So this weekend, my dears, I decided to do some valuable procrastination in the service of collecting cold hard marriage data. I skimmed the 500 most recent NYT wedding announcements, from May 1st until yesterday, and recorded how many women in heterosexual partnerships kept their last names, took their husbands', or did something in between. I also recorded their ages.
And I'll state up front that I came to this project with a strong prejudice in favor of women keeping their birth names. About half of my own friends have taken their husbands' names, and that's cool: it's their choice, I'd never tell anyone what to do, blah blah--but I'm not going to pretend that, internally, I've had an entirely neutral reaction to what the women of my acquaintance chose to do in this arena. Moreover, it's been hard not to notice that lots of the women who submit announcements to the NYT and do take their husbands' names are women in their 30s and even 40s, women who went to fancy schools and seem to be high-powered doctors and lawyers--not just, as I would have assumed (and as actual real studies have found), younger women or women with less fully developed professional identities.
So armed with a primitive spreadsheet, I decided to investigate. I can break the numbers down in detail in the comments if anyone cares, but the short version is this: of 450 heterosexual marriage announcements, 75% clearly indicated whether the bride was changing or keeping her name. Of that number, 30% kept their birth name outright, with an additional 10% "continu[ing] to use [their] name professionally"; hyphenating their last names with their husbands'; forming a new shared surname; or indicating that they would be using their maiden name as a middle name, à la Hillary Rodham Clinton. The remaining 60% took their husbands' names.
Moreover, from this sample, there is not a strong correlation between the age of the bride and her decision to keep or change her name. Women who got married at age 26 and younger showed almost exactly the same 40/60 split as the data set as a whole.
The number of women keeping their own names surprised me; it was higher than I'd expected. But more importantly, the process of skimming 500 announcements, including an increasing number celebrating same-sex unions, made me. . . kinda not care any more. There's nothing I can imagine that would make me want to change my own name--but then, I'm in a profession where name-changing after one has established some kind of professional identity is extremely uncommon. However, I'm coming around to the position that for most women this isn't a major feminist issue.
This is not to say that I think the choice is negligible, or that it doesn't relate to important feminist issues (see this post by Historiann for a marriage in which the wife's decision not to change her name revealed what an insecure douchebag her husband was). But perhaps we shouldn't insist on its symbolic importance in every instance.
Here are factors to consider:
Women don't lose their maiden names or identities upon adopting a husband's name as completely as they once did. The internet has a lot to do with this. I've noticed that most of the women whom I went to high school with, virtually all of whom changed their names upon marriage, now identify themselves on Facebook according to the formula "Firstname Maidenname Lastname." This doesn't mean they've actually retained their maiden names legally, or that they use them professionally (my own mother, who has never to my knowledge used her maiden name in the 40-odd years since she got married at age 21, identifies herself thusly on Facebook). However, this informal retention of one's birth name is, I think, part of a larger, pragmatic trend: if adopting their spouse's name seems important to many women, so does retaining a clear link to their birth name.
The rise in legally-recognized same-sex unions. Though the sample size here is even smaller, and it's hard to tell what trends will develop over time, right now it's pretty rare for same-sex couples to change their names upon marriage (and when they do, it's usually by linking both names with a hyphen). How gay and lesbian couples choose to communicate their commitment is bound to have an effect on the rest of us, if only by making a wider range of options seem normal.
It's not all-or-nothing. Related to both of the above, I'm interested in the various compromises I've seen in the selection of wedding announcements I perused: women who continue to use their names professionally, women who merged their names somehow with their husbands', and a tiny minority of women who chose entirely new surnames for both themselves and their husbands. This strikes me as an age in which there's a lot of experimentation with naming conventions. So, you know: let a thousand flowers bloom.
Retaining one's birth name upon marriage may remain a minority custom, but it's now a well-established one. Thus it's unlikely suddenly to die out, be thought of as irremediably bizarre, or cause serious, regular problems for women who don't change their names. (Note: I reserve the right to retract this claim if, in a few years, I encounter such problems.)
So in sum: if you're fighting the good fight at home or in the workplace and making generally gender-conscious decisions? I really don't care what you call yourself.
But as always, readers, I trust you to tell me how I'm wrong