Should a Feminist Keep Her Maiden Name?

ByMaureen Shaw

The short answer: She can do whatever she damn well pleases.

Once you've accepted a marriage proposal, the countdown is quite literally on. Prospective brides are quickly confronted with what feels like a million choices: Where should I get married? Who will be in my wedding party? What will I wear? And, increasingly, will I take my partner's last name?

Theoretically, the latter should be a personal choice, devoid of outside interference or pressure, but that's not usually the case. Strong opinions on the matter can make the decision of whether to adopt a new surname polemic. While it might seem American culture has progressed beyond this sort of debate, especially with the recent popularization of a new and generally more accessible brand of feminism, recent first-person accounts point to the contrary. In 2014, women are still getting criticized by family and friends alike, all for the sin of not automatically adopting their partner's surname comes standard, along with the diamond and elaborately layered sheet cake. 

Image Credit: Getty

By a not insignificant majority, men seem to prefer the change. Last August, Men's Health readers sounded off about name-changing norms, with the majority (63%) reporting they would be upset if their wives kept their maiden names, and 96% scoffing at the idea of taking their wife's last name. A 2013 YouGov/Huffington Post poll underscored these traditionalist preferences, with more than 60% of people surveyed reporting that women should change their last names after marriage.  

This viewpoint becomes more complicated of course, when the patriarchy is mixed in. As Zoe Halman wrote in the Guardian earlier this year, "Why are my feminist friends still taking their husband's surnames?" In the same vein, noted feminist author Jill Filipovic opined last year she that she was "disheartened every time I sign into Facebook and see a list of female names I don't recognize. You got married, congratulations! But why, in 2013, does getting married mean giving up the most basic marker of your identity?"

For women, it's definitely becoming a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. Indeed, it might surprise the new generation of liberals to know that currently, only 8% of women keep their maiden names, a significant decrease from a peak 23% in the 1990s. While there are several factors that may influence even the most liberated woman's decision to keep or change her name, there is one constant: controversy.

Nothing demonstrates this more than a recent Reddit thread examining women's experiences with keeping their last names after saying "I do." The answers — which range from being called a "feminist bitch" to surprise and downright confusion — are representative of the general public's head-scratching over this issue.

One woman's experience perfectly embodies this perplexity — is it legal?! — that abounds in even familial circles:

Some of his relatives actually asked if it was legal for me to keep my maiden name. His father was never happy about it though his father was also a quiet man so it was rarely mentioned. One of my grandmothers, my father's mother, expressed concern and tried to send me mail using my husband's last name. She stopped when I asked her to. One of my husband's aunts, his mother's sister, insisted on sending us holiday cards and invitations addressed to Mr and Mrs John Doe for years.

Confusion can even give way to animosity in some cases, for example this woman, who noted that "people in real life actually told me I was a bad mom for not having one family name. That hurt a lot."

So, what can be learned from these women's experiences? The decision to change or keep one's last name is a personal one, potentially involving a variety of factors that have nothing to do with your status as a woman, or as a feminist.

If you feel comfortable changing your name, go forth, secure in the knowledge that a trip to the DMV will not result in the immediate revocation of your independent woman membership. If on the other hand you choose to buck tradition it seems apparent that, still, people may never quite grasp what to call you, you may get criticized and you may have to deal with some awkwardness. Ultimately, it's important to do what feels right to you. Make your decision — and own it.