Rebecca Raab is getting married in July, and so faces a decision:
Should she take her husband’s name?
Her decision-making process took a detour into my email box recently. Raab, 29, who lives in the Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, is a dear friend of my two daughters. Knowing that I kept my name and have a few decades to report back on, she wanted to ask my advice.
She was pretty certain she wanted to keep her name, she wrote, but she wanted to make sure she understood any possible complexities or consequences.
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How had I made my decision? Had it caused any hurt feelings? How had it played out? Did I have any regrets?
I was honored to be asked. But I had a question of my own, I realized as I mulled her e-mail:
What happened to the revolution?
I was so certain, when I got married 31 years ago, that the tradition of a woman adopting her husband’s name would become a relic of a dusty past, a sexist oddity one step removed from the “Mrs. John Smith” references that once erased women’s first names, too.
I was so wrong.
Even back in the name-keeping heyday of the 1970s and ’80s, the majority of women – including some of my most independent-minded, professionally accomplished women friends – were taking their husband’s name.
The proportion of women keeping their names reached a high of 23 percent in the 1990s, according to a 2009 study in the journal Social Behavior and Personality, then leveled off at 18 percent in the 2000s.
In recent years, various surveys have placed the figure at 6 or 10 percent.
My heart was warmed by a 2013 survey of Facebook users in Britain that found the number rising among young women; one third of married women in their 20s had kept their maiden names.
Still, it’s not exactly a revolution.
So what happened?
The social conventions are just too strong, said Laurie Scheuble, senior lecturer in sociology at Pennsylvania State University. She is co-author with Penn State sociologist David Johnson – her husband, whose name she did not take – of a study that showed 82 percent of female college students said they intended to take their husband’s name if they married.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to change very much,” she said.
Claudia Goldin, Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University and co-author of a study that found the number of women keeping their names decreasing, said that young people may see sharing a name as a way to keep their marriages intact.
And compared with the ’80s, she said, “women are less ardently feminist.”
I consulted a few of my young female colleagues. Dana Juhasz Ardell, 29, took her husband’s last name when she got married four years ago.
“It was my choice,” she said, and one she sees as pragmatic: She didn’t want any confusion about their relationship in a situation like a medical emergency.
But she counts herself a feminist. And she kept her distinctive Hungarian last name as her middle name.
Keri Wiginton, 33, a photo editor at the Tribune, kept her name when she got married four years ago and can’t understand why anyone would do otherwise.
“Why would you change your name to somebody else’s? Why does that make you more of a family unit?” she said.
And if the tradition isn’t sexist, “why does it always default to the guy’s name?”
I was ready to march with Keri – but first I had to answer Rebecca.
And as I did, I remembered how my decision came not from my head, but my gut.
I never considered giving up my name, I wrote to her. My name was my identity, my history and my life up to that point – not to mention my byline.
The thought of relinquishing it was unimaginable. Barbara Brotman would cease to exist. It would be like death.
I tried to address her pragmatic questions. No one was offended at my decision, including my husband.
In fact, he enjoys telling people that we combined our names, each of us keeping the first parts of our names but sharing a common last few letters.
His last name is Berman.
I don’t mind if someone calls me by my husband’s name, I wrote to her. I never correct anyone, though he does.
As for naming children, we gave our girls his last name – it was just easier – but we gave our older daughter my last name as her middle name.
This annoyed her when she was young – “What kind of middle name is Brotman?” she would grouse – but now fills her with pride.
And our younger daughter is so peeved that she didn’t get my name, too, that she plans to go to court someday and rectify our error.
When I called Rebecca, she said she thinks she has made up her mind, though she hopes no one will take her decision as criticism for theirs.
“Either choice seems reasonable to me,” she said.
Indeed, to each woman at the altar her own. Nonetheless, I’m still going to be rooting for that revolution.
And I grinned when I saw the e-mail in which Rebecca had illustrated her intention.
She had signed it, “Rebecca RAAB.”