JUNE 30 — When Donna Suh married in September, wearing a short white dress at San Francisco City Hall, she decided to keep her last name. Her reasons were practical, not political.
“It’s not necessarily a feminist reason, but it’s just my name for 33 years of my life,” Suh said. “Plus, I’m Asian and he’s not, so it’s less confusing for me to not have a white name. And on social media I thought it might be harder to find me.”
The practice of keeping one’s maiden name after marriage - which appears to have declined sometime in the 1980s or 1990s - has begun rising again, according to an Upshot analysis of data from multiple sources. The share has surpassed that of the 1970s. Yet unlike in that Ms. Decade, the decision now tends to be less political. For many women, sociologists say, keeping their maiden names has lost its significance in defining their independence and its symbolism as a feminist act.
Roughly 20 per cent of women married in recent years have kept their names, according to a Google Consumer Survey conducted by The Upshot. (An additional 10 per cent or so chose a third option, such as hyphenating their name or legally changing it while continuing to use their birth name professionally.)
By comparison, about 17 per cent of women who married for the first time in the 1970s kept their names, a number that fell to 14 per cent in the more conservative 1980s before rising to 18 per cent in the 1990s, the Google survey shows. These numbers should be viewed as estimates, not precise counts, but the overall trend is apparent across several data sources.
A separate analysis of The New York Times wedding announcements – which cover a select, less representative share of women – showed similar patterns. Last year, 29.5 per cent of women in the wedding pages kept their name, up from 26 per cent in 2000 and a recent low of 16.2 per cent in 1990.
From the time that the equal rights activist Lucy Stone became famous for keeping her name when she married in 1855, maiden names have been politically charged. In the 1970s – when state laws still required a woman to use her husband’s name to vote, do banking or get a passport – keeping one’s maiden name became a tenet of the women’s movement.
Yet as women continued to get education, have careers, use birth control and marry later, the share of women keeping their names went in the opposite direction and shrank, to the surprise of social scientists and women who fought for the right in the 1970s.
“The pressure is huge,” said Laurie Scheuble, who teaches sociology at Penn State and studies marital naming. “This is the strongest gendered social norm that we enforce and expect.”
She said the resurgence in keeping names could be because women now go to college at higher rates than men, celebrities often keep their names and couples commonly live together before marriage.
“When they do get around to marrying, they’ve already lived in a household with two names, so maybe it seems normal to them,” Scheuble said.
The Google survey found that higher-income urban women were much more likely to keep their names, and this subgroup is reflected in the wedding pages of The Times. Nearly half of women featured in The Times since 1985 changed their names, while about a quarter kept their names and a quarter did not say, according to an analysis of 7,835 opposite-sex wedding announcements in five-year intervals.
In all years of the Times announcements analysed, women married in Jewish ceremonies were less likely to take their husband’s name than those married in Roman Catholic ceremonies. The largest gap was in 1995, when 66 per cent of Catholic women took their husband’s names and 33 per cent of Jewish women reported doing so.
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Many women still find the decision hard, and some object to the name-changing tradition as patriarchic. But for many, the choice reflects a modern-day approach to gender equality. Basic rights have been achieved, so the gesture carries less weight either way.
“So many women are working and they have established careers for themselves, it almost seemed bigger to decide to take his name than to not take his name,” said Suh, a buyer for Heath Ceramics.
It often comes down to weighing the inconvenience of changing versus keeping. Some say it would be too complicated to change their professional or social media identity. Others say it is too difficult to have a name that’s different from the one for the rest of their family.
Sarah Marino, a lawyer who lives in Connecticut, has degrees from two elite universities. At 37, she was older than the average bride when she married this month, in a ceremony overlooking a pond in Vermont. Her husband does most of the cooking. She earns more money. The marriage is a modern one; even so, she changed her name.
“It’s like you’re a unit if you have the same last name,” Marino said. “And it makes things easier in terms of hotel reservations and things like that.
“I see us as equal partners in our relationship. But I don’t tie my personal success and me trying to be a successful woman lawyer to keeping my original name.”
Women are more likely to keep their names if they are older, not religious, have children from a previous marriage or have an advanced degree and established career, according to data from the Google survey, the Times announcements and previous studies.
Of brides in The Times since 1990, 18 per cent of those who were under 30 when they married kept their names, compared with 31 per cent of those in their 30s and 44 per cent in their 40s.
There have been few studies of women’s married names because the data is hard to obtain. But a Census Bureau study using 2004 American Community Survey data found that women with an advanced degree were five to 10 times more likely to keep their names. Asian and Hispanic women were more likely to as well. Just 6.4 per cent of native-born married women used their birth name, it found. One reason the share is so low is that the study included older women who married before it was legal to keep their name and excluded foreign-born women, who are more likely to keep their names. Among women in younger generations, the percentage of name keepers was 9 per cent.
A Harvard University study found that, among its alumni, each year that women delayed marrying or having children related to a 1percentage point decline in the probability that they would change their names. The most important predictor was whether a woman “made a name” for herself before marriage, said Claudia Goldin, an economics professor and an author of the study.
Yet even as more women made names for themselves, the same study found, both Harvard alumni data and Massachusetts birth records show a drop-off in name-keeping. The Google survey shows it beginning in the 1980s; the Harvard study shows it in the 1990s. In the Times announcements, 66 per cent of brides changed their name in 1990, the highest of any year analysed.
Researchers say the decline in name-keeping may have been part of a return to conservative attitudes after the tradition-breaking 1970s, or perhaps the beginning of women deciding that they did not need to change their name to prove a point.
“You had a militancy about it in the ‘70s, a period when in many states, marriage was still legally defined as an unequal relationship,” said Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and wrote “Marriage: A History.” “Many women are saying now: ‘This is not such a big deal to me. How you treat me and what you pay me is a huge deal to me.’”
More recently, the children of parents who divorced in record numbers might also be inclined to change their names out of fear of divorce, Goldin of Harvard said. “It’s possible that changing your name, having the linens with one set of initials, is really part of the crazy glue of life that binds you together.”
A small number of women in each generation find a new answer. Some, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, use their maiden name as a middle name, and others use their birth name professionally and their husband’s name in their private lives. Only 1.3 per cent of women have hyphenated their names or use both surnames, the census study found.
A few couples combine two names to create a new one. A former mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, was Antonio Villar before he married Corina Raigosa, a teacher (they are now divorced). Rarely, a man takes a woman’s name. Marco Saldana, an artist, was Marco Perego before he married Zoe Saldana, the actress.
American families have been shedding tradition in many ways: People marry less often and later in their lives; older women are having more children outside of marriage; and as of Friday, people can have spouses of the same sex. The married name tradition is still strong, but as more women embrace their maiden names, it is changing, too.
More recently, the children of parents who divorced in record numbers might also be inclined to change their names out of fear of divorce, Ms. Goldin of Harvard said. “It’s possible that changing your name, having the linens with one set of initials, is really part of the crazy glue of life that binds you together.” — The New York Times