It’s one of the more personal decisions a woman has to make: will she change her name if she marries? The decision could be particularly fraught for women academics if they have started to establish their careers by publishing peer-reviewed articles, delivering conference papers and essentially making a “name” for themselves.
Of course, the same dilemma faces potentially any woman professional. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that research has found that more highly educated women are less likely to give up their maiden names. A recent Wall Street Journal blog, citing a 35-year-study published in 2009 in the journal Social Behavior and Personality, reported that “well-educated women in high-earning occupations are significantly more likely to keep their maiden names …. Brides in professional fields such as medicine, the arts or entertainment are the most likely of all to do so.”
Age also makes a difference. According to a 2010 study in a scholarly journal entitled Names: A Journal of Onomastics, women who married when they were 35 to 39 years old were 6.4 times more likely to keep their names than women who married between the ages of 20 and 24.
However, a study from 2004 in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found that fewer university-educated women are opting to keep their names when they marry. The survey found that “name retention” greatly increased from about 1975 and peaked at about 23 percent in 1990. However, name retention gradually decreased to about 17 percent in 2000. That certainly seems to fit with my own impressions. When acquaintances in my age cohort began to get married in the late 1980s, it seemed rather common for the women to keep their names. But now it seems fairly rare.
While l couldn’t find verified up-to-date statistics for Canada, according to “name-change” expert Jo- Anne Stayner, cited here, 82 percent of Canadian women change their name after marriage. A further eight percent hyphenate the two last names; three percent move their maiden name to their middle name and take their partner’s last name; and just seven percent choose not to change their name at all, says Mrs. Stayner, founder of a website called “I’m a Mrs.”
Then there’s the situation in Quebec, where women by law keep their names when they marry.
Personally, I find it hard to understand why a woman would change her name after marriage. I would have been uneasy to have my wife take my family name, but she (a Québécoise) had no intention of doing so, so there was no issue.
However, there is the issue, for couples with different last names, of what name to give the children. In our case, we decided if the first child were a girl, all the children would have my wife’s last name, and if the first child were a boy, they would all have my last name. We have two boys.
Now, if you really don’t like your last name, I can see why you might want to change it. In high school, I knew someone whose family name was Rimrott, which is a perfectly fine name, but she later told me she couldn’t wait to change it once she married and did so. On the opposite side, I know someone who said he got teased as a child because of his last name (Poisson, French for fish), so he and his wife gave their two children her last name.
Some have suggested that when the children have a different name from one of the parents, it could get confusing, but I find that argument weak. With so many “reconstituted” families nowadays, there can be a mishmash of names, and everybody seems to make do.
Others have lamented that the small number of women keeping their names shows a failure of feminism. That is countered by others who say that feminism means a women has a choice, so if they choose to change their name, they shouldn’t be judged for doing so.
True, I suppose. But I still can’t help but see it as buying into the patriarchal tradition. Men, after all, are never forced into the situation where they must decide whether they should change their name.