 work.

I think that all the other options, like hyphenated names or made up names are ultimately failures. Hyphenated only works in the first generation and fails in the 2nd generation with grandchildren having four part names and great grandchildren with eight part names, which is just silly. Made up names is the worst of all possible worlds, since not just one member of the couple loses their name, but both do, and find themselves unattached to their family history, which is the best part of having a name.

1 comment:

Determinist said...

I used the excuse "It's easier" as one example - there are others, but no matter which reason one gives for taking the husband's name, they all have exactly the same issue and leaves the original point open.

That is, why are women changing their names so often and men rarely changing their names?