Maiden names

Every woman I know who has married in the past few years has this in common with the others: once they walked down the aisle and said “I do,” they ditched their maiden names and adopted their husband’s surnames.

We’re just at the beginning of wedding season, and I’m wondering if this common practice is really that common, and why. Even as women’s rights are at the forefront of most progressive conversations and people love discussing how we women are chipping away at that symbolic glass ceiling, changing your name to match your husband’s is a tradition continued without much debate or criticism. At least none that I’ve heard.

This wasn’t always so, I found. Back in the 1970s, according to a piece in Maclean’s Magazine, professional women intent on building their careers held on to their birth names after marriage. That trend continued in Canada for two decades and peaked at 23 per cent in the 1990s. Not surprisingly, it coincided with the women’s liberation movement; ladies wanted to keep their own name, whether it was out of feminist conviction, proof of independence, or to break with tradition and set them apart from the other, “kept” women. Some others chose not to take their husband’s name out of pride for their ancestral origins.

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Also not surprisingly, it was – and is – almost unheard of for men to change their name. I did read about one couple, college sweethearts in the early 80s, who made news when they adopted each other’s surnames, an unusual move that upset both sides of the family. The rare man who takes his wife’s name is seen almost as an oddity, an emasculating gesture, somehow. Actress Zoe Saldana’s husband took her name when they married in 2013 and people interviewing her could talk about little else when she did the press circuit that year for her new movie.

There was never any doubt, for me. I was always going to take my husband’s name, within reason (I mean, if I married someone named Tom Beena, I probably wouldn’t have been too enthusiastic to live out the rest of my days as Mrs. Gina Beena, but barring a combination like that, it was a no-brainer, for me).

Especially, as it turns out, it doesn’t matter how long I’m married, people – not all, but some – will call me Gina Dorey. I can almost guarantee that every person from River Bourgeois will call me Gina Dorey for the rest of my life, even the ones who know I’m married and know my married name. I know this because I do it to other people, most often when I’m speaking of them to someone a generation older than me.

A very popular compromise is a hyphenated name, giving a woman the best of both words – retention of her own name and acknowledgement that she’s married. I never really considered that option, personally, for various reasons (the biggest of which was that I find writing even two names to be tedious, I had no desire to up it to three).

It was quite surprising to me to find out that the maiden name movement had plateaued and that only about 20 per cent of women keep their surnames now. With so many women having established careers and reputations that rely somewhat on name recognition, in addition to women marrying later in life these days, I would have thought those factors would lead to more women just keeping their own name instead of taking their husband’s.

I mean, have you ever gone through the process of changing your name? It’s a nightmare. You have to call all over God’s green earth, marriage certificate in hand, faxing copies to every company and agency in all the land and filling out paperwork. It’s a hassle, for sure.

But not enough of a hassle to slow the trend, the numbers suggest. Not only do most women take their husband’s name, but a 2006 survey found that half of Americans think the legal system should force women to do it, and 70 per cent at least believe it’s better if they do.

So maybe keeping one’s maiden name isn’t as much of a statement as it once was. Maybe we’re past the need to defy convention, in favour of the convenience of one family/one surname. I’m glad I changed mine, I’m proud to be Mrs. MacDonald. Besides, there would be too much paperwork involved to go back, now!