Some see marriage as an eternal fusing of two soulmates. Others, as an excuse to throw a $50,000 bash. And there are those who write it off as an archaic institution. One fact not in doubt: laws and attitudes toward matrimony and its rituals provide a lens into a culture—particularly its attitudes toward women.
That’s why the finding in our 2017 Canada Project survey that more than half of Canadian Millennials and Gen Xers believe a married couple should share the same name (while fewer than half of Boomers do) warrants discussion, particularly when twinned with another result: when asked whether that name should be “the woman’s or the man’s” (a wording that leaves out gay marriage), nearly all (99 per cent) said it should be the husband’s. What that shows is not only a generation gap but also a return to tradition at a time when more than one in three women earns more than her husband.
Age and generation appear to shape thinking: 74 per cent of people born before 1946 agreed a couple should share a name. Only 44 per cent of Boomers did, which seems high. People born post-1946 had a front-row seat for seismic changes in marriage laws driven by the ’60s women’s movement. Until then, a woman’s identity was legally subsumed in her husband’s: she couldn’t take a loan out without his okay; marital rape didn’t exist. As record numbers of women entered the workforce in the ’70s, keeping one’s name after marriage signalled new-found independence. It was a political statement, dating to abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone making history in 1855 as the first American woman to refuse to take her husband’s name. The motto of the Lucy Stone League, founded in 1921: “A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost.”
Since then, trends in marital naming have responded to the political climate. The New York Times’ Upshot blog, which tracks the marriage reports on its “Vows” page (an affluent crowd), reports that 30 per cent of women keep their birth name—20 per cent outright, 10 per cent hyphenating. In the ’70s, 17 per cent did; in the ’80s, that declined to 14 per cent amid a more conservative political climate. It rose again to 18 percent in the 1990s and has climbed since.
The fact that more than half of the youngest respondents (53 per cent of Gen Xers and 55 per cent of Millennials) now endorse a couple sharing a name is open to interpretation. Two generations on, the name-change issue is not as politically charged; legal victories are taken for granted. Powerful feminists—from Beyoncé (who also goes by Mrs. Carter) to Michelle Obama—changed their names, indicating that doing so doesn’t mean capitulating to the “patriarchy.”
Yet a look at the political stage shows old-school attitudes. Ph.D. theses could be written on Hillary Clinton’s see-saw name. She kept her birth name after marrying Bill Clinton in 1975 and was blamed for his losing his first bid to be governor of Arkansas (he won the second time, after she took his name). Closer to home, Sophie Grégoire went by her birth name for almost a decade after marriage before morphing into Sophie Grégoire Trudeau or Sophie Trudeau after her husband became PM.
In that case it’s family branding. But sharing the same name can indicate desire for anchorage at a time when almost one in four first marriages in Canada ends in divorce. Falling marriage rates and rising cohabitation rates could mean those who do marry hold more traditional values.
Yet vestiges of archaic thinking are evident in the culture. We still speak of a woman’s “maiden” name, not her “birth” name. Keeping one’s name is treated as transgressive, as made evident by a Wikihow.com thread: “How to tell people you’re keeping your maiden name: eight steps.” It’s even something governments are meddling in: in 2015, Japan’s highest court upheld a law requiring married couples to share a last name. (It doesn’t specify which partner must give up his or her name, though it’s almost always the wife.)
The rare man who takes his wife’s name is seen as a social oddity, even a target of ridicule. Actress Zoe Saldana made headlines in 2013 when her new husband, Italian-born artist Marco Perego, took her name. She told InStyle magazine she 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.” He didn’t care. Poll numbers indicate most Canadians do. We should ask ourselves why.