In June of 1932, Amelia Earhart sent a polite but resolute letter to the New York Times, asking that they please stop referring to her by the wrong name. As the world’s first female aviator and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, Amelia Earhart was famous in her own right. Her sensational professional achievements, and the attention that ensued, made her a living legend, yet to her frustration, the press continually referred to her as Mrs. George Putnam, which would have been her married name had she not broken with tradition. In her letter to the Times and in subsequent public comments on the topic, Amelia Earhart said she loved her husband but felt marriage was an equal partnership, and any career merit should be attributed to the one who attained it. The print media acquiesced and mentioned her as Miss Earhart from then on.
While Amelia Earhart certainly wasn’t the first woman to keep her surname upon marriage, she was one of only a handful to do so until the late 70s, when customs – backed by legal, social, and economic factors – began to change.
Before I got married, I never considered taking a man’s name. Growing up in the post-Steinem era of feminist policy, I was grateful to those who fought for my rights and felt it was my duty to repay them by keeping my name intact. Abdicating the part of me that held my family history in favor of someone else’s seemed an unnatural and unnecessary sacrifice. I had just as much invested in my identity as my husband did in his, and no one expected him to change – so why should I? Looking through the thick scrim of idealism that only the young possess, I could not foresee a situation that would erode my conviction, and for the first few years of married life, when it was just my husband and me, this was true.
By 2001, the year I got married, nearly a third of American women kept their maiden names in either a personal or professional capacity, so, unlike Amelia Earhart, whose defection from convention was newsworthy, my decision followed a well-established path and the obstacles I encountered were minor. They were things like, explaining to my dad why I didn’t need a new driver’s license, telling my grandmother that, no, this didn’t mean I planned on getting a divorce, or writing two distinct names on our tax return – inconveniences, really, that reflected generational expectations more than anything else.
When our daughter came along and it was automatically assumed by every institution in existence that she would bear my husband’s name, my notion of curbing inequality with a surname crumbled like a dead leaf. Amid the frenzy of a new baby, I hadn’t the gumption – or the energy – to counteract the patriarchal tradition. In my sheltered naïveté, where identity was limited to the confines of a husband and wife relationship, I hadn’t given serious thought to what we would name our child, beyond selecting a timelessly traditional yet unique prénom, and certainly hadn’t planned preemptively. Perhaps I was in denial, because deep down I knew that of the three options – my last name, his last name, or ours hyphenated together – the choice was made, eras ago. I could have pushed for our daughter to have my last name, but weighing effort against outcome using the metrics of our ancient paradigm, I chose the path of least resistance and let the system win.
If all this sounds melodramatic, my attachment to a name (which, if we’re being factual, belonged to my father, not mother, and is itself a resounding endorsement of male dominance) I concede. I will go further and admit it’s an argument wrought from those with privilege, already: those with money, education, a position in society. But I maintain that the importance of a name cannot be overstated. Names, like words, shape our impression of the world, and names shape the world’s impression of us.
Since 2001, the number of women keeping their maiden names has risen only slightly, and the focus for attaining equality seems to have shifted to more procedural plights, like maternity leave, equal pay, and healthcare. As a political issue, women see greater impact from their efforts elsewhere, and likely recognize the futility of changing our entire system of familial nomenclature. Unfortunately, to keep your name or take your husband’s will always be either an awkward stay or a sticky transition, but, really, it’s what we do after that, that counts.