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Isn't It Romantic?

Vivia Chen

May 20, 2011

Proposal This is always a hot, sticky topic: Should a woman change her last name when she marries her Prince Charming--or some approximation thereof?

Personally, I think it's perfectly silly in this day and age to take your hubby's surname. I feel that way for all women, though I'm particularly baffled by professional women who want to fly the banner of their marital status.

Yes, I know, I'm supposed to say, "Oh, it's such a personal decision..."--and all that P.C. stuff about how we shouldn't be judgmental. I also know the "family unity" argument--that it's nice for family members to share the same name. And the "practical" argument--that it's easier to fit "The Drapers" or "The Cleavers" on the mailbox.

But I've been around the block long enough to know that many marriages don't last--even those between kindred lawyers at kindred firms. At least a third of my friends, which includes many lawyers, have been divorced--and, sadly, more will follow before the decade is out.

So I'm always curious where women stand on the issue of names. Luckily, The Wall Street Journal's Sue Shellenbarger summarizes some current findings:

The trend toward women keeping their maiden names after marriage peaked in the 1990s, when about 23 percent of women did so, then eased gradually to about 18 percent in the 2000s, says a 35-year study published in 2009 in the journal Social Behavior and Personality. And increasingly, studies show women’s decisions on the issue are guided by factors other than political or religious ideas about women’s rights or marital roles, as often believed.

Well-educated women in high-earning occupations are significantly more likely to keep their maiden names, the study shows.

I couldn't find any research about what women lawyers are doing, so I did my own very unscientific study. A cursory look at the New York Times marriage section seems to indicate a 50/50 split--and that, of course, largely reflects über-liberal NYC. But my sources at New York firms tell me that young women associates are getting increasingly traditional.  

Law firm consultant Eve Birnbaum, a former partner at Winston & Strawn, says she's noticed a generational shift. She says that she sees an increase in the number of young associates who are choosing to use their married names. "I was surprised and disappointed," she says, adding that she didn't change hers nor did "any of my NYU Law classmates. We were feminists of the eighties!"

But another Am Law 100 partner who graduated from law school at about the same time says she opted to take her husband's name, because she didn't want to fight the inevitable: "Having watched friends try unsuccessfully to hold on to their own names professionally while slowly ceding to their husband’s name socially--at the dry cleaner and at their kids’ schools--led some of us to adopt the new name at the time of our weddings."

And what do young women lawyers say? "The trend I'm seeing in my late twenties/early thirty-something friends is to change your name personally but not professionally," says an associate in her early thirties.

To me, that personal/professional split thing is even more ludicrous. Are you supposed to be Suzie Doozie, the fearsome litigator during work, then put on an apron and magically transform into Suzie Homemaker at nights and weekends? What's the point of that schzoid existence? Will your kids be better adjusted because you share daddy's name? Shouldn't they respect you for your independence?

Really, I think women have enough competing identities and responsibilities. Wouldn't it be easier not to change your name in the first place?


Photo:  Yuri Arcurs - Fotolia.com

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I'm hyphenating, but I'm making him hyphenate, too. My name comes first.

i'm with @johndunvale. since vivia thinks it's so anachronistic for a woman to change her surname, i suggest that all men about to get engaged quit giving their fiancees expensive engagement rings. i mean, what could be more anachronistic than that? simple gold bands all around. or maybe high quality cardboard or...

Marriage itself is an outdated institution that is completely unnecessary so if you're asking why you're taking your husband's last name, you're asking t he wrong question. Why get married at all? If you're taking on that silly institution then you might as well go whole hog.

