At lunchtime on Tuesday, about thirty MU students gathered in the Women’s Center for an event called, “What’s in the Name?”
The event covered the issue of marital naming practices and its effects on women, both historically and contemporarily.
Ashley Cooper, a psychological intern at the MU Counseling Center, led the discussion. Cooper is in the last year of her doctoral program and is researching marital naming habits for her dissertation.
Cooper found this subject increasingly interesting and significant in her own life when she took her husband’s last name after marriage.
“After I became engaged, (my last name) became very salient to me,” Cooper said.
Cooper took her husband’s last name after their marriage but decided after one year to change it back to her family name.
“I didn’t want to upset my future in-laws and start off on a bad note, but after a year, I realized I didn’t care,” Cooper said.
Cooper is not the only woman to make this decision. Ten percent of woman use a name other than their husband’s last name, she said. Taking an alternative to the traditional naming practice may entail keeping their family name, using a hyphenated name or even using a mix of some letters from each of the spouses’ last names.
“There is a lot of emotion around names,” Cooper said. “Names are so critical to a person’s identity.”
So far, there is very limited research on the subject. But Cooper said she found one study that spoke to her dissertation directly. Laurie Scheuble and David Johnson authored the study in 1990.
Their study found a third of American men feel women should always take their husbands' names, and half of American men believe kids born from that relationship should also take the husband’s last name.
“When other people decide to take a different approach it’s really hard for people to get on board,” Cooper said. “ It forces us to be respectful of everyone’s choices.”
To this day, many women don’t even consider options other than taking their husband’s name after marriage. Cooper said this was very controversial in the past and still receives a great deal of legal backlash.
Unlike the past, when there were restrictions on this issue, all states now allow women to keep their family name if they choose.
Cooper has interviewed many women in order to gain knowledge about the many different naming practices and the decision making that goes into each. A woman may take her husband’s name in order to maintain family cohesion, yet many of those who keep their family name believe they will lose their sense of self if they change it.
A big influencing factor for women in many of Cooper’s interviews was what to do with the children and what name they should take. So far, Cooper said people have not really been able to decide. Because each child is equally the wife’s and the husband’s, it makes it difficult to give them one or the other.
At the end of the event, Cooper took time to listen to the students and their different experiences with naming practices. The students touched on many different impacts of naming, such as cultural context, same-sex marriage and even divorce. The students were very engaged, and Cooper said she learned from a lot of them as well.
“My choice isn’t the right choice for everyone,” Cooper said. “I just want people to think about the options and decide what is right for them.”