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Margin Notes

What’s in a name?

If you’re a woman academic and got married, would you (did you) change your name?


It’s one of the more personal decisions a woman has to make: will she change her name if she marries? The decision could be particularly fraught for women academics if they have started to establish their careers by publishing peer-reviewed articles, delivering conference papers and essentially making a “name” for themselves.

Of course, the same dilemma faces potentially any woman professional. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that research has found that more highly educated women are less likely to give up their maiden names. A recent Wall Street Journal blog, citing a 35-year-study published in 2009 in the journal Social Behavior and Personality, reported that “well-educated women in high-earning occupations are significantly more likely to keep their maiden names …. Brides in professional fields such as medicine, the arts or entertainment are the most likely of all to do so.”

Age also makes a difference. According to a 2010 study in a scholarly journal entitled Names: A Journal of Onomastics, women who married when they were 35 to 39 years old were 6.4 times more likely to keep their names than women who married between the ages of 20 and 24.

However, a study from 2004 in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found that fewer university-educated women are opting to keep their names when they marry. The survey found that “name retention” greatly increased from about 1975 and peaked at about 23 percent in 1990. However, name retention gradually decreased to about 17 percent in 2000. That certainly seems to fit with my own impressions. When acquaintances in my age cohort began to get married in the late 1980s, it seemed rather common for the women to keep their names. But now it seems fairly rare.

While l couldn’t find verified up-to-date statistics for Canada, according to “name-change” expert Jo- Anne Stayner, cited here, 82 percent of Canadian women change their name after marriage. A further eight percent hyphenate the two last names; three percent move their maiden name to their middle name and take their partner’s last name; and just seven percent choose not to change their name at all, says Mrs. Stayner, founder of a website called “I’m a Mrs.”

Then there’s the situation in Quebec, where women by law keep their names when they marry.

Personally, I find it hard to understand why a woman would change her name after marriage. I would have been uneasy to have my wife take my family name, but she (a Québécoise) had no intention of doing so, so there was no issue.

However, there is the issue, for couples with different last names, of what name to give the children. In our case, we decided if the first child were a girl, all the children would have my wife’s last name, and if the first child were a boy, they would all have my last name. We have two boys.

Now, if you really don’t like your last name, I can see why you might want to change it. In high school, I knew someone whose family name was Rimrott, which is a perfectly fine name, but she later told me she couldn’t wait to change it once she married and did so. On the opposite side, I know someone who said he got teased as a child because of his last name (Poisson, French for fish), so he and his wife gave their two children her last name.

Some have suggested that when the children have a different name from one of the parents, it could get confusing, but I find that argument weak. With so many “reconstituted” families nowadays, there can be a mishmash of names, and everybody seems to make do.

Others have lamented that the small number of women keeping their names shows a failure of feminism. That is countered by others who say that feminism means a women has a choice, so if they choose to change their name, they shouldn’t be judged for doing so.

True, I suppose. But I still can’t help but see it as buying into the patriarchal tradition. Men, after all, are never forced into the situation where they must decide whether they should change their name.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. ReadyWriting / July 7, 2011 at 13:35

    The University of Venus had a post examining the question:

    I think it is particularly fraught in higher education because being a “wife” can be seen as a professional liability. (

    I’ve chosen to add my husband’s last name without dropping my maiden name. It’s confusing, but it’s what we wanted. Our kids have both last names, too. So, really, my husband is the odd one out!

  2. JoVE / July 7, 2011 at 16:10

    What is also instructive is that men are often insulted when asked to even consider changing their names. I know men who have done so, including couples who have both changed their name to a jointly chosen family name, but the reaction to the idea says a lot about the patriarchal nature of the practice.

    I wonder how common it is for women to continue to use their birth name professionally but use their husband’s name in their personal lives. I worked with someone who did that (her pay slip had her legal name, which was her married name, although her door plate and publications were in her birth name).

    Also, there is some difference in practice in Québec where one might not use one’s legal name in your daily life, reserving it for official forms.

  3. Noel Semple / July 8, 2011 at 16:39

    Sonia Lawrence (@OsgoodeIFLS) tweeted an interesting point about this —

    “@NoelSemple keeping “your” name doesn’t fix patriarchy problem…. Another possibility: they give in to whining. Still: astonishing!”

    I think the quotation marks around the word “your” signify that a woman’s birth name is usually her father’s surname, so it might also be a token of patriarchy.

  4. Maris / July 11, 2011 at 14:32

    I agree that this is fascinating. I am equally skeptical about the idea that women changing their last names do so because feminism has granted them the power to choose in that situation, rather than because they feel some sort of pressure (from their family, their husband, his family, their friends, or society at large). These women might argue that they do not feel pressure, but any time such a large percentage of one society make the same choice, it certainly suggests there is some sort of societal guidance at play. I think that the fact that so very few men are changing their last names to that of their wife, or hyphenating their last name as many women seem to be doing right now (I know two recently married women who have taken that route) shows that this is not really about making a choice from an infinite variety of potential names. If there is choice, there should be an equal amount of choice for both men and women when it comes to name changing. Feminism is supposed to be about equality after all, not simply about giving women the choice to opt out of patriarchal traditions.
    For some women, children of the generation of non-name changers in particular, their last name is not their fathers. I have a hyphenated last name, a combination of my parents’ last names, and I certainly think of this as “mine”, but not my parents’. However, while the hyphenation route prevents a woman’s name from belonging to her father, it also becomes troublesome as new generations of children come along. I am still trying to figure out how I will combine my name with that of my partner should any children come our way.

  5. Samantha / July 11, 2011 at 21:21

    I am a Torontonian and lived in Quebec for many years. I kept my maiden name and would have done so even if I was not required to in Quebec. What bothers me is that in Quebec, women are not given the choice. They say that this is respecting women’s rights. My girlfriend moved to Quebec from the U.S. where she had assumed her husband’s name for the last 35 years. Although she had changed her name, Quebec would not respect that. In fact, her ob/gyn would comment in a snarky way “here is the American who likes to use her husband’s name.” Is that what the women’s movement has fought so hard to accomplish?