Why do women sacrifice names?

September 04, 2001|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Over the years, I have come to think of this as the Plumber Problem. I pick up the phone and the plumber asks, "Mrs. Levey?"

At that point, two possible responses run through my brain. I can say, "No, I'm Ms. Goodman although I am married to Mr. Levey and no longer married to Mr. Goodman, but by the time I was divorced and remarried, it was too late to go back to my birth name, which was, by the way, Holtz, because Goodman was my byline."

Or, I can say, "Yes."

To be frank, my answer on any given day depends on exactly how high the water is in the basement.

Nevertheless, I always assumed that after all these years, a younger generation of brides would leave the altar with their birth names intact. I thought that keeping your name was a leading indicator, as the economists say, of an egalitarian era.

But as I read the bumper crop of summer wedding announcements, it has become clear that one of the last things to change is name-changing. The majority of college students are female, half of the new doctors and lawyers are women, but more than 90 percent of the brides still give up their names. We have more paychecks and rights but toss out our credit cards and identities like so much rice.

In short, married women are making a name for themselves. But the name is still his.

Wives do not take their husband's name, I am told, because men demand they do. Grooms don't have to.

Penn State's Laurie Scheuble, who has been studying the name phenomenon with David Johnson, her husband of 18 years, says, "Bright boys know that if they say, `You do whatever you want, dear,' the women are far more likely to change their name."

Women make this decision because, they have told her, "it's what's done." It's still seen as a part of marriage. Not the part that treats wives as property - the old reason women changed names - but the part that subtly and strongly makes women regard trading in their name as proof of commitment.

A glance at the wedding pages of the New York Times is a pretty good indication of the ongoing power of tradition. Wives are no longer totally "disappeared" under their husband's names as Mr. and Mrs. John Jones. But even now a woman who is "keeping her name" is treated as if she were breaking news. Or breaking norms.

There is the social subtext to all of these public announcements: Ms. Smith, whose marriage will never make it, is keeping her name. Ms. Brown, a careerist who doesn't really believe in family, will keep her name.

Yes, I know the thoroughly modern arguments for changing a name. I've heard them, done them. Why is it less patriarchal to keep a father's name than take a husband's? Shouldn't children all have the same name? One family, one name? Why confuse the teacher, let alone the plumber?

But none of these explain why newlyweds don't pick a new name or why men almost never change their own.

You may be certain that no editor announced to the reading public that Mr. Kirsch is "keeping his name."

The truth is not only that the pull of tradition is strong, but that it pulls more on women.

The burden of changing traditional assumptions and relationships from the wedding bells on still rests with wives. The name is just the first thing they "give" or "keep."

This spring, a survey showed how the young are looking for soul mates. It seems to me that the trick of marriage is not merger but negotiation, managing two "I"s and a "we."

Maybe the real symbol is when we bring something old - ourselves - to something new - our marriages. Two first names. Two last names. One marriage.

The plumber will figure it out.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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