As the dust begins to settle around the whirlwind of wedding planning, a new journey begins to unfold. Together, and with time, you and your spouse will grow into your identity as a married couple. In the midst of this exciting season, there is a vital decision to confirm your new family’s identity in choosing your last name.
When it’s time to fill in that blank on the legal documents, couples generally have the option to take either the bride or the groom’s last name, hyphenate both last names, or create a new name. Although the decision surrounding a married couple’s last name is morally neutral, many women are convicted in their beliefs on a wide spectrum between keeping her maiden name and taking his. If you are curious why a woman would willingly abandon her own family name or if you desire to articulate the reasons why you did, understanding the physical and spiritual nature of men and women may help.
The history of a bride taking her groom’s last name is rooted in English common law. The practice for creating a thread of surname lineage was centered around establishing both a legality of marriage and set boundaries for couples in regards to acquiring property or business. These standards were eventually adopted in practice in the United States. With the onset of “family names” passed from a father to his newborn child or from a groom to his bride, additional laws, norms, traditions, and opinions began to take root throughout growing cultures both nationwide and worldwide.
Of course, from a legalistic point of view, an immediate perspective assumes that the man claims dominance over the woman when she officially takes his last name. This misguided belief has been the origin of women’s oppression, including, for example, a woman’s right to vote. Because we are a world of imperfect humans, a tradition with the potential to celebrate the gift of marriage and family has been twisted into oppression and abuse.
As a reaction to oppression or because of shifts in the secular definition of marriage, women identify several reasons to keep her maiden name, such as convenience, preference, personal identity or equality of power. Other times, academic careers or professional publications are the cause for a woman to maintain her identity through her last name.
Regardless of the history of societal wedding traditions or the secular, modern approaches to marriage, our legal actions cannot be separated from our spiritual being. Because a human being is body and soul, our physical actions and decisions—including changing our name—proclaim what we understand to be true about being a human.
Therefore, when a woman accepts the last name of her new spouse, she emphasizes the dignity of her femininity as she reveals the legal, physical, emotional and spiritual union with her beloved.
This statement may sound like a surprising contrast to the general “feminist movement.” Many feminists through decades past—and present—would argue that a woman should keep her maiden name in order to claim equal rights, stand up for herself, and maintain her independence. But if we carefully define “what is feminine,” we will find empowering support for woman to fulfill part of her femininity by receiving her husband’s last name.
To understand what it means to be woman through a Christian anthropology, we go to the story when woman was created: in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. “So the Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The Lord God then built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman.”
Eve received life, physically and spiritually, by the rib of Adam and the hand of God. With her first breath, Adam received her as a gift to fulfill his desire for union with another. We hear Adam’s joyful relief when he says, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” And as he accepted her, Eve simultaneously received man as a gift for her own fulfillment of self-knowledge. Saint Pope John Paul II explains, ”The exchange is mutual. In it, the reciprocal effects of the sincere gift and of the finding oneself again are revealed and grow.” This cycle of giving of self and receiving the other between man and woman is the epitome of holy, joyful, spousal union as God intended.
Scripture shows us woman’s initial receptivity to life and the love that followed. Although both man and woman are called to give and receive in acts of love, our bodies help define receptivity as a naturally feminine quality. Consider the intimacy of the wedding night and the bride’s physical receptivity of the groom. Or at the moment of conception as the woman receives a child in her womb.
This is not a gender stereotype, but a celebration of what it means to be woman and how we are called to love man: by receiving every part of him as a cherished gift.
Yes, when a wife takes the last name of her husband, she surrenders her maiden name and, perhaps, part of her identity which was secured in that name. The emotional struggle of letting go of a maiden name emphasizes the reality that a name has value to a person’s identity.
For a husband to offer a meaningful gift of his identity—his name—is a beautiful and masculine act of love. When a woman accepts his last name, she is not practicing an outdated, man-driven tradition; she fulfills her femininity in a selfless act of receptive love. In the way only a woman can.