When Carmine Vitullo married Joseph McGarry in 2011, she decided to keep her last name.
The reason, she said, was practical.
“I got married at a little later stage in my life, and my husband and I had both established identities in the community with our current last names,” said Vitullo, 65, former owner of Vitullo Travel Agency in Canonsburg.
Today, the number of women holding onto their maiden names is rising. According to a Google consumer survey, about 20 percent of brides keep their maiden names. Another 10 percent opt to hyphenate their name, change it legally but still use their birth name professionally.
According to the Google survey, about 17 percent of women who married for the first time in the 1970s kept their names, but that number fell in the 1980s to 14 percent, and then climbed again in the 1990s to 18 percent.
So, where did the custom of women taking their husbands’ last names come from, anyway?
In America, the tradition stems from the now-extinct English law of coverture, explained Dr. Marta McClintock-Comeaux, director of women’s studies and associate professor of history in the Department of History, Politics, Society and Law at California University of Pennsylvania. Under coverture, women were considered the legal property of men. Ownership of a woman was transferred from her father to her husband after marriage, and her last name was changed from her father’s to her husband’s.
In 1856, along came Lucy Stone, a suffragette from Massachusetts, who became the first American woman to legally retain her last name after marriage (for several decades, women who kept their maiden names were called “Lucy Stoners”).
Many of the women who kept their names in the 1970s did so as part of the women’s rights movement – consider that before the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed in 1974, banks often denied women credit cards or asked for their husbands’ signatures – but the motivations for women to retain their maiden names varies today.
“I think every person’s story is unique and important regarding what led her to keep her last name,” said McClintock-Comeaux, noting research that shows more women are choosing to get an education, establish a career and marry later. “For others, it may be a more personal decision, grounded in taking pride in who they are and their family histories.”
McClintock-Comeaux and her husband, Patrick, both chose to hyphenate their names, and their four children use both of their parents’ last names.
“My husband and I both went into our marriage really wanting to be partners. We wanted as much of an equal partnership as we could have, and symbolically, for us and our kids, it was really important for our last name to be a marker of equality,” said McClintock-Comeaux.
For Lori Van Kirk Schue, the decision to change her name when she got married in 1977 wasn’t easy.
“It was an extremely difficult decision for me. I really struggled with the whole thing,” said Van Kirk Schue, an art teacher at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., who changed her name legally to her husband’s after she got married, but uses her maiden name – Van Kirk – professionally. “I had this very Dutch last name and it was unique, and as an artist you have a certain ego and think your name is your identity, and I just didn’t want to give it up. I use Schue for paperwork, legal documents and social media, but I have taken a stand that for any artwork or anything that comes from my soul, I use Van Kirk.”
Studies also show there is a perception that women who keep their maiden names are not as committed to the relationship, and Van Kirk Schue said she felt pressure from her family to change her name because “you don’t want people to think you don’t love him.”
At their June 11, 2011, wedding, Jeff and Hilary Miller-Tomaino, both 32, of Canonsburg, were announced using both their last names.
“The simplest explanation is that my husband and I are both our own people, and we were both the ones getting married, so it didn’t seem to make sense to us to have one of us change our names and not the other,” said Hilary Miller-Tomaino.
Before their nuptials, the Miller-Tomainos held several discussions about whether women should take their husbands’ names, and delved into topics as varied as the prefix “Mrs.”
“I don’t use the title,” said Hilary. “I’ll use it if we come up with something that denotes my husband’s marital status.”
Jeff Miller-Tomaino said the decision to hyphenate his name “came down to a matter of respect.”
“It was a sign of respect for her as a person, a sign that we stand together as a unified partnership,” said Jeff. “It also was a sign of respect for her family. Her family made me feel very welcome, and I felt it was important to have that connection with her family, as well.”
While the trend is shifting, the tradition for women to choose their husband’s surname after they get married still prevails, for many reasons: some say they like the tradition, others believe it will be more convenient when they have children.
For Hillary Miller-Tomaino, it’s important for women to consider why they choose to keep or change their names after they marry.
“We need to look at (changing names) as more than just a tradition we accept blindly. We need to think of the options and the meaning behind them,” she said. “As long as we’re having the conversation, that’s the important thing.”