Is Keeping Your Maiden Name Still a Feminist Act?


When my aunts and older cousins got married in the 1970s and 1980s, the question “are you going to keep your name?” was always asked of the bride-to-be. Some relatives went traditional, some went for hyphenization of their name plus their spouse’s, some took the plunge and kept their names. Maybe being taught by former hippies and civil rights and women’s rights activists in Oakland Public Schools had something to do with it: At some early moment, I decided I wasn’t going to change my last name.

When I got married in 1995, my husband did not (and still doesn’t) have strong feelings about the issue. My late mother-in-law did keep asking me for a couple years if I would change my name, when I might and why had I decided not to?

It can be a bit annoying to have to keep explaining that “my son is Charlie Fisher and I’m his mom, Kristina Chew — yes, we have different last names.” The fact that Charlie looks exactly like me (except that he’s about ten inches taller) has meant a brief explanation suffices at the most. At work I’m “Dr. Chew” — I’m a professor, but at Catholic colleges, it’s common to be addressed as “Dr.” rather than “Professor” (which I’d prefer but you can only buck so many conventions). My students are still often surprised if they meet my (very blond, Irish-American) husband and have said, “Oh, your husband’s not Chinese” — they’ve assumed he is and that his last name is Chew. Once they get that figured out the next question comes: “You kept your own name?” (with a whiff of, “you’re actually MARRIED, right, even if you have a different last name than your husband?”).

Old habits do die hard.

The decision of Zara Phillips, the British royal who was married last Saturday to rugby player Mark Tinsdall, to keep her maiden name is sparking quite a bit of uproar and brought an old issue back to the fore. As the Guardian notes about an ongoing discussion:

Read some of the comments about the decision and it all seems of a piece with her “rebel” nature (she once had her tongue pierced!) and the egalitarian nature of her parents (her mother refused to add HRH to her children’s titles at birth!). Traditionalists need not fear, however. In a largely positive article, the Mirror felt the need to declare:“When Zara Anne Elizabeth Phillips MBE walks down the aisle after tying the knot in Edinburgh today she will be plain Mrs Mike Tindall housewife, horsewoman and homebody.”

The Guardian cites a 2004 Harvard study which found that “approximately 87% of married, college-educated women took their husband’s name — down from a peak before 1975 of over 90% but up from about 80% in 1990.”

Glad to know that, even as I’ve passed the 4-0 mark and am the mother of a teenager, I’m still not only a “rebel” for remaining a Chew. I’m also being — I am proud to say — a good old-fashioned feminist. But is the response to Zara Phillips’ decision to remain Zara Phillips a sad commentary on where women are now?

Photo of Zara Phillips at the Chatsworth International Horse Trials 2008 by smudge9000


Victoria Gewe
Victoria M4 years ago

I just got married, and my husband and I are hyphenating both our last names together. I like that better, since it recognizes that we both bring our family heritage to our marriage. So we are now Mejia-Gewe, using his name first and mine second. I'm thrilled to have a husband who wants to join with me in adding my name to his own!

Chrissie H.
Chrissie H5 years ago

Why the big deal about feminism and changing surname? Its a personal preference and if a woman chooses to keep her own name so be it. I was happy to change to my husbands name and never regretted it,I am the same person I always was.

Diana Hudspeth
Diana Hudspeth5 years ago

The women in China need to rebel..then over a period of time things will change. They all could look for outside ethnic groups to marry sending a serious message. Right?

Lisa H.
Lisa H5 years ago

If people want to share a last name, that is fine although impractical, but I
find the idea that it needs to be the husband's name rather disgusting---a
throw back to when women were considered the property of their husbands,
when they were expected to reduce their own identities in order to further
their husbands, and when women had few accomplishments outside of marriage
where their own name was important.

Lynn D.
Lynn D5 years ago

If your the last in the line of family names you might want to keep your own but personally I find this not acceptable to me --- a marriage is a partnership and should be shared with the same last name, and as tradition says -- "his". A happy married female with his last name!

Lisa Hastings
Lisa H5 years ago

In looking into my family history, I have always thought it would have been easier if
the women had retained their names. Sometimes their maiden names are lost.

It is so much easier to find people over the years if they keep their names. I can find just about any male I've ever known, but females who married and changed their namescan often not be traced. Fine if you never want anyone in your pre-marriage past to find you...

As far as keeping one's name beng "isolating" and giving it up being "unifying"---I disagree that inorder to be "unified", the woman must give up her identity. I ask the people who suggested it---for the men, if single name unity is so important to you and your marriages,
then please feel free to change your name.

Adrian M.
Adrian McTiernan5 years ago

as a person interested in tracing family trees, it is very helpful to know as in America, that a woman will keep her maiden name as a middle name, and change her surname to that of her husband. To me, that is nothing feminist, just good sense. I would have thought a feminist would be opposed to marriage anyway, so why change her name at all. The most confusing for me is the Chinese system, where family names and personal names predominate, and there is no real consistency in following a family name, and in Sweden and Nordic areas, where a child of Olaf Pederson is likely to be a Peder Olafson, which identifies him being the son of Olaf - of course his first name could be anything, but often pet family first names repeat as they often do - the grandfather's name often being used. I am English, and my parents families are easy to follow, as they all have the same surname, going back on the Father's line, as his wife would usually take his surname. But if she had incorporated her maiden surname too as a middle name, we could find her parent's line so much more easily, as her mid name is her maiden surname, but shows on wedding certificates or census records. Feminism to me makes little sense, but better relations between married couples does. The first isolates the individuals, the second enhances unity between them

Valerie Nelson
Valerie Nelson5 years ago

But your "maiden" name is still (likely) a man's name. I kept my maiden name in my second marriage because the first time around I changed it and it never really felt like a part of me. Now after 30 years into the second I truly wish I'd changed my name. He already had 3 kids from his first marriage and a well-respected career which would have made him changing his name difficult (we discussed this). At the time I thot keeping "my" name was the right thing to do. I can tell you, having 2 names is a nuisance, but after 30 years just too difficult to "fix." We had friends who both hyphenated their names, others who made up a name by morphing their names, and another couple who just both changed their names to the spelling of a letter (like "kay"). You can get creative. The old ways aren't always the best ways.

Suzanne L.
Suzanne L5 years ago

When a woman marries in Quebec, Canada she automatically keeps her 'maiden' name. She has to apply for a legal name change if she wants to take her husband's last name.

Roger M.
Past Member 5 years ago

My wife has never used a married name. And that's fine. I don't expect her too, any more than I would take her name.