Women's History

What’s in a Surname?

“So are you going to change your name or not?”

If you are a woman who has publicly stated your intention to marry a man in 21st century Britain, you have probably been asked this question (or at the very least a variant of this question) by friends, relatives, or even strangers.

A 2016 survey found that around 90% of women in Britain take their husband’s surname on marriage. But this was not always the case. In the past, surname adoption on marriage was a highly variable and fluid cultural practice rather than a rigid, legally dictated one. In medieval England, many women kept their family names on marriage. In parts of early modern Britain, notably Scotland and Wales, most women kept their family names on marriage, while English women increasingly adopted their husbands’ surnames. Men sometimes even adopted the surnames of their wives, and it wasn’t uncommon for children and grandchildren to assume the surnames of their mothers and grandmothers.

Detail from a woodcut from Samuel Rowlands’s Tis Merry When Gossips Meete, (1656) showing a widow, wife and maid drinking in a tavern. Credit: Early English Books Online.

That a woman took her husband’s name on marriage was a practice that I did not begin to question until my late teens. By the time I reached my twenties, I was labelled “a bit of a mad feminist” by a then boyfriend when I suggested that he could rightly take my name on marriage if he so wished. Others have told me to “think of the children”, insisting that it is only right for children to share a surname with their parents. Putting the interests of fictional children aside, it is a debate that has sparked heated discussion and fruitful debate whenever I’ve raised the topic with family, friends and strangers. (On a separate but related note, I’ve been called worse when suggesting that people should sign prenuptial agreements before ever getting married, but that’s a story for another day.)

The idea that a man and woman – and I’m specifically referring to heterosexual couples here for reasons that will become clear – unite as ‘one’ person in marriage through a shared surname can be traced back to legal and cultural practices in early modern England, most notably through the common law doctrine of coverture.

In a system of coverture, the husband and wife became ‘one’ person, with power and authority vested in the husband alone. Through coverture, the wife lost her right to own or use property without her husband’s consent, and any property she owned prior to marriage became under the ownership and control of her husband, with certain limitations on her inherited property. As well as losing her property rights, the entirety of a woman’s rights, obligations, and very existence were subsumed by those of her husband. According to Sara M. Butler, an English wife ultimately became “Mrs Him” under coverture. During the early modern period, female name changing therefore became closely connected to property rights and legal personhood, such that the person with the property and legal authority – usually the husband – was the holder and creator of the shared family surname.

Yet, before the doctrine of coverture became firmly cemented in legal thought, English women did not always take their husbands’ surnames on marriage. Prior to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, it was quite common for women to keep their family surnames on marriage, and children even sometimes took the surname of their mothers. Surnames such as Margretson (son of Margret) and Madison (son of Maddy, nickname for Maud) are just a few of a great many examples of this type of naming. Medievalists have suggested that following the introduction of new restrictions on the inheritance and property rights of women following the rise of feudalism, it was becoming increasingly common for English women to take their husbands’ surnames on marriage. As English women increasingly lost their property rights on marriage, so too did they lose their family surnames.

Detail of a historiated initial ‘C’ (oniugium) of a priest joining hands of a man and a woman (England, c. 14th century). Credit: British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

As an English common law doctrine, coverture only affected English women and women living in English colonies. As a result, early modern England was the only country in Europe in which married women routinely took their husbands’ surnames. So what of women living elsewhere in Britain? In early modern Scotland, the topic of my own research, women kept their family names on marriage, a practice that remained in Scotland until the early twentieth century. In fact, it was considered unusual for a wife to take her husband’s surname on marriage in early modern Scotland. On certain occasions, Scottish men even adopted the surnames of their wives, especially when entering marriages with heiresses who owned significant amounts of land. Scots law (a legal system distinct from that of English common law) afforded married women with specific property rights that were not afforded to their English counterparts: neither partner to a marriage could dispose of land without the other’s consent and, if a wife predeceased her husband, her customary share of goods reverted to her kin. Scottish women therefore kept their family names upon marriage not as a gesture of independence, but as an indication of their less than complete absorption into the kindred, or ‘surname’, of their husbands.

