How American Women Fought to Keep Their Maiden Names After Marriage

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The highest court in Japan upheld a law that requires married couples to share the same last name on Wednesday, the New York Times reports, denying Japanese women a right that’s long been appreciated in America.

In the United States, the number of women who keep their maiden names has risen, though the majority still take their husband’s surname. In June, the Times reported that 30% of women in recent years have kept their maiden names in some way. Around 20% of women keep their last name in full and 10% do something a bit different, like hyphenate their two names.

While it wasn’t necessarily illegal in the past for women to keep their maiden name in the U.S., many women ran into legal issues when they did, with employers refusing to comply or women not being allowed to use their maiden name when they voted. In the 1850s.

Lucy Stone, a suffragette in Massachusetts spurred the start of the movement for women to retain their birth names when in 1855 she married and refused to use her husband’s name. In doing so, she was denied the right to vote in an 1879 Massachusetts school board election, according to a Marquette Law Review.

Another notable figure in the fight to keep maiden names was Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. In 1913, Perkins married Paul Caldwell Wilson, and chose to keep her maiden name for career reasons. In The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, author Kirstin Downey writes that the move spurred resentment from social conservatives, and it became a public news story.

“I suppose I had been somewhat touched by feminist ideas and that one of the reasons that I kept my maiden name,” Perkins once said in an interview. “My whole generation was, I suppose, the first generation that openly and actively asserted – at least some of us did – the separateness of women and their personal independence in the family relationship. There was always talk about, should a man support his wife, or should he say,”

In 1924, TIME reported on a case that involved Comptroller General John R. McCarl. A hospital wanted to change the name of a nurse to her new husband’s name on her payroll, but the nurse refused. McCarl was asked to give his opinion on the matter, who concluded the woman should have to use her husband’s last name. He said:

“The law in this country, that a wife takes the surname of the husband, is as well settled as that the domicile of the wife merges in the domicile of the husband. A wife might reside apart from her husband, but so long as she remains his lawful wife she has but one legal domicile and that is the domicile of the husband. So it is with the name. She may have an assumed name, but she has but one legal name. The separate legal entity of the wife is not so generally recognized as to accept the maiden name rather than the surname of the husband. It is today the main distinction between a single woman and a married woman, and such fact in the past has appeared upon the payrolls. There appears no valid reason why it should not so continue, and the payroll should state the fact accordingly.”

Several cases went to court, and the Marquette Law Review reports that Hawaii was the last state to have a statutory provision that required women to take their husbands’ surnames.

Today, women in the U.S. do not typically run into legal hiccups over their choice of last name. While it remains common for a woman to change her last name to her husband’s, if trends continue, more women may be keeping their last name in the future.

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