Should men take their wife’s last name?

When I get married in July, I’m changing my name. My fiancee and I are both taking her maternal grandmother’s name “MacAskill”, putting us in the good company of Giant MacAskill – possibly the world’s strongest ever man – and Danny MacAskill – a trial-biking legend. Why?

I explain some of my reasons in an article I was asked to write for The Atlantic – here. In that article I discuss how the tradition of taking the man’s name upon marriage has some pretty disturbing roots, based roughly on the idea of the man legally owning the woman. I  suggest that we shouldn’t endorse the general norm of taking the man’s name in a heterosexual marriage and, though I don’t say so in the article, I think that it should be entirely up to the couple which name they choose to take on (or whether they choose to keep their names), and there shouldn’t be any social pressure otherwise.

So what do you think? Is there any case at all for sticking with this tradition?

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9 Responses to Should men take their wife’s last name?

  • Ross Parker says:

    I don’t think reversing a discriminatory system makes it any better, so to answer the title of your post: no. However, I broadly agree with the body of your post, in that this should be something on which there is no social pressure.

    My personal view is that there is no real need for any name changing, unless you want to do so. I think forming a new name (i.e. Mr Jones and Miss Spence become Mr and Mrs Jospence) throws away heritage, and Mr and Mrs Jones-Spence just removes an option from your descendants.

    When I married my wife, I suggested she kept her surname, and I kept mine. Sons would use my surname, daughters hers (although I was open to the opposite gender split). This seemed fair. My wife told me I was being silly, and that she wanted to take my name. She did.

  • Rebecca Roache says:

    Congratulations on the impending wedding! I agree with you that the practice of women taking their husband’s name is politically suspect. I was shocked by your revelation in your Atlantic article that most Americans think women should be legally required to do so.

    I think that one advantage of having a systematic practice in which names are changed in a consistent way through marriage is that it makes it easier to trace family trees. You also mention (in your article) that people think it helps reinforce family identity. These things are worth considering, but I don’t think they come anywhere near justifying curtailing anyone’s freedom by requiring either women or men to change their names on marriage. Besides, the fact that modern technology makes it easier than ever to access information (about birth records, among other things) and to keep in touch with friends and family goes some way to outweighing the advantages of changing names: Facebook has probably done more for family identity in a few years than conforming to wifely name-changing has done in centuries, by helping relatives get back in touch with one another. And while wifely name-changing helps people trace family trees, it is does so by emphasising the male line, so is hardly ideal as a means for helping people trace all their ancestors

    I also think there’s probably some status quo bias going on here. Having the same surname as some other members of one’s family, along with other people who have the same name but to whom one is not related, makes some family members similar to one another in a superficial sense; but so would having all family members dye their hair the same unusual colour. Nobody seems to be suggesting that having all family members dye their hair similarly (or brand themselves in some other way) would enable society to benefit from increased family identity, so we are perhaps exaggerating the benefits of having a common surname. Presumably the fact that family surnames, but not family hair colours, are an established part of our culture is responsible for the thought that we can do without one but not the other.

  • Owen Schaefer says:

    Congratulations! Mutual name changing seems to me like a nice gesture, maybe start a new family tradition.

    When I got married, my wife and I ended up just keeping our last names. I suppose that means we avoided ‘binding ourselves to the mast’, so to speak, but it also avoided the various hassles that would have gone along with the name-change. In fact, I’m actually continuing something of my own family’s tradition mirroring Ross’s suggestion: my mother kept her maiden name, and I got her last name while my only sibling got my dad’s. In addition to being more equitable, this also allowed my mom to ensure that the Schaefer name didn’t get lost in our family (she’s an only child, and her cousins have other last names).

    The roots of the tradition of the woman taking the man’s last name are rather disturbing indeed – but then, a large number of traditions have disturbing roots. As long as a woman who takes the last name of her husband isn’t unduly pressured into doing so against her wishes (and doesn’t do so in the belief that her husband is her master or some such), I don’t think there’s much grounds to criticize the decision. It’s an intensely personal choice and, for most modern women, won’t be an indication of an inequitable subjugation of the wife to the husband.

