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Published: Friday, 7/23/2004

Marital name game's a tradition once taken for granted

IN THE grand scheme of things the issue of whether a woman adopts her husband's surname in marriage doesn't rate a mention. But I mention it anyway after reading a story in the Wall Street Journal about a Harvard University study. It concluded, based on material from a select group of Harvard alumni records, Massachusetts birth records - which note the mother's and father's surnames as well as education levels - and New York Times wedding announcements, that more college-educated, married women are taking their husband's names.

I know, I know. Who cares? Humor me, OK? Using their research, the study's authors extrapolated percentages in the wider population of college-educated women. Their data showed a marked reversal of a three-decade long trend among married women who chose to keep their maiden or surnames and a return to the old nuptial nomenclature among newer brides. Not that it ever really disappeared, mind you.

But back in the 1970s when women began rejecting a lot of traditions they took for granted, a significant number of them chose to keep their own names when they married. Amazingly, the world kept spinning. While it's true a majority of women have always assumed their husband's name when they marry, the study showed the number of brides keeping their own surnames grew steadily from the late 1970s with the practice hitting a plateau in the mid-1980s.

Regrettably, the avant-garde movement of women choosing not to change their names when they got married began losing ground in the 1990s and into the new millennium. Among women undergraduates in the Harvard class of 1980, 44 percent who married were still using their own surnames 10 years later. Among women undergraduates in the Harvard class of 1990, only 32 percent of those who reported being married were using their own names a decade later.

In 2001, researchers estimate that just 18.5 percent of all college-educated women in the U.S. kept their names at marriage. Harvard economic historian Claudia Goldin and former student Maria Shim, who conducted the study, speculate that one of the reasons for the change back to convention is because "a general drift to more conservative social values has made surname-keeping less attractive."

Another possible explanation for more educated women taking their husband's surname is simplicity. A couple with the same last name is a lot easier to explain - especially if kids come along.

I'll buy the latter theory but not the former. As one of those wild-eyed feminists who took the hugely radical step of keeping her name when she married - it never occurred to me NOT to - I can attest to how a slight deviation from the customary can be so darned confusing to some. I'll never forget a particularly perplexed U.S. Customs officer in New York who couldn't understand why my newlywed name didn't match my husband's.

She pulled me out of line for extra scrutiny as we attempted to re-enter the country after our honeymoon. My ever-patient mate had to restrain me from coming to blows with the clueless woman. The incident was a harbinger of irritations to come.

I figured wrongly that 20th century compatriots and certainly 21st century progressives would rarely question why a woman or a man, for that matter, would be naturally inclined to keep the name he or she held long before matrimony was proposed. I figured wrongly that keeping my name was no big deal. Since then - unlike my husband - I've had to explain my decision countless times to everyone from insurance agents to confounded clerks pushing paper forms.

Maybe I was nave. But I still find it remarkable that even family and friends struggle with the concept that a woman - like a man - may not always wish to assume a new identity along with a committed, loving relationship.

One is not incompatible with the other. Yet difference is disturbing to people. Some intimates wondered how they'd properly address correspondence to me after I was married. I told them to use my name. How tough is that?

Can't speak for the women who choose to take their husband's surname or those who don't, but I daresay whatever their choice it has less to do with adhering to one set of social values and more to do with accepting nominal difference or nominal conformity. But honestly, in the big picture it matters not.

So forget I mentioned it.



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