Why don’t you have your husband’s surname?

Today, my wife and I went  for our routine eye-check. Both of us were told by the optometrist that our eyes were getting worse with age, that we should eat food with plenty of antioxidants, and that we should wear prescription sunglasses whenever we venture out in the sun.

In addition to these scare tactics, which we’ve gotten quite used to, something a bit awkward happened. During my wife’s eye check-up she was asked by the optometrist, who she had never met before, why she had a different last name from me.

On the surface of it, it seems like a rather harmless question, rather low on the hierarchy of inappropriate questions a person has to deal with it during the course of a day. And yes, it is certainly less demeaning than requiring a woman to state her husband or father’s name, as is done for official documents in India. Thankfully, the United States does not officially condone such patriarchy, and so my wife’s first inclination (and indeed, mine) was to brush the question aside.

Yes, it is a personal choice. I get that. But not asking yourself why someone had no qualms before asking a personal question is to tacitly approve of the default- that women are expected to change their name upon marriage. As a man, of course, I’ve never been asked a similar question, and the idea that I would change my last name, would probably not even occur to anyone. Even so, I’m compelled to do the same thought-experiment. What if the default in society was that the husband changed his last name when he got married? How would I feel about it?

My wife had more earned degrees that I did when we got married. She had a real job with a real income, while I was still a graduate student. Even so, had I been asked the question at the time, I would think of changing my own last name as a nuisance. I’d have to get an affidavit filed and new documents. Changing a name isn’t the same as writing “2013” instead of “2012” on emails after the New Year, and I find that hard to remember as it is. But at the core, more so than the nuisance factor, I’d have to grapple with the expectation that I would give up a part of my identity. Would I do it? Probably not.

It is true that my wife had her father’s surname. It is also true that our son has mine. The hospital in Virginia where he was born had done the right thing: they had not pre-populated the surname field of the birth certificate. Just before our son was born, my wife and I discussed what his name would be, and we both decided together that he would have my last name. I can say honestly that I would have been fine if my son had been given his mother’s surname: I’ll be fine if he changes it in the future.  My point is that it isn’t my decision to make unilaterally. It isn’t about me. The father’s contribution in raising a child isn’t greater than that of the mother. On the contrary, if the life of my boy is any indication, the father has a more peripheral role in a child’s early upbringing. If anything, my wife was being exceptionally generous in agreeing to my surname.

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7 thoughts on “Why don’t you have your husband’s surname?

  1. Your wife using her maiden name is also patriarchy. It’s not like she’s using her mother’s name. She’s using her father’s name. Under old English law, when a woman committed a crime, her husband, or her father if she were unmarried, went to jail. Of course, no one mentions those little get-out-of-jail-free cards women got from patriarchy. I agree that today’s woman doesn’t have to take her husband’s name, but assuming the default is merely a decision made on probability and nothing personal. Given that most women still marry men who make more than they do, their lifestyles are a product of their husbands’ higher earnings. In such cases, it’s not wrong to expect the woman to take her husband’s name.

    • The economic argument for why women should change their names has been going on for millennia. In many cultures women were treated much the same way as “property”. The man inherited the name. The women (daughters, wives) had fewer rights of ownership of anything. Knowingly, or unknowingly, your last two sentences where you talk about “dependency” of lifestyle as a valid reason for changing names reinforces this archaic notion. Your argument that my wife not taking her mother’s maiden name is patriarchy can be extended ad infinitum because that too was passed on from a mother’s father- one has to start to say this is the name I will keep, this is where I draw the line and assert my independence from the status quo.

      • Women were treated as property and their rights were curbed. But no woman was expected to be treated as ‘less than property.’ No woman was expected to die to defend her property. Men were expected. Even today, if a man and woman are walking on the street together, he’s her unpaid bodyguard. It’s assumed by default. Again, I’m not saying that just because most women live lifestyles nowhere near their personal net worth, they must take on their husbands’ names. I’m just saying that this happens to be the default.

      • Even today, if a man and woman are walking on the street together, he’s her unpaid bodyguard. It’s assumed by default.

        What the hell did I just read?

    • I find this offensive. What do the earnings have to do with the surname?? I hope you have ready a list of names of men who are willing to marry women who earn more than them. The statement “their lifestyles are a product of their husbands’ higher earnings” is absolutely ridiculous.

      • Your finding something offensive doesn’t add or subtract a grain of truth from a statement. Earnings do have a lot to do with the surname. Think of the economic liability a man takes on when he gets married. Should a divorce occur, the woman gets half. She gets custody of the kids in most cases, and hence she gets child support as well. New laws in India propose giving the woman a stake in the ancestral property of her husband as well. Women don’t take on nearly as much liability.
        Even anecdotally, think of the number of women you know who are married to men who make less then them. I doubt it’s anywhere close to a majority. Even if a woman is successful and makes good money, she marries someone more successful than she. I don’t mean that she must take her husband’s name, but for now it is the default and women need not be offended if someone asks them why they are breaking the paradigm.

  2. Apropos of nothing – both my Chinese and Korean colleagues said typically they do not take their husband’s name after marriage, These are first gen immigrants to the US. The children do get the father’s last name.

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