By Hannah Irvin
When I told my first boyfriend that I didn’t want to change my last name if we got married, he became upset. He believed that a woman taking her husband’s last name was important because it created a sense of unity within the family. If that’s the case, why don’t more men take their wives’ last names?
Simon Duncan is a professor of family life at the University of Bradford, UK, and studies the tradition of women changing their last names when they marry. He explained that the tradition “comes from patriarchal history, from the idea that a woman, on marriage, became one of the man’s possessions.”
He referred to the continuation of the practice as, “quite surprising.”
The tradition of women changing their name when marrying goes back to the ninth century, when women were considered their fathers’ property and took his last name when born. After they marry, they became their husbands’ property and took his last name. This tradition is also tied to the father walking his daughter down the aisle and the exchange between pastor, priest or judge who asks, “Who gives this woman to be married?” and the father’s answer, “her mother and I.”
Both of these traditions deny the woman autonomy. Despite advances toward gender equality and 68% of U.S. women under 30 identifying as feminists, 70% of U.S. women changed or will change their last names when marrying.
If you suggest men change their last names instead, they find it humiliating, which is evidence that the practice of women taking their husbands’ last name is demeaning. Somehow, it isn’t supposed to be humiliating to women, despite the tradition being rooted in the belief that women are property.
The responsibility for changing this tradition rests on the shoulders of all married individuals. Every time a woman gets married and changes her last name, she is agreeing to the idea that her identity is not as important to maintain as his identity.
However, trying to maintain the resolution not to change your name can be difficult when everyone around you is trying to convince you it’s disrespectful to your husband or simply a bad thing for being unconventional. Being at odds with your future spouse makes it even harder. Society needs to have a massive shift towards the maintaining of women’s identities after marriage.
Arguing against centuries of tradition can feel impossible. You have to counter the romanticization of the idea of a boyfriend, proposal, fiancé, wedding, honeymoon, complete with a Hallmark-style white dress. Her father weeps gently while he walks her down the aisle and the tossing of her garter during the reception.
This ideal is reinforced in conversations with friends and family, the media, wedding professionals and social media influencers. Women who do not want to conform to the traditional standards are mocked and ridiculed. Although not very popular, Napoleon Bonaparte summed up how many people still feel about women, albeit often subconsciously: “women are pronounced to be the actual property of man…nature has made them our slaves.”
Our society is slow to accept the individuality of women and the importance of recognizing them as equal to men. Eliminating the tradition would be a step in the right direction. I would love to see traditions like the garter toss eliminated and toasts made by the father-of-the-bride and the groom at least modified to demonstrate even the slightest recognition that a wedding is no longer the celebration of a transfer of property, but a commitment between two people who get to set the rules. Not only would this reinforce the dignity of women, but weddings would be more interesting if there wasn’t a set script.
Progress will be slow. Without outlawing the changing of last names – which I am not advocating for – there is no way to change the tradition overnight. However, we can all start making a difference by changing how we approach the topic and the language we use in conversations. No longer assuming a woman will change her name, not demonizing women who shun tradition and educating ourselves and others of the history of our wedding traditions will ensure that the decision to change last names – or not – is based entirely on autonomy and not cultural ideals bordering on propaganda.