His, not Hers: Surnames and Marriage

What do Sims 3 and Nectar card have in common? They both assume that women change their surname when they get married!

The Sims is an electronic simulation game, one of the most popular games with girls: you get to choose and create people, relationships, families, houses, life styles. If your woman Sim character gets married, her surname is automatically changed to that of her husband: you have NO choice to make about that! The assumption here is, this is what women have to do when they get married.

Nectar retail loyalty card ran an advertising campaign to coincide with the recent Royal Wedding, reminding Kate (Middleton) to change her name. Again, it is assumed this is what women have to do.

In fact, around 94% of married women in the UK DO change their surname to that of their husband, whilst 4% use both surnames and just 1% keep their own surname (Valetas 2001).

But the commonplace practice of taking the husband’s surname is NOT a legal requirement under UK law. At marriage, both women and men can officially change their surname to that of their spouse, using their marriage certificate as proof of their entitlement to do so (likewise, gay people who have had a Civil Partnership ceremony can use the certificate to change their surname to that of their civil partner).

Why do so many women (still) change their surnames at marriage to that of their husband? Its tradition, convention, and it’s so widely assumed that games like The Sims take it for granted. Its hard for women to go against such an ingrained norm, despite having rights to gender equality. In a comparative study of US and Russian women, Boxer and Gritsenko (2005) found that women gave a range of reasons for changing their surnames: to show marital union and commitment; to show family connection and solidarity; to signify the beginning of a new stage of life; and as a pragmatic strategy to avoid confusion over disparate surnames within a family unit.

What does it say about the social and political status of women in society? According to Finch (2008: 718), choices made about names ‘carry a wide range of consequences for individual identity and personhood’. Arguably, the ongoing patronymic and patriarchal practice of women changing their surnames at marriage signifies continuing marital hierarchy and gender inequality.

People might say changing your name is a matter of individual choice (for those who realize it’s not actually a legal requirement). But the question for sociologists is, in what ways is that choice a socially structured choice? How are choices about surnames at marriage patterned? How are they accounted for?

Boxer, D. and Gritsenko, E. (2005) ‘Women and Last Names Across Cultures: Reconstituting Identity in Marriage’, Women and Language 28(2): 1-11.
Finch, J. (2008) ‘Naming Names: Kinship, Individuality and Personal Names’, Sociology 42 (4): 709-725.
Valetas, M. (2001) ‘The Surnames of Married Women in the European Union’, Population and Sociétés 367: 1-4.