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Running Head: SURNAMES 1

For Women Only:

What Kind of Choice is Choosing Your Post-Marriage Surname?

Rachel Penner

Instructor Michael Real

Research Paper 2


March 2, 2013
SURNAMES Rachel Penner 2

Naming Practices Reflect Views on Gender Equality

The issue of wives taking, or not taking, their husbands surnames after marriage

continues to be an issue fraught with power and gender dynamics, despite living in a time thats

been called the end of men (by author Hanna Rosin) in North America. Its an issue Ive been

following since 2006, and one I see as a telling symbol of gender equality.

In an article on surname changes, journalist Andrea Grimes frames it this way: If the

fight was over, your husband would be clamoring to take your name, and husbands are not

clamoring to do that. That to me is a great illustration of why it is important for women to keep

their names or to make new names (Pappas, 2011).

While precise stats dont seem to exist, various sources agree the percentage of women

keeping their names peaked in the 90s around 23 per cent, falling to 18 per cent in the 2000s

(most studies looked at marriage announcements in newspapers) (Pappas, 2011; Angyal, 2013).

Recent estimates suggest roughly 90 per cent of women today take their husbands names (Doll,


Just as disturbing, or possibly more so, is a recent study that found 71 per cent of

Americans agreed it was better for a woman to change her name upon marriage, with 50 per cent

supporting government regulations forcing a name a change (Hamilton).

Restricted by the Discourse

The power of naming has historically belonged to men, particularly for those influenced

by the Genesis account of Adam naming the animals. Yet in a post-feminist world where

womens choice is supposedly supreme and women have the power to name themselves, why are

the majority still choosing two identifiers (surnames and the use of Mrs.) based on their

spousal relationship?
SURNAMES Rachel Penner 3

I believe it is, in part, because of the two ways society has framed the discourse around

married surnames. First, it is a choice that only wives make, not husbands. Second, it is a choice

between two extremes: be an individual (keep your name) or be part of a collective (take his

name). Those who hyphenate attempt to bridge this divide, yet hyphenation can result in

awkward or lengthy surnames. And unless the children and husband hyphenate their names as

well, the womans surname still stands alone, thus separating her from her family even as she

attempts to belong to it.

Only Women Can Choose

The three waves of feminism saw women challenge and rewrite their prescribed gender

roles. But society has been less accepting of men who have tried to do the same thing. Women

can wear pants, but can men wear dresses? No, because maleness is still the default, and for a

man to behave like a woman is a weakness.

And so, the post-marital name choice is, for all intents and purposes, restricted to woman.

How often, if ever, is the husband asked what he will do with his name? When no one is talking

about the mans choice, when the man keeping his name is not only the default its also not even

up for debate, then we are living in a discourse that forces spousal relationships into a power

hierarchy based on gender, with the man assumed to be on top. When men who do take their

wives names are exposed to state attempts to prevent them from doing so, we are part of a

discourse favouring the interests of patriarchy (Adams, 2013).

But at Least Women are Choosing Right?

When women today behave like women in the 50s, their behaviours are often placed in a

positive light because those behaviours are freely chosen. In the article about surname

changes, a businesswoman says changing her name at marriage wasnt a bow to traditionalism
SURNAMES Rachel Penner 4

or a passive acceptance (Pappas, 2011). The nature of the choice has changed, because any

time you do something as a free choice as opposed to an expectation or requirement, it means

something different (Pappas, 2011).

Feminist professor and writer Hugo Schwyzer blogged about his wifes choice to take his

name when they got married.

Theres a lot to criticize about a simplistic I choose my choice! feminism. Our choices

are never made in a vacuum; rather, they are mediated by a host of complex and

frequently sexist cultural influences. This is why we should always discuss options and

explore alternatives. In the end the fact that [my wife] chose was modern; what she

chose wasnt. Whether theres any inconsistency there is the sort of thing feminists can

and will continue to debate for years to come. (Schwyzer, 2012, emphasis in text).

However, writer Clementine Ford is more cautious about calling women taking their

husbands names a feminist act. To me, that seems like another disingenuous attempt to

reinforce unequal social codes by masquerading them as something progressive (Ford, 2013).

I believe this post-feminist theme around choice is, in some ways, a guise to make

women feel powerful in instances where they dont actually have power. Where is the power in

choosing to keep or give up your name after marriage, when that is the only choice you have and

when both genders dont have the same choice?

Backlash Against a Power Shift

I believe the growing trend of women taking their husbands names demonstrates that

one feature of the post-feminist era is a backlash against women, a massive change back

reaction, to use psychology terms.

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In her 1993 book Fire with Fire, Naomi Wolf says this backlash is a natural human

response to a threatened and real loss of status (Wolf, p. 14). Men are not being asked to

share power, the way, in a good marriage, they are being asked to share the housework. They

are forcefully pressed to yield power (Wolf, p. 12, emphasis mine).

When men start asking what theyll do with their names after marriage and when men

and women start challenging legislation preventing men from changing their names as easily as

women do, then we will have entered a new wave of feminism, one where men are brave enough

to not only allow women power but also abdicate some of their own.


Adams, D. (23, January, 2013). Florida man accused of fraud after name change in act of love.

Retrieved from: http://news.yahoo.com/florida-man-accused-fraud-name-change-act-


Angyal, C. (2, February, 2013). More women are taking their husbands last names sort of.

Retrieved from: http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/02/more-women-are-taking-husbands-


Doll, J. (24, February, 2012). Women are still being judged for not taking their husbands last

names. Retrieved from: http://news.yahoo.com/women-still-being-judged-not-taking-


Ford, C. (14, February, 2013). With this ring I keep my name. Retrieved from:


Hamilton, L., Geist, C., Powell, B. (2011). Marital name change as a window into gender

attitudes. Gender & Society. doi: 10.1177/0891243211398653

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Pappas, S. (2, November, 2011). Most modern wives still take husbands name: Half of

Americans support women being legally required to ditch maiden name. Retrieved from:



Real, M. (6, February, 2013). Postmodernism and poststructuralism. COMM365-OC Media and

Cultural Studies.

Schwyzer, H. (24, April, 2012). A male feminists dilemma: My wife insisted on taking my last

name. Retrieved from: http://www.rolereboot.org/culture-and-politics/details/2012-04-a-


Wolf, N. (1993). Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st

Century. Toronto: Random House of Canada.