Many months ago, I started to write a post about whether someone should change his or her last name when getting married.  I gave up when I finally realized that all I could write about were the different options.  In other words, the entire subject had so many different personal options that it seemed foolish to even voice an opinion.

But, now, with Chelsea Clinton’s recent marriage, the subject is being debated again around the internet.  So, I’m going to try again.

The basic options are these (wikipedia has a good article on the entire subject and see also this from the interestingly-named imamrs.com):

(1) the partners keep their names (i.e., nothing changes)

(2) one partner takes the name of the other

(3) one partner changes to a “hyphenated” name by adding the partner’s name (it can also be done without a hyphen)

(4) one partner takes the last name of the other and, in addition, adds the previous last name as a middle name

(5) both partners change their last names to a new blended name.

Of course, the overwhelming choice in the United States is for the wife to forsake her “maiden name” (a truly bad phrase) and take the last name of the husband.  (I’ll talk about lesbian and gay marriages below.)  A 2007 survey of brides in the United States by Conde Nast Bridal Media showed that 83 percent dropped their “maiden names” in exchange for their spouse’s last name, 11 percent of brides chose to hyphenate their last name, and 6 percent chose to keep their own last name.  (A variation on a wife taking the last name of the husband is to make the change formally but keep the “maiden name” informally on the job to preserve her identity.)

There are, of course, practical problems with each choice.  Any partner changing his or her last name has many, many hours of work to change identity and will likely lose (at least for a long while) the value of the many years of professional and educational identity built up for the former name.  A hyphenated name avoids some of the identity problem, but has the additional problems of being unwieldy. And think of the problems that a child with a hyphenated name would have if he or she decided to take the same approach when getting married.  Thus, according to one 2007 article, hyphenated names are becoming less common.

The usual reason given for why a woman should change her name to her husband’s is so that the “family name” can continue.  (A variation is to keep the name for “ethnic” reasons.)  Of course, this is bogus since there is no reason that the “family name” of the husband is any more important than the “family name” of the wife.  The practice keeps the name lineage of the husband’s father, the father’s father’s, etc, going all the way back through that side of the family.  But gone are the wife’s father’s name, the wife’s mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc, on both sides of the wife’s family.

Another bogus reason for a wife changing her name is this statement by a woman who is debating what to do: “”I think it’s important [that I change my name to my husband's]. We’re married. He’s my husband, and I want to show that I’m committed to him.”  The problem with the statement, of course, is that the same reasoning should apply to the man.  If it’s important to show commitment, the man has an equal obligation and, therefore, there is no reason for the wife to change her name anymore than for the husband.

Moreover, while I have no evidence to point to, it seems reasonable to believe that having a wife change her name leads to long-lasting psychological effects about power in the relationship.  This is not helpful to an equal relationship.

I think what it all comes down to is this.  Remember that there are options.  There is no good reason for such an overwhelming number of women to change their name to their husband’s.  If an equal number of men changed their name to their wife’s, it could make sense.  After all, there is some practical benefit in having a child have the same last name as both the wife and husband.  But the current practice is simply the result of centuries of patriarchic control of men over women.  It is time for more women to keep their last name and more men to change their last name to their wife’s.  (According to one article, there are at least some men who are changing their names.  But it is a difficult process for men since, as of 2007, only seven states allowed men to easily change their name upon marriage in the same manner that women can do it.  The rest of the states require the far more difficult procedure required for other (non-marital) name changes.)

And, finally, as you probably noticed, I have been talking about heterosexual marriages.  But what about gay and lesbian marriages?  I haven’t seen any statistics, but my strong guess is that very few partners change their names.  There is no issue about keeping the “family name.”  No issue about changing a name to show commitment.  The only issue is not the name of the partners, but the name of their children.  That’s the way it should be for all couples, i.e., keep your own names but spend a lot of time figuring out what last names to give to your children.

(One more thing.  I have only been talking about the United States.  The practices are different in some other countries.  For instance, this 2007 USA Today article includes short summaries of the practices in Spain and some Central and South American countries, in some Middle Eastern countries, in Iceland, and in the United Kingdom.)

We’d like to hear what you think (and, if you have already had to face the issue, what you did).