  • Coming from a country where, fortunately, no one ever changes her/his name, I never learnt to overcome my initial feeling: taking one’s husband surname (and often also his name, think of “Mrs. John Smith”) reminds me very much of becoming his propriety, just like his car. It might reinforce the sense of “family”, but I cannot imagine that this is the basis of a healthy relationship.
    Moreover, I cannot understand why intelligent women who have already a career (after all, one marries much later than before, isn’t it?) would change their name and “renounce” to much of their accumulated prestige. Who knows, for instance, that the historian of medicine Dagmar Wujastyk is the same person previously known as Dagmar Bennett? Furthermore, in a world full of divorces, taking one’s third husband surname may look ridicolous and keeping throughout one’s life one’s first husband’s one is at least awkward.

    (As for children, I would unite husband’s and wife’s surname, E.g. Mary X and John Y would have a child called XY (or YX). When Elizabeth XY marries Jack ZW, their children could be called ZX (as in Spain) or with a different combination of these surnames. But this is a completely different issue)

  • Coming from a country where, fortunately, no one ever changes her/his name, I never learnt to overcome my initial feeling: taking one’s husband surname (and often also his name, think of “Mrs. John Smith”) reminds me very much of becoming his propriety, just like his car. It might reinforce the sense of “family”, but I cannot imagine that this is the basis of a healthy relationship.
    Moreover, I cannot understand why intelligent women who have already a career (after all, one marries much later than before, isn’t it?) would change their name and “renounce” to much of their accumulated prestige. Who knows, for instance, that the historian of medicine Dagmar Wujastyk is the same person previously known as Dagmar Bennett? Furthermore, in a world full of divorces, taking one’s third husband’s surname may look ridicolous and keeping throughout one’s life one’s first husband’s one is at least awkward.

    (As for children, I would unite husband’s and wife’s surname, E.g. Mary X and John Y would have a child called XY (or YX). When Elizabeth XY marries Jack ZW, their children could be called ZX (as in Spain) or with a different combination of these surnames. But this is a completely different issue)

  • - says:

    I think it is not ecological to change your name. Think about all documents which need to be adjusted to reflect it and multiply it by millions of people a year doing this – quite an amount of paper, plastic etc

  • David Brax says:

    They (we) certainly should consider it. I took my wife’s last name when we married, basically because she was more attached to hers and had made more of a name for herself than I had. In addition, my last name was “Bengtsson” and hers “Brax”, so no contest there.

  • Chris Coppen says:

    I read these comments to help me decide whether, after 22 years of marriage, to take my wife’s name. We agreed when we married that neither would take the other’s name; we both liked our names, were proud of our families, and neither wanted to give our name up. We also agreed (and yes, it was a mutual decision) that any children we had would take her last name. But here we are 22 years later. I am a middle son. My older brother has three children, all of whom have his last name, so the family name will be passed on to the next generation. My younger brother is gay and he and his husband do not plan, as far as I know, to have children so no name-passing to the next generation there. And what of me? My wife and I have two children, both with her last name. The children more closely resemble me than her, but they have her last name. No name-passing-on from me. (Both children have my last name as one of two middle names.) I think of taking her (their) last name mostly, I suppose, for the sake of unity and bond; I want to be known as my wife’s husband and as the father of our children in as many ways possible. It is very much an emotional thing. We’ve done fine for 22 years explaining to people that we have different names and, when it seemed important, why. That we’re not alone in that decision made it easier. The bottom line, though, is this: having agreed before we had kids that they wouldn’t take my name, our children will not be known as my heirs by the sharing of a name. There seems no rational reason to keep my last name, and strong emotional ones for taking my wife’s/children’s. Still not sure what I’ll do!

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