A woman who decides to marry a man sets herself up for a lot of time spent thinking and talking about her name. If she decides to change her name, she opts in to a lengthy bureaucratic name-changing process so complex that various “name change kits” have emerged–available for only $29.95!–to help her navigate the transition (a transition that, according to some of my friends, is a massive hassle and never truly complete). If she decides not to change her name, she opts in to a lifetime of explaining to friends, relatives, coworkers, customer service representatives, financial planners, real estate agents, and so forth that her name is not “Mrs. His Name.”
We’re now well past the days when women were legally required to take their husbands’ names to do things like vote and drive. But although nominally women are free to do as they please with their names, their decision–regardless what the decision is–remains fraught. Professor Elizabeth Emens has documented the odd disparity between the legal default (by doing nothing, women keep their names) and the social default (most women do in fact change their names, although studies have shown quite a bit of variation among different demographics).
And the absence of legal mandate has not foreclosed social judgment: one recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Indiana and the University of Utah found that 70% of participants agreed that women should take their husband’s names, with up to half of those participants advocating that the government require women to adopt their husband’s names.
Naming conventions are complex. But perhaps one of the many reasons the naming decision has remained fraught for women is the way that the naming decision is treated not by the law but by the media. Consider the New York Times wedding announcements. Whether one thinks of the announcements as an elitist blight or a harmless tradition, they undoubtedly function to produce social knowledge about matrimony. We may cringe when Carrie Bradshaw refers to them as the “single woman’s sport pages,” but part of the reason we cringe is that her words contain a kernel of truth.
A quick perusal of the Times wedding announcements reveals a clear set of default rules. The default is that the announcement refers to the bride as Mrs. His Name throughout the announcement–for recent examples, see here and here. When the bride keeps her name, however, that information is typically included in the first sentence about her: “The bride, 31, is keeping her name.” Often, the bride is a distinguished professional. In this highly public rendition of her biography, what is the purpose–or the implication–of placing the information about her naming decision front and center? Does that decision overshadow her educational background, her professional accomplishments, and her family relationships? The answer, I think, must be no. But by lavishing attention on a woman’s decision to keep her name, the announcements signal that such a decision is uncommon, peculiar, newsworthy. Meanwhile, of course, the announcements simply refer to the man–who is also keeping his name–as Mr. His Name, without further comment.
The Times is just an example. But it is far from an isolated one. And the disproportionate attention devoted to the description of women’s names reinforces a social default under which women who marry men–all women who marry men–are conscripted into defending their naming decisions in perpetuity.
– Nancy Leong