Let’s Do Away With Maiden Names — We All Have Surnames, Right? — Introduction

These days, it’s fairly common to come across married couples who don’t share the same family name. Modern society generally accepts a woman’s prerogative to choose her last name. Well, considering that anyone can change their name to anything they want at any time, that’s no surprise.

If married women have maiden names, what do single women have?

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based on several outdated assumptions, [such as] the idea that a woman is not an autonomous person but rather a thing [that] belongs to a man, and her last name signifies which man she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.
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In contrast, writes Thériault, “men have always been considered people, and therefore have always been entitled to their last names — unlike women, who traditionally only ever get to borrow a last name from whichever man she has the closest relationship to.”

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.

For example, women enjoyed much more equality in hunting-and-gathering societies. As civilization transitioned to agriculture and concepts of land ownership were developed, patriarchy was established, and slowly, more and more rights were taken away from women as marriage came to be based on property relationships.

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.

When it comes to a woman’s choice of whether to change her surname at marriage, it seems that “tradition” still guides actions. Thériault reports that women often choose to take their husband’s name because “a married couple with the same last name somehow represents a stronger, more unified front than a couple with different last names. Both women and men [say] that it feels more like a family when a husband and wife both have the same last name — it makes them feel like they’re both on the same team.” Some women say they want to have the same last name as their children.

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.

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Likewise, there’s no reason to continue to use the outdated term “maiden name.” Fathers and husbands have zero control over their daughters’ and wives’ virginity, and it’s become completely irrelevant, anyway. As Thériault asks, “if we really need a term to refer to the last name a woman had before she was married, why not ‘birth name?'” Everyone’s got a birth name, and since everyone’s got the right to change their name, it makes the most sense to speak of birth names across the board.

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.

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Besides, if everyone’s got a birth name, and if those who change their names after marriage have a married name, what do those who change their names for other reasons have? Sure, some people use an alias or pen name for business reasons, but what about those who change their name because of a disconnect with their birth name? Do we need to come up with another expression to denote such monikers?

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.

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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?