Brides-to-be wrestle with the name factor

His, hers or hyphen? Changing a surname is increasingly debated, but most women do it

Family Matters

May 19, 2002|By Karen Guzman | By Karen Guzman,Special to the Sun

As peak wedding season returns, this year's crop of brides, like their feminist foremothers, are engaged in the familiar debate over surnames.

They will debate the pros and cons of keeping their names vs. taking his name vs. hyphenating or creating a hybrid.

But for all the talk around bridal salons, florists and water coolers, the outcome remains pretty predictable. Brides overwhelmingly walk down the aisle with their husbands' names.

A reader survey by Bride's magazine found that eight out of 10 brides take their groom's last name.

"Women do wrestle with it more," said professor Laurie Scheuble, a sociologist at Pennsylvania State University. "That's the big change."

Scheuble conducted a number of random national surveys of women in the mid-'90s that found an even more conservative portrait of surnames.

She found then that 5 percent of married women in their 30s and 40s kept their birth names. Among women in their 50s and 60s, the figure was 2 percent.

And who are the exceptions?

"Women who keep their birth names or hyphenate have a very specific set of characteristics. They marry at an older age ... are gender-role nonconventional, are well-educated and have prestigious occupations," Scheuble said.

Even if few women hang onto their names, the practice and debate about whether to do it are well tolerated -- even a sort of rite of passage -- for brides today.

Surname choice for some couples looms above china patterns and ring designs as a means of telling the world who they are.

"It's an issue that people became more conscious of in the '70s with the second wave of the women's movement," said Anita Garey, a sociologist and assistant professor in the School of Family Studies at the University of Connecticut.

"It's become more normal over time. It's become much more of a choice, which is not to say that people don't still feel very strongly about it in both directions," Garey said. "You can't make the assumption any more when you meet one's spouse that they have the same last name."

Feelings of identity -- both personal and professional -- ultimately color the decision. And in the quest to preserve their individual identities, while at the same time fostering a joint one, some couples arrive at creative solutions.

"I've heard of a case where two people took the letters of their last names and came up with a new name ... and they both changed their names upon marriage," Garey says.

Newburyport, Mass., attorney Douglas Smith has conducted his own survey. Smith specializes in helping couples through the legal tangle of name changing, a process he says can take up to two years. It requires changing all contracts and documents based on identity -- Social Security, credit cards, mortgages, wills and more -- and turnaround can be slow.

In his survey of 100 clients, Smith found 88 women taking their husbands' names, six keeping their names and six hyphenating.

Smith also found six men adopting hyphenated names and two taking their wives' names.

"There are lots of possibilities. Girls have been given family names for first names. Calling a little girl 'Taylor' is not a surprise today. Naming is really a place where human beings can be creative in using language," said Rae Moses, a professor of linguistics at Northwestern University who conducted a landmark study of family surnames five years ago.

Moses' study looked at the names of children and their parents in a Chicago suburban school.

"I found that close to 34 percent of families had what I called 'nontraditional naming patterns,' " Moses said.

These ranged from hyphenated names to cultural practices, such as that of Spanish-speaking people who may use both spouses' surnames.

"Another way is to take their present middle name, dump it and then use their birth name as their middle name, and that frequently reflects ethnicity," Moses said.

Karen Guzman is a reporter for The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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