Marriage, surnames and identity

I’ve written this post because BBC Radio Leeds asked me to contribute to the Mark Forrest show (22 July 2013) featuring a discussion of a recent survey’s findings on the numbers of women keeping their maiden name at marriage. To listen, click here.

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Arbutus Free Wedding Stock Photography, Creative Commons 3.0

The survey was carried out by Facebook this year in the US and the UK by examining the names of married women using the social media site and comparing their surnames with their husbands’ profiles. The findings are strikingly similar.  In America Facebook examined the names of 14 million married females, ranging in age from 20 to 79. It reported that 65 percent of women in their 20s and 30s changed to their husbands’ name. Older women changed their names at marriage in greater numbers. (Huffington Post)

In the UK 62 percent of women in their 20s have adopted their husbands’ surname. Again, the numbers increase as women’s ages increase. 74 per cent of women in their 30s and 88 per cent of women in their 60s did not keep their maiden name. (Daily Mail)

It is striking that the headlines have used these findings to declare that fewer women are now keeping their own names; and I infer a sense of relief in these articles. Other writers have suggested it is part of retro fashions more generally (The Daily Beast)

BBC Radio Leeds were very interested that it is younger women who are becoming more likely to keep their own names. One could ask whether this is a deliberate attempt to demonstrate equality with men; even perhaps a shift from the practice of women in their thirties who faced more of a backlash if they admitted to a feminist perspective.

Yet, I’m not sure that the figures suggest that there is a resurgence of feminism amongst young women. There are still more women who do not use their maiden name. I’m sure a small minority have an active political view, and a few more keep their own family names to signal that they are separate from their husband: an individual with a distinct identity. I suspect that most women who keep their birth name do so for practical reasons. Professional, high earning women will retain the name that they are known by in the world of work. Once you have published in one surname, for example, it is almost essential to keep that name or you will be missed by search engines and risk virtual disappearance.

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And practical reasons underlie English women’s custom of taking their husbands’ names in the past. Women who married fell under the Common Law Doctrine of Coverture which removed their legal identity and placed them under the ‘cover’ of their husband. As feme-coverts, women could not enter economic contracts. Yet for much of the early modern period and into the eighteenth century it was wives who shopped for the home. Since cash was often in short supply, credit was the usual means of economic exchange. The Law of Agency tackled this paradox, by allowing wives to use their husbands’ credit. But of course since most credit was local and relied on trust, wives, shopkeepers and traders found it much easier for the women to refer to themselves by their husbands’ surname. And thus an economic necessity shaped naming practices. (See my free article ‘ Favoured or oppressed ? Married women, property and ‘coverture’ in England, 1660–1800’ Continuity and Change 17 (3), 2002, 351–372;  and Katie Barclay’s blog post What’s in a name? Or leaving your patrilineage behind).

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I do think that feminism is somewhere in this situation, nonetheless, in that women now have the choice whether to take their husbands’ name or not. Many realise the complications of keeping their own name or using both their husbands’ and their own birth names, particularly when they have children. For many, therefore using a single surname is easier. Probably, most of these women would be shocked that anyone would consider that they were subordinating themselves by taking their husbands’ name. I think they see it as an act of commitment to the relationship, even a declaration of unity.

Of course, the question remains: why does unity entail taking the man’s surname; why not the woman’s?

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