On the eve of the 21st century, a new generation of professional women entered the work force. With them, a trend in feminist surnames was emerging: the taking of their husbands’ last names as their own. Is the trend a shift backward? Or does it indicate the completion of a circle?
Despite what people may think, the trend certainly symbolizes a desire for simplicity. The past three decades saw a deluge of information, new technology, and societal upheaval. As a result of this chaos, time seemed to speed up. Modern professional women were looking for a way to streamline the complicated issues they are confronted with each day. Identity is just one of those issues.
As a young lawyer, I adamantly did not want to take my fiancé’s last name. I wanted my identity and my career to remain intact and separate from his. Fast-forward a few years to a different fiancé: I was giddy at the prospect of waiting on line at the D.M.V. to get my husband’s surname emblazoned on my driver’s license. What changed?
On the surface, I thought it was simply because my husband’s last name was monosyllabic like my maiden name. The ring of my name did not change. A deeper examination revealed that I was beginning a different phase of my life and evolving into a new (and hopefully improved) version of myself. I became softer. Maybe even a little more patient. I was growing up.
Once I was frightened of becoming someone’s wife or mother. I never wanted to become someone else’s anything. I just wanted to be me. But slowly my fear of background relegation began to dissipate. I started to relish the idea of taking on the role of wife and mother. I was becoming aware of my true identity and, ultimately, my place in the universe. A transition such as this is often fraught with angst and fear as one struggles to pull away from the person formerly known as “me.”
Once thought of as something people just did after college, marriage came to symbolize so much more. Marriage is the coming together of each individual to form a powerful unit better able to navigate time and space. Marriage is the creation of something bigger than oneself — a concept that the younger me could never appreciate. Marriage is an equal combination of characteristics of two people, where weaknesses are diminished while strengths soar. Marriage is about flourishing, not overshadowing.
Today, professional women rarely keep their maiden names for their careers while reserving their married names strictly for their personal lives. In a world dominated by chaos and confusion, the use of two different names became too convoluted. Even less popular is the hyphenation method.
And even less popular than that is the blender method, the blending of two names into one weird and confusing last name devoid of history. Typically, once a professional woman gets married, she will simply tack her new surname on after her maiden name with nothing more than a space to herald her new identity. After a sufficient amount of time has passed for colleagues to become familiar with the new surname, she will unceremoniously drop the maiden name.
The idea of bucking the surname norm to assert feminist individualism started in the middle of the 19th century. Lucy Stone was the first American woman to keep her birth name after marriage, leading to the moniker Lucy Stoners for all those who followed her. (Women in my generation didn’t have to shun their husbands’ names to earn the “stoner” label.)
In 1921, Ruth Hale, a journalist, formed the Lucy Stone League. Seeing an impossible social task, the league slowly disbanded. Since its inception, it has been revived three times. Now in its latest revival, which started in 1997, the league touts “equal rights for women and men to retain, modify, and create their names.”
Despite the efforts of the league and its predecessors, a woman’s right to adopt her husband’s family name as her own continues to be a widely practiced tradition. According to a 2005 study conducted by Diana Boxer, a professor of linguistics at the University of Florida, the vast majority of women surveyed had taken their husbands’ surnames for the sake of family unity. Ms. Boxer depicts this as a failure of the feminist movement because “societal traditions and gendered hegemony are so hard to overcome.”
Consistently viewing this tradition as harmful to a woman’s individual identity is antiquated. Instead, the return to tradition should be celebrated as a marker of the strength of feminist ideals and achievements while honoring family values.
Women in America are successful. The acceptance of multifaceted roles such as wife, mother, and professional allows women to express themselves in ways never thought possible. It used to be that when a young woman was brought to the altar, her name was all that gave her any sense of identity.
Professional women no longer have time to focus on a symbolic gesture when this world has entrusted us with more important tasks. Women make discoveries in science and technology. Women mold our society with legal opinions and social commentary. Women produce legislation. Women color our world with art while providing the soundtrack to the stories we write.
While doing all this, they continue to define our future as nurturing mothers. It is precisely because of this ability to create and nurture as applied to their roles in American society that women have also made more choice for themselves.
When a newly engaged woman starts thinking about her surname, she has many options. Not only is it a testament to honor and tradition that modern women are adopting husbands’ surnames, it is also a wink and a nod to the notion that a woman’s identity inevitably becomes entangled with her husband’s. Instead, she can continue her life’s work while gracefully fashioning a coexistent life as a wife and mother. If power is choice, then the feminist name game proves just how powerful women are.
I did not examine the genesis of my husband’s surname or my maiden name until we were expecting our first child. We wanted to grace our daughter with a moniker that combined the heritage of both families. My Germanic maiden name, Marsch, means marsh, indicating that my paternal ancestors lived near or made their livelihood from the marshlands. The surname Kerr is descended from the Scottish Kerr clan, a border clan that often lived in and made their living from swamps.
January Kerr, a lawyer turned writer, lives in East Hampton with her husband, their 23-month-old daughter, and an Alaskan malamute.