American Women, Changing Their Names

Hillary Rodham Clinton started out her professional life as Hillary Rodham. But she decided to join the majority of married women, who take their husband's last name. In fact, more than 80 percent of American women change their names when they get married. Commentator Diana Boxer says there are more and more women making the same choice. Boxer, a professor of linguistics at the University of Florida, is the co-author of the article "Women and Surnames Across Cultures."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Hillary Rodham Clinton started out her professional life as Hillary Rodham. But she decided to join the majority of married women and take her husband's last name. In fact, more than 80 percent of women in the U.S. change their name when they get married.

Commentator Diana Boxer says that there are more and more women making the same choice.

DIANA BOXER reporting:

Many of us who are of a certain age and philosophy are surprised by this trend. The slogans we've lived by include, the personal is political, and later, having it all. And that included our surnames. But according to my recent research on the issue, that's so 70s.

Women who keep their names after marriage are known, sometimes disparagingly, as Lucy Stoners after suffragette Lucy Stone, the first woman to legally keep her own last name way back in 1855. But an interesting survey a few years ago showed that a majority of Midwesterners at least think of Lucy Stoner as a negative tone. Not religious, not good cooks - and here's the clincher - not good wives.

When I asked the young women in my gender and language class - a self-selected group, mind you - only one out of 18 said she'd keep her surname. I was stunned. One of them said, I don't like the idea of losing my last name, but I would rather show solidarity with my husband by taking his name.

Well my question was to the students was, how about a two-way solidarity? And another student said, ever since I've been a little girl, I've been dreaming of the day I change my name to my future husband's name. To me, it symbolizes the two of us becoming one family and a commitment to that man.

Again, I asked the question, what about a symbol of his commitment? Well, I suppose there is the ring.

As this younger generation of women would have it, names are just symbols. What matters is what's real and primary, our families. Women are good at a lot of things, especially showing solidarity. Families need it. Society needs it.

So we'll do the merging, we'll keep the family together. After all, it's one of the things that women have always done best.

SIEGEL: Diana Boxer is a professor of linguistics at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Recently, she coauthored the article Women and Surnames Across Cultures.

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