When a couple decides to tie the knot, there are certain questions they can count on being asked. Questions about the date, the venue, the honeymoon and the proposal story are bound to come up in conversation once the couple announces their engagement. However, there are some questions that only the woman in the relationship is faced with — primarily, people want to know “Are you going to change your last name?”
This question would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. For the most part, it was a given that women would adopt their husband’s last names upon the exchange of rings. In fact, sometimes women are still referred to not only by their husbands last name, but by his entire name (Mrs. John Smith). Regardless, this practice suggests that something inherently changes about the woman’s identity when she gets married, but that this is not the case for men.
This has been standard practice for thousands of years. Historically, it signified a shift of property ownership: The father was relinquishing his ownership of his daughter and the husband was exhibiting his ownership of his new wife. However, in modern times, the adoption of the husband’s name by the wife serves to indicate a cohesive family unit.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, Ariana Grande was asked this question on a radio talk show. To the interviewer’s credit, he did ask if she would hyphenate her last name, suggesting that society has moved to accepting this as a normal practice for women. However, it is almost certain that the interviewer would not have thought to ask this same question to Grande’s fiance, Pete Davidson. Instead of using this as an opportunity to talk about the patriarchal implications of such a question, most commented on Grande’s pronunciation of her own last name, which seemed inconsistent with common pronunciation. Focusing conversations on the pronunciation of “Grande” fails to take advantage of a platform for discussing the patriarchal implications of assuming a woman will change her last name in any way.
The fact of the matter is, the choice about whether or not to change your last name should be just that: a choice. By asking only the woman in a heterosexual relationship whether she will change her last name, the patriarchal pressure surrounding heterosexual monogamous relationships persists. Whether a woman decides to keep her maiden name, adopt her husband’s surname, hyphenate/combine the two or only use his last name in certain circumstances, the decision is hers. It is not the role of her husband, her father or society to pressure her into making one choice over another.
While this question may seem harmless, the fact that it gets asked over and over again of women can have a pressuring effect in terms of expectations on that individual’s choice and their perception of their identity. In the case of the interviewer, he seemed to expect that Grande would hyphenate her last name. In other cases, the question seems to anticipate that she will adopt her husband’s surname.
The New York Times reported that about 20 percent of women married in the past decade have kept their maiden names. Research from the New York Times also revealed that another 10 percent of women surveyed chose an alternative last name such as hyphenation or only using their husband’s name in certain circumstances.
The process of changing your last name is complicated and filled with lengthy bureaucratic processes. To legally change your last name after getting married, you must alert the following relevant entities to get new documentation: The Social Security Administration, Department of Motor Vehicles, your bank, your employer, your payroll office, your utility companies, your credit card companies, your insurance companies, the voter registration office, the passport office and your doctor’s office, to name a few. Needless to say, it’s understandable that some women choose to keep their last names for convenience.
Other women might choose to keep their last names for feminist reasons. For some, last name changes are too reminiscent of the antiquated practice of viewing women as exchangeable property. Her decision is not about her father or her husband – it is about her ownership of identity.
For other women, keeping their last name might not just be convenient, but comfortable. After all, many women get married in their 20s or 30s, meaning their whole lives they’ve grown accustomed to being called by their given first and last name.
Regardless of your reasons, changing your last name is a choice for you and you alone to make. The fact that men aren’t asked this question suggests that society assumes they already know the answer: Men don’t change their last names. In the same way, we need to let women make their own decisions about their last name without outside pressure so their identity can be their own and not something dictated by others.