But people often discuss this (potentially feminist) issue using the term “maiden name” to define a pre-married state. It’s well-known that the word “maiden” refers to an unmarried virgin, but when it comes to surnames, the second part of the definition seems to be forgotten. And yet, the underlying social constructs remain.
As Anne Thériault points out on her blog, The Belle Jar, the term “maiden name” is
based on several outdated assumptions, [such as] the idea that a woman is not an autonomous person but rather a thing [that] belongs to a man, and her last name signifies which man she belongs to; until she marries, she belongs to her father, and then after she marries, she belongs to her husband. Referring to a last name as a 'maiden name' reinforces the idea that it's a transitory type of name — not a woman's real last name, but rather just the name she keeps until she finally fulfills her lady-destiny and lands a man.
What’s bothersome about this line of thought, as true as it might be, is the idea that women have always been treated as inferior beings, up until modern times, when things began changing. But patriarchy isn’t something that happened overnight. Nor is it something that happened in parallel in every culture. It has developed at varying rates and to different extents throughout history and around the globe.
Even the idea that a woman must remain a virgin until marriage is based on property rights. Men passing property along to children wanted to ensure the children were their own, and before there was DNA testing, the only way for a man to ascertain the parentage of his wife’s children was to guard her sexual activities. It was a father’s role to protect his daughter’s chastity until she was married. A father may not have had much reason to care for what happened to his daughter’s husband’s property, but he certainly cared about the property that would be involved in her marriage contract, and so men were all equally interested in preserving women’s “virtue.”
Part of the obstacle to achieving equality today is believing that there was none in the past. It would be beneficial to reframe our thinking and admit that patriarchy isn’t something that’s always existed, but rather, something that was tried and didn’t work.
Especially when sexist attitudes are promoted in the name of tradition, it would be useful to remember that tradition was started at some point, and therefore it can end, too.
And yet, there’s no reason a woman should have to take her husband’s name for the family to be unified — other than tradition. A man can just as easily take his wife’s name, or both team members can take a new surname which they choose together.
But even the term “birth name” implies that the name with which one is born is not meant to be permanent. For women, this does nothing that really improves the situation, and with so many people linking their name to their identity these days, particularly men (for now), it’s not necessarily a better expression.
Thériault wonders, “Why is it anybody’s business whether a woman changed her name when she married? Why do people care?”
These questions hit the nail on the head pretty hard. Current name categories allow for instant judgment based on archaic patriarchal ideas. People ask about names so they can formulate an instant opinion and make assumptions — with permission.
But people also ask about names so they can identify relationships. Do they know any of the same people, or perhaps have any common relatives? This type of questioning doesn’t particularly seem harmful. We’re social beings, and it’s natural to want to understand our connections to others.
Perhaps the best solution would be to stick to the term “surname” and forget all other naming conventions. If someone changes their name, they can qualify the term by specifying whether they’re talking about their “first surname” or “second surname” or so on, if they so choose. Why specify your name type if you don’t want to?