Making surnames simpler

Hyphens, keeping maiden names less in vogue now


July 10, 2005|By Cynthia Hubert | Cynthia Hubert,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

When she married, she became Michelle Melrose-Wagner, preserving her professional identity while honoring her new husband, Richard. But hyphenation became unwieldy.

So she dropped her maiden name. Now and forever, she is Michelle Wagner. "It's cut and dried. It works," said Wagner, 30, of Sacramento, Calif.

It seems to be working for more and more women of her generation. Recent studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that fewer women are choosing to keep their maiden names or hyphenate their last names after they marry.

The reasons have nothing to do with a backlash against feminism, researchers agree. Today, most women choose to take the surnames of their husbands because they no longer feel they have to prove their independence to the larger world, they said.

"I don't see it as representing a decline of the women's movement at all," said Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and a marriage historian.

"For many women who came of age in the 1970s, it was very important symbolically for them to say, `I am not "covered" by my husband. I have my own identity. That has not disappeared just because I am married.'

"Now people take for granted that this is not the case," said Coontz, author of Marriage: A History (Viking, $25.95).

"The victory has been won, so the symbolism is not necessary. It's less of a big deal to take the husband's name."

Women who choose to hold fast to their biological family's last name after marriage have always been part of a distinct minority, said Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin, one of the few researchers who have looked into the issue.

But these "keepers," whose numbers probably peaked in the 1980s, have been fading away in the past decade, Goldin reported in research published last year.

Based on information gathered from New York Times wedding announcements and other sources, she found that the percentage of women who kept their family names declined from 23 percent in 1990 to 17 percent in 2000.

A 2001 survey by Bride's magazine found that, nationwide, 83 percent of women adopted the surnames of their husbands, while the rest kept their birth names or hyphenated.

In yet another study of Times wedding announcements, Laurie Scheuble, a senior lecturer in sociology at Penn State University, found that 86 percent of women between 1966 and 1996 took the last names of their husbands.

"Apparently couples in the United States have decided that having the same last names identifies them as family," Scheuble said. "If any kind of backlash is happening, it's probably a backlash against divorce. People are saying, `We have the same name. We are an intact family.'"

Until the late 1970s, said Goldin, even highly educated, established women adopted the last names of their husbands when they married. Before that time, prominent women sometimes used their maiden names as middle names, such as Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Hyphenation became popular in the 1980s, but that trend was short-lived, researchers said.

"I think hyphenated names grew out of the generation of women who actually remembered that wives once were considered the property of their husbands, and had a gut reaction to that," Coontz said. "They were looking for ways to deal with it. It was an experiment. But for a lot of people, hyphenation created too many hassles."

Scheuble agreed.

"It's the most difficult naming option," she said. "When you're hyphenated, people often drop one of your names. They get confused. You have to be very persistent in reminding them. It gets tiresome."

In rare cases, couples have chosen to combine their last names. The new mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, melded his surname, Villar, with his wife's maiden name, Raigosa, when they married in 1987.

Women who are more likely to keep their maiden names today include those who marry at a later age, those with advanced degrees and those who are firmly established in their careers and have "made a name for themselves," Goldin said.

"It seems clear that there are places, like university towns, that are most accepting of couples with different last names," she said. "And I'm sure that feminists are more likely to keep their names."

But mostly, American brides have embraced tradition.

Kimberly Watkins, 34, has done so in the past. And she intends to do so again.

Watkins was her first husband's surname, and she said she will be more than happy to surrender it when she gets married a second time, to Joe Bennett, in September in Carmel, Calif.

"There was never any question that I would take his name," said Watkins, who lives in Roseville, Calif. "I'm more of a traditionalist. I believe that when you get married you become one, and changing your name is a powerful symbol of that."

For Tanya Haro, 25, of Auburn, Calif., the decision to cast off her family name was more of a struggle.

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