Now engaged to be married, Michelle Lin has been thinking a lot about last names.
She hears about the unity and simplicity that comes with changing hers to her future husband’s, but she doesn’t want to erase her identity, family heritage and experience from her name, said Lin, 28, who lives in New York City.
“My last name was called out at my middle, high school and college graduations and is on every single one of my diplomas,” she said. She is now in a doctoral program. “I do dream that my name will one day follow the address of ‘Doctor.'”
Younger women such as Lin are more likely to keep their last name after marriage, according to new data.
A new survey from the Pew Research Center published Thursday asked more than 2,400 married people and 955 people who have never been married about their stance on changing their names after marriage.
This data was a small part of a larger survey into modern views of marriage and family, said Kim Parker, Pew’s director of social trends research.
Men largely kept their last names at 92%, while 5% changed their last names, and less than 1% hyphenated their names with their partner’s last name, the data showed.
For women, there was more variation.
The tradition of women changing their names upon marriage is still strong in the United States, but views on marriage have been changing, the survey said.
Most married women in opposite-sex relationships – nearly 80% – said they took their husband’s last name. Meanwhile, 14% said they kept their own last name, and 5% hyphenated with their husband’s last name, the data showed.
But the numbers indicate age and education played a role in the decision-making.
About 9% of women ages 50 and older said they kept their last name, in comparison with 20% of women between 18 and 49, the survey showed.
And 26% of women with a postgraduate degree said they kept theirs.
Women who are not married were significantly less likely to report plans to take their partner’s last name. Only 33% said they would, whereas 23% said they would keep their own last name, 17% would hyphenate both and 24% were not sure, the data showed.
“I’m open to it but not tied to it,” said Melanie Mayer, 27, of New York City.
Mayer said she feels conflicted about changing her name. While she sees the tradition as rooted in patriarchal norms, she does like the idea of a nuclear family having the same last name – though she said it doesn’t have to be the man’s name.
“While the idea of joining last names is nice, it’s also erasing a lot of your history,” she added.
The shift in younger generations may follow the progression of women gaining social power, said Deborah Ashway, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in New Bern, North Carolina.
“Now this just seems to follow suit,” she said. Women are “like, ‘No, I’m going to keep my own name.’ That’s kind of a statement of independence.”
Pew doesn’t have past data to compare whether the views are changing, Parker said.
“But you can see by looking at some of the demographic differences … where this trend might be headed,” she added.
Why women change their names
Why is it so common for women in the US to take their husband’s name in an opposite-sex marriage?
It’s not about culture; it started with the law, said Catherine Allgor, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
The law is called coverture, and it came along with English immigrants when they came to the US, she said. This law says that females don’t have a legal identity when they are born – instead they are covered by their father’s legal standing.
When a woman got married, that identity under her father was legally dissolved, and she was absorbed into her husband’s identity, Allgor said.
It meant that not only could she not vote, but a woman could not legally own anything, make a contract, have custody over her children or be protected from physical abuse or rape by her husband.
“When women talk about marriage, we talk about becoming one,” Allgor said. “With coverture, you are becoming one, but the one was the husband.”
Coverture was broken down and ameliorated over time, but pieces of it persisted, she added. In the 1960s and 1970s, divorced women couldn’t always get credit in their own names. And it wasn’t until the 1980s that the law began to recognize marital rape, Allgor said.
Women keeping their last name upon marriage gained popularity with the feminism movement in the 1960s and 1970s, with some changing their maiden last names to something else entirely since that name had originally come from their fathers, she added.
Some women also started hyphenating their last name with their husband’s more, Allgor added.
To change or not to change?
When it comes to deciding whether to change your name after marriage, the right answer is the one that works for you, Ashway said.
Start by examining your priorities, wants and needs, she said.
For some people, a sense of independence or a challenge of the historical power structure may be the most important. For others, the priority may be having the whole family – including kids – sharing the same last name, Ashway said.
Then, have a conversation with your partner. It can start with just getting a sense of how each of you feel and exploring values, she said.
One thing to watch for is how you feel about your partner’s response, Ashway said. If marriage is off unless you take that person’s name, is that a red flag for you?
It should be something that you both feel good about, she said.
“It’s really got to be both parties’ decision, because then you get back into that power differential,” Ashway said, “and then that’s not going to make for a great relationship.”