Detail of a Scottish legal document (1664) where a man called John Spreule appointed his wife Catherine Marshall to be his legal representative while away on business. Scottish women overwhelmingly retained their birth names on marriage until the early twentieth century. Credit: Glasgow City Archives.

Today, diverse communities across Britain maintain different cultural expectations with regards to female name changing on marriage. For instance, it is not part of historical Islamic norms or culture for a wife to take on her husband’s surname. Yet, despite these different views and practices, reference to “tradition” remains strongly embedded in British marriage practices and ceremonies. It remains tradition for a man to ask for a father’s permission to marry his daughter. It remains tradition for a father to walk his daughter down the aisle before ‘giving her away’ to her new husband. It remains tradition for three men – the father of the bride, the groom and the best man – to speak at the wedding reception. It is therefore not entirely surprising that it remains tradition for a woman to assume her husband’s surname on marriage.

While feminists and critics of marriage vocally condemn marriage as a patriarchal institution that overwhelmingly benefits men over women, it seems that many heterosexual couples continue to adopt a traditional outlook when planning their weddings and embarking on married life in 21st century Britain. In the 2016 survey, nearly three-quarters of married women aged 18 to 34 had taken their husband’s surname. Any woman in her twenties and thirties with an Instagram account will be familiar with pictures of old school friends wearing white wedding dresses and throwing bouquets of flowers towards the direction of their bridesmaids. The subtle name change usually appears online after the marriage certificate has been registered after the wedding. Given that the UK divorce rate is estimated at 42%, it is somewhat surprising that so many women continue to assume their husband’s name on the assumption of ‘till death do us part’, rather than ‘till divorce do us part’.

In recent years, magazine editorials, newspaper columns and online forums have discussed the reasons as to why most women in Britain continue to change their surname on marriage. Women themselves have also become increasingly vocal about their decision to change their name on marriage (or not), explaining their personal reasons for doing so, their expectations, and, for some, their regrets. I’ve noticed that female academics regularly ask for advice on social media on whether or not to take their partner’s surname on marriage. Some feminists are against it, arguing that it diminishes women’s academic and professional identities, while others argue that it is entirely up to women if they wish to change their surname on marriage or not. Despite such conversations, it remains the norm for the majority of heterosexual women to assume their husband’s name on marriage today, at least in Britain.

It is a topic that regularly comes up in conversation when I visit family in Ireland. My mother took my father’s surname on marriage in 1987 because she wanted to have the same surname as her future children. My sister, after marrying her long-term male partner in 2019, instead decided to keep her family name. Both decisions were deeply personal and decided on after much reflection. Nonetheless, it was my sister’s decision that raised some eyebrows. When she attempted to register with her new workplace shortly after her marriage, an official asked her why she had recorded her family name in her application, despite indicating that she was a married woman. The official then asked her if she could submit evidence of her subsequent divorce or name change from her husband’s surname back to her family name. For whatever reason, the official did not think that it was possible for my sister to be a married woman who kept her family surname.

While personal preference is, of course, an individual choice, we should remain mindful of the strongly gendered status quo of modern times when accepting certain marriage practices as representing the norm. Even today, it would appear unusual for a woman to ask for a mother’s permission to marry her son, or for a mother to walk her son down the aisle before ‘giving him away’ to his new wife. For many, a man taking his wife’s surname on marriage would be considered altogether radical. While there are no available statistics for the UK, a 2016 study revealed that only 3% of men in the US changed to their wives’ names on marriage.

In early modern Britain, female name changing, as a social and legal practice, was closely connected to property, patriarchy and personhood. The practice of female name changing on marriage did not fully take hold in England until the early modern period, and was primarily practiced in countries that followed English common law and recognised the doctrine of coverture. Female name changing on marriage is therefore a practice that reflects and reinforces a gender hierarchy that only truly began to take hold in parts of Britain over four hundred years ago.

We often assume that women’s rights have developed in a linear fashion, from ‘bad to good’ over time. But principles of coverture appear to have become more restrictive and unyielding over time, rather than less so. Rather than a practice steeped in tradition, female name changing on marriage is a relatively recent phenomenon. Perhaps it is time to look to history for inspiration.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *