Tools of the Patriarchy: The Naming Tool

Tools of the Patriarchy is a column on the tools that establish men’s dominance in society, or, in other words, uphold the patriarchy. Whether or not these tools are used intentionally, they contribute to a world in which women are not equal to men.

To kick off Tools of the Patriarchy with a whopper, let’s discuss an instrument so deeply entrenched in our lives it can sometimes be hard to notice: the naming tool.

This long-standing tradition dictates that after marriage, a woman should give up her birth name and take on her husband’s last name. Children also frequently take their father’s last name, carrying the tradition on into the next generation.

In 2018, a study at Portland State University (PSU) found 97 percent of the men in the study kept their name, and 87 percent said that their wife took their last name. The naming tool, despite its incredibly archaic vibe, remains the dominant tradition in U.S. marriages today.

As The Lily, The Washington Post’s women read-and-run newspaper, puts it:

“The predominant naming tradition in the western world—whereby names are passed down from father to son, and women give up their names at marriage—is unquestionably sexist.

We could not agree more.

The History of the Naming Tool

The BBC traces the English history of women taking their husbands’ last names to Norman Conquest of Britain in the 14th century. Under the imported Doctrine of Coverture, “Upon marriage, a woman became her husband’s possession.” Coverture was thereafter brought to the U.S. by English colonists.

Coverture categorized single women as feme soles: women with the right to become property owners and assemble contracts, legally using their own name. However, those rights dissolved when she married and became a feme covert—essentially a dependent individual whose rights mirrored those of a child.

Portrait of an English married couple, circa 1780. A father teaches his son reading, while his wife holds their daughter. (Library of Congress)

Outside of the patriarchal family structure, women were often viewed as non-persons. As a young woman moved from her father’s to her husband’s home, there was very little time for her to ever actually be a feme sole; she was the property of her father, and then, upon marriage, she would become the property of her husband. Taking his name would serve as evidence of this change.

The Naming Tool in Modern Law

In addition to the historic role of naming, modern legislation plays a major role in perpetuating the sexist standard.

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In “What’s in a Name?,” an installment of the Atlantic’s “The Conversation” series, one New Mexico reader noted the legal fee after a divorce for a woman to change her name back to her birth name—and yet, no such fee exists when changing her name to her husband’s upon marriage. Additionally, upon attempting to change their name back to their birth name during or after a divorce, many women face financial complications with shared bank accounts, investments, bills and more.

Laws like this are created to favor men in the case of divorce and to solidify a legal and societal assumption that women should change their names upon marriage, but men should not.

LGBTQ+ Complications for the Naming Tool

Name-changing is especially complicated for same-sex couples. Most obviously, these couples do not have the “fallback” of women taking their husbands’ names. The reality of same-sex marriage challenges the idea that a male spouse’s name should survive into a relationship—while a woman’s should not.

For non-straight couples, naming decisions often hold significance beyond sexism as well. Shared names can act as a crucial and necessary unifier for families, offering a sense of authority in a society riddled with homophobia, in addition to legal protection in certain situations.

On May 13, 2013, thousands of people gathered at the Minnesota Capitol building during the Minnesota Senate debate on a same-sex marriage bill. (Fibonacci Blue / Flickr)

Even still—as Luke Boso, associate professor at Savannah Law School, explains—many in same-sex marriages choose not to change their names in order to maintain an egalitarian relationship.

“A lot of [lesbian, gay and bisexual] couples reject the idea of changing their names because of the sense that the name-changing practice has roots in a gendered, sexist marriage institution in which women literally became their husband’s legal property and lose their identity under the law,” Boso says.

Boso makes an important point: Same-sex marriage in itself is an important factor in shifting the concept of marriage away from “ownership” and towards “partnership”—specifically, partnership built on the idea that both parties in the marriage are separate and independent individuals.

As individuals in the LGBTQ+ community challenge the naming tool, they also challenge one of the most patriarchal aspects of marriage itself.

What’s the Alternative?

The foundations of this patriarchal tradition remain powerful to this day, and many couples feel trapped in it; family, friends and even courts often assume that a woman will take her husband’s name upon marriage, and for many, following that tradition is the simplest and easiest answer to the naming question.

Couples unsatisfied with that reality have found many alternatives to the custom—including changing nobody’s name, a husband taking his wife’s name, hyphenating last names, combining last names or even picking an entirely new name for the family.

In the aforementioned PSU study, of the 3 percent of men who changed their last names, most took their wife’s name. Of the 97 percent who did not, 4 percent of those said that their wife hyphenated her last name (the husband did not change his name at all), and 6 percent said that neither of them changed their names.

While options appeal to different couples for different reasons, men taking their wives’ last names remains controversial. When actor Zoe Saldana’s husband, Marco Perego, took her last name, many were floored.

“Why is it so surprising, shocking, eventful that a man would take his wife’s surname?” she asked on her Facebook page. “Men, you will not cease to exist by taking your partner’s surname. On the contrary—you will be remembered as a man who stood by change.”  

In a patriarchal society, men changing their names is often seen as losing dominance in the relationship. As Saldana said of the choice in an interview to InStyle:

“I told him, ‘If you use my name, you’re going to be emasculated by your community of artists, by your Latin community of men, by the world.'”

She notes an unfortunate truth: For many men, name indicates the survival of legacy, career, lineage and status. Men (seemingly) giving up those things to take their wife’s name creates a uncomfortable situation for those too comfortable with the patriarchy.

The Naming Solution?

For couples striving to remove themselves from a patriarchal institution, naming is complicated—regardless of sexuality or beliefs. There is rarely one answer to the naming question that serves all parties perfectly—but the point isn’t to achieve perfection. The point is to strive for something beyond plain old sexism.

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of marriage and family history at Evergreen State College, spoke to the The Atlantic about naming in the 12th century—whereby the spouse with the higher status would often have their name prioritized in the ever-hierarchical society of upper-class Britain, even if that spouse was a woman.

Says Coontz, “Men dreamed of marrying a princess. It wasn’t just women dreaming of marrying a prince.”

Unusual as it may seem, perhaps moving back in time should be how we deal with the naming tool today, at least in this respect. After all, shouldn’t everyone aspire to be as proud of their spouse’s name as if they were royalty?

About and

Audrey Gibbs is a junior at Sewanee: The University of the South, majoring in English with minors in Shakespeare studies and politics. She hopes to continue her education through law or journalism school. In her free time, she is a singer/songwriter and an actress.
Gavi Klein is a senior at Brandeis University majoring in American studies with minors in Italian studies and journalism. She is a contributor at Ms.