Why Are We So Obsessed With Women’s Last Names?

What is in a name? A whole hell of a lot, especially when it comes to deciding whether to keep your maiden name after marriage. For many women, changing their last name is symbolic of their change from an individual to partner. In fact, the wedding site, The Knot found that 86% of the almost 19,000 women who were married in 2010 took their husband’s last name. This is a significant increase from the 1990s, when only 77% of women did.

Historians credit Lucy Stone, a contemporary of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and a revolutionary suffragist and abolitionist, as the first woman to refuse to take her husband’s last name. In protest of the law that made women property in the 1800s, Stone and her husband protested the issue in a written declaration, inspiring Stone’s own daughter and feminists from the 1920s to the present.

160 years later, and female identity and politics are still inexplicably tied. Amal Clooney, neé Alamuddin made news and almost broke the Internet last October when her law firm noted her name change on their website. However Clooney is just one example from a long list of women who embrace their partner’s last name. More recently, Justine Thornton, British environmental barrister and wife of Labour leader Ed Miliband made the news when she was referred to as Mrs. Miliband during an interview with the BBC on March 10, 2015. The Labour Party then clarified that Justine was to be referred to as Mrs. Miliband in her political life. Miliband is not the first woman to utilize two different names to differentiate between two identities. Hillary Rodham Clinton has used three variations of her name throughout her career; Hillary Rodham, Hilary Clinton, and Hilary Rodham Clinton and each time she changes the American public loses their minds.

So why all the hoopla?

In the cases of Rodham Clinton and Thornton (Miliband), political currency appears to be the best explanation. The Clintons realized just how important appearances are when Clinton lost the 1980 Arkansas gubernatorial race to Republican Frank White. The New York Times notes that by 1979 Bill Clinton was too liberal for Arkansas, and his wife’s decision to retain her maiden name in both professional and political life was just too much for the public to handle. In comparison, White seized the opportunity to remind the public of this by always referring to his wife as Mrs. Frank White.

When Clinton announced his decision to run for governor again in 1982, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Clinton were present. While she has never legally changed her name, 1982 marks the last appearance of Hillary Rodham  in the political arena. Politically, especially for 1980s Arkansas, Hillary’s adoption of Clinton’s name solved two problems; it proved the couple was a united front, and it soothed patriarchal dickheads. Hillary Rodham was an independent and extremely successful lawyer, a threat not only to her male peers, but also to her husband’s career. “Mrs. Clinton” was Bill’s well-spoken, supportive, and unemployed wife during his presidential campaign.

However, Rodham Clinton is not a victim, she has continually made the conscious decision to utilize her husband’s last name. The name Clinton has weight around the world; it is a name easily recognized at home and abroad. As Mrs. Clinton, she helped lessen the blowback of the Jones and Lewinsky scandals by “standing by her man.” Later Mrs. Clinton became the first First Lady to hold political office. Then in 2007, Mrs. Rodham Clinton ran a strong race in democratic primaries, and was later appointed as Secretary of State. All in all the exchange has worked out well for both Clintons.

Borrowing a page from the Clinton book on political bad-assery and world domination, Justine Thornton has publicly taken her husband’s last name. Thornton’s husband, Ed Miliband is the Leader of the Labour Party, the U.K.’s left leaning political party and the most likely to unseat the Tories in this year’s election, a win that would land Miliband at 10 Downing Street. Thornton, like Clinton, is a well-respected attorney and until recently was referred to as Ms. Thornton regardless of what she was doing. The biggest difference between Rodham Clinton and Thornton is that not only has Ms. Thornton been a successful environmental lawyer longer than she has been married to her husband (technically, they have been together about a bazillion years, but only got married in 2011), she continues to work while he campaigns.

In politics and professional life, a name is not only a part of an individual’s self identity, it is part of their brand, and often the currency used to get what they want. For Clinton, her status as First Lady and her access to the White House  gave her the legitimacy she needed to run for Senate, and later made her an appropriate candidate for Secretary of State. In Thornton’s case, the move allows Thornton to keep blowback from her husband’s political decisions from affecting her professional work. At least for Rodham Clinton and Thornton, there appears to be public acceptance and respect for their professional positions.

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There are definite consequences to adopting your husband’s last name. Amal Alamuddin is an intelligent, dedicated, and passionate human rights attorney, but no one knew who she was until she married George Clooney. Less than six months later, all you have to do is type her first name into Google and you can read ten articles about her style, but nothing about her work. Hillary Rodham Clinton is inexplicably tied to Bill now; for better or worse, especially as people compare their leadership styles and political ideology. Despite Thornton’s best efforts to separate her professional life from her political role in the Labour party, most of the newspapers simply refer to her as “Miliband’s wife.” However all three women chose to adopt their husband’s identity as part of their own, and as all are extremely intelligent women, they made that decision consciously and with a full understanding of the ramifications of that choice. Choosing to change your name, any part of your name, makes a statement, and arguably in some cases it is a political statement. But feminism is all about a woman’s right to choose, and so if a woman makes the decision to embrace her husband’s last name as part of her identity we should celebrate that she has the choice and made the right one for her.


So tell us, will you be keeping your maiden name? Or will do something else entirely?


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