I licensed my last name to my wife for 5 years for a nominal fee. This was to protect both the reputation of my family name and also to give her some options. After the initial 5 year period ended successfully, I granted her a lifetime series of 5 year options, for a nominal fee of course. Has worked out great so far,

The basic fact is that men do not have to "decide" whether or not to change their names upon marriage - only women have to do so, and it is still bucking tradition for a woman to decide to keep the name she has had since birth. Does marriage affect only the female partner's identity? Like an earlier commenter, I am attracted to the Spanish tradition: under Spanish naming practices, the child takes the surname of both parents, and a married woman does not take her husband's surname at all, but passes her own patronym on to her children as their matronym. This seems a sensible way to identify children as members of both their father's and their mother's families. Like my law school classmate quoted in this blog, I did not change my name when I married, and I, too, am surprised that the traditional practice of changing the woman's name upon marriage gets so little critical scrutiny today.

My wife wanted to buck tradition and keep her maiden name. I told her it was fine with me, but it's also tradition to get a big honking diamond when you're engaged and we can change that too. She opted for my name and the big honking diamond. I would have married her either way, but remember, tradition goes both ways.

I feel that if you have already developed your professional career and identity as First Name Maiden Name then why should you have to change that just because you are getting married? Personally, that would have been a huge undertaking and then ultimately a huge mistake for me. It is not just a simple "yes I will go by my man's last name" thing. This would require the legal change of your name on a plethora of certificates and licenses, not to mention your email address if you choose to take it that far. Thankfully I kept my maiden name professionally and legally and only went by my now ex-hushand's last name socially. I can't even imagine incorporating changing all of those items back to my real last name into the already-insane amount of legal work associated with our divorce. Women lawyers beware.

Men's identities remain intact throughout their lives - regardless of marriage, divorce, et al. Women discarding their names renders them as less important than men's. Re potential children: Naming them after their father means that one random sperm is more important than all the work and pain the mother's body endures for nearly a year. It's all clearly an 'ownership' issue.

I agree with Vivia though I think this post could have had stronger arguments or examples. One example is for both the man and woman to take a combined name of the woman's and man's last names (they can choose whose goes first). That way, everyone in the family has the same last name. Other cultures do a variation of this so that the children have both patrilineal and matrilineal lines in their own names (because those societies considers both equally important).

Careful y'all... Don't raise the ire.

Candidly, I have been voicing my opinion on the bias that comes across in almost every article: always bemoaning the problems women face as lawyers, while simultaneously defecating on those who are male lawyers (i.e., the "beached white male" article).

Then, on Friday, when this was posted... I didn't get an email notifying me of it's publication.

Coincidence? Or, just a way to eliminate someone, who like y`all, is tired of reading completely biased articles.

Then again, maybe it was a favor... my time's probably better spent thinking about useful things!

Oh come on. This is such a non-issue. Who cares? I changed my name because my (ahem, PATERNAL) maiden name was difficult for people to pronounce and impossible for most people to spell. Plus, my husband's last name just sounds better with my first name. Why does it have to be a line drawn in the sand over feminist issues? I no longer have to sign a fifteen letter name when I get a credit card receipt, and I'm happy about that. Get over it.

@ Jane Air. What makes you think that for a professional woman to take her husband's name is NOT divorce planning? It seems to me that a professional woman filing for divorce who comes across as traditional and sacrificing her own career to her husband's will do a lot better in divorce court than one who comes across as independent, and changing one's name supports the former image.

What a poorly reasoned and researched piece of tripe! You find it P.C. for a person to say that it is a woman's personal choice? Do you have any idea that more women choice to retain their "maiden" names or to hyphenate their names during the Victorian era than at any other time in modern history. So, like Karin states, you think it is more appropriate for a woman to use her father's surname, or her mother's, rather than chose a route that she is most comfortable with?

Setting aside the issue a whether to change one's name, going into a marriage making contingencies for the likelihood that it will end in divorce seems like a great way to ensure that the marriage ends in divorce.

The unarticulated subtext of this blog is that a women's most appropriate surname is her father's last name. Father's name? Husband's name? It's all the same patrilineal relationship paradigm. Having a father who was exceptionally well known and beloved in the community, I wearied of introductions leading to the question of whether I was my father's daughter. I cannot endorse being treated as an accessory to someone else's reputation as a pathway to individual recognition. Upon marriage, I found taking my husband's surname a liberating way to assume a name which I alone could embellish or blemish.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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