The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why don’t more men take their wives’ last names?

Even among couples who share progressive gender politics, it’s rare for men to give up their surname

(Juan Berrio for The Washington Post)

Like most men, Mike hadn’t really thought about what he’d do with his last name — Ambrogi — when he got married.

What was there to think about? Even among hetero couples who share progressive gender politics, the question of surnames is typically directed toward the bride: Will she take his name, or keep hers? Or further down the line: Will the children have his last name, or a hyphenated combination?

But when he was in his 20s, Mike, a game developer who lives in Portland, Maine, found out that a couple he knew had combined parts of their surnames into a new one they could share. Then a friend announced he would be taking his fiancee’s last name when they wed. Mike started thinking past the cultural default options, and when he got engaged to his now-wife, Sara, he floated to her the option of taking her last name.

He was “half-joking” at first. But she took the idea seriously, so he did, too. It didn’t hurt that she had a primo last name.

“‘Mike Primo,’” he said in an interview, stating his married name. Compared with what he had before, “that’s basically James Bond.”

Primo’s brothers have since followed in his footsteps. But outside of that inner circle, he has met exactly zero who’ve done the same, he said, and doubts most other men have even thought about it.

“I think it literally isn’t on the table, in any way shape or form, for the vast majority of couples in America, full stop,” he said.

It is exceedingly unusual for grooms to take their bride’s surname — though data on how rare is tough to find. The Social Security Administration doesn’t track it, nor does the Census Bureau. The Knot’s 2021 Real Weddings Study surveyed over 15,000 respondents and found that 78 percent of couples who got married that year had one partner take the other partner’s last name — but that survey doesn’t break that data down by gender.

The anecdotal evidence, however, is unambiguous: It’s rare.

“I’ve not seen one groom take a bride’s last name,” said Andrew Zill, an event planner who’s helped couples plan weddings for 20 years.

“I’ve never had a man take the woman’s last name,” said Heidi Hiller, CEO and creative director of Innovative Party Planners, who has done a half-dozen weddings a year for the past dozen years.

Sandy Yi-Davis, founder and head of event design of Chic Weddings and Events, estimated that she has planned more than 250 weddings over the past decade. And how many of those couples had a groom taking his bride’s name?

“It’s actually zero,” she said.

HitchSwitch, an online name-changing service, estimates that about 5 percent of its newlywed clients are men seeking information on taking their wives’ names, a slight uptick from a few years ago. Matthew A. Wolff, HitchSwitch director of operations and compliance, said that occasionally: “When the husbands take the wife’s last name, the husbands are like, ‘Is this even allowed?’ ”

Why aren’t more men taking their wives’ names when they get married?

“There is this assumption that female last names are the changeable, malleable ones,” journalist and author Jill Filipovic said. “The fact that it’s only women making this choice — that it’s only women presumed to be making this choice — in and of itself, reflects a pretty deep gender imbalance.”

Currently, a woman marrying a man must both make a choice and deal with the judgment her choice will invite from loved ones and strangers alike, whether for keeping her name (divisive, selfish, does she even really love this guy?) or taking her husband’s (retrograde, traitor to the cause, aiding and abetting her own erasure). Meanwhile, her husband-to-be is above reproach regardless of the outcome. She can’t win, and he can’t lose.

For women, keeping their existing last name (most likely inherited from their father’s family) is typically considered the most progressive option. About 20 percent of women made that choice in the years leading up to 2015, according to an analysis that year by the New York Times’s Upshot blog. But even in households where the woman keeping her name is a foregone conclusion, the idea that the man would change his name, more often than not, isn’t even on the table.

When author Laura Hankin got engaged to David Christie, a staffer for a female Democratic senator, she knew she would be keeping her name — “My name is my identity,” she said — but the prospect of Christie taking Hankin’s last name never came up.

Hankin is confident that had she “made a big argument about making a grand social statement for gender equality,” Christie would have been receptive to it. But she wasn’t interested in asking.

“I think it goes back to that question of identity,” Hankin said. “Marriage is a beautiful commitment between two people who aren’t necessarily changing themselves or becoming a whole new person. I think both of us felt like: We want to be two people who love and support and commit to each other, but don’t become each other. So if I didn’t want to change my name to his for that reason, why would he change his name to mine?”

What’s funny about the whole name-changing phenomenon, said Rebecca Traister, an author who has written extensively on women in America, “is that it’s a fundamentally weird thing to do — from any perspective.”

This innate strangeness, she says, is part of why even men who, say, take a more active role in raising their children or doing the kinds of housework that historically has fallen to women, might nevertheless balk at ditching their surname.

A name change is a symbolic reallocation of privilege (whose name displaces the other?) rather than a practical one (who takes off work early for day-care pickup?), which makes couples more likely to ignore the custom rather than reverse it. While the material concerns of parenting, cooking and cleaning must be attended to, “changing your name is not a necessary thing in life — in fact, it is a bizarre and anachronistic thing,” Traister said. And yet “the attitudes around it, those linger. Those are really hard to shake off.”

Ask why it is that women have historically changed their names when they marry, Princeton historian Tera Hunter said, and you’ll see why most men don’t.

The legal construction of marriage in the United States is modeled on coverture, the set of domestic laws imported from England by early colonists, which decreed that a married woman’s identity and existence was legally “covered” by her husband. Her money was his money, her body was his to do with what he liked, and her name no longer existed.

“The woman’s identity is essentially erased,” Hunter said, and the erasure of her name signified her submission to the authority of her husband.

Probably the average modern man isn’t thinking about the dehumanizing framework of coverture laws when he bristles at the prospect of taking his wife’s name (if he thinks of it at all). But as Hunter sees it, these norms are so deeply ingrained in our society that even people without any awareness of the history feel an imperative to abide by those customs, or are wary of the cost of rejecting them.

“There’s a lot of social pressure around naming practices,” she says, including “egos, ideas about masculinity, family traditions, all kinds of things that are influencing the ways men think about themselves and think about their names in particular.”

When Vogue asked the pop icon now known to the legal system (if not her fans) as Mrs. Jennifer Affleck if any part of her “might want Ben to be Mr. Lopez,” she laughed out loud. “No! It’s not traditional,” she explained. “It doesn’t have any romance to it.”

When actress Zoe Saldana wed Marco Perugo in 2013, Marco took Saldana’s name — and Zoe told InStyle that she “tried to talk him out of it.” She was concerned that he would be “emasculated” by his “Latin community of men, by the world.”

Mike Primo, the Maine man formerly known as Mike Ambrogi, has a theory: Most men have a visceral, even subconscious aversion to taking their wives’ names — one they may be unable to acknowledge, even to themselves.

“I wonder if — just getting into the deep, deep code of being a participant in our culture — most dudes are coding taking a woman’s name as straight-up emasculation,” Primo said. Maybe to “become more like a woman in any way, for a man, is to sacrifice status and caste placement in our culture.”

Primo was prepared to have to defend his own choice to the world, but since his wedding in 2012, he has been pleasantly surprised to discover that his choice has raised virtually no eyebrows.

“None of the things you’d imagine would happen,” he said. “No one ever had any pushback of any kind or honestly even that much curiosity.” He used to call Ambrogi his “bachelor name,” but has since adopted the more classic “maiden name.” (“Again, you would think there would be some follow-up,” Primo said, “but there just isn’t.”)

One person Primo didn’t have to explain himself to was Josh Peek (né Goldston), the friend whose decision to take his wife’s name had influenced Primo’s decision to do the same.

As a kid, Peek had asked his mother why she’d taken his father’s name. “And she said, ‘Well, a family needs a name,’ ” Peek recalled. “And that was a compelling point to me, and a central one.” So when he and his wife, Katie, got engaged, and she said she wanted to keep her name, he pitched her on him taking hers. (Josh would keep “Goldston” as a second middle name, and his wife would “unofficially” take it on as well.)

His dad was “onboard quite quickly,” Peek said, but his mom needed a bit more time to come around.

“My reaction was a bit negative,” Ruth Goldston said. ‘What, you’re not going to have our name?’”

As the mother of two sons, she said, “your expectation is that a lot of other things aren’t going to happen. You’ll never be the mother of the bride, for instance.”

By the wedding, however, she had warmed to the idea, and she now takes a measure of pride in her son’s last name — even if it’s not the one she gave him.

“Their reasoning was they wanted to subvert the dominant paradigm,” Goldston said. “And I could hardly not get on board with that.”

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