When Leslie Williamson, MD, wed nearly four decades ago, changing her maiden name to her husband’s surname would have come at a cost. “When we married, I had already been a physician for three years,” said Dr. Williamson, an otolaryngologist with the Shannon Medical Center in San Angelo, Texas. “Even though I considered changing my name, I discovered the cost was prohibitive to change it on my [medical] license.”
Her board certifications and professional memberships were also in her maiden name, and changing those, along with other documents such as her driver’s license, would have also taken time, effort, and money. “I’m non-ideological about it,” she said. “I was not seeking to make any political statements. I’m in medicine, not politics.”
Dr. Williamson, who has been married for 37 years and has two children with her husband, Jim Cogan, uses her surname. The couple’s children, Jonesy and Stephen, used their dad’s last name growing up. Having a family with two last names never caused any issues. “Sometimes my husband is called Mr. Williamson, but he just laughs,” she said.
What’s In A Name?
In the United States, women have traditionally taken their husbands’ last names after marriage. According to two random sample naming studies, women who are most likely to keep their birth surname when they marry have higher levels of education, marry at a later age, are nonconventional about gender roles, have established an identity in their careers, and are less likely to be religious, said Laurie K. Scheuble, PhD, a senior lecturer in sociology at Pennsylvania State University in State College.
“The most surprising, almost shocking thing to me has been the small percentage of women who retain their maiden name as their last name when they marry,” said Dr. Scheuble, who has studied marital naming for the past 25 years. Approximately 7% of women had a surname different from their husbands’ in 2004 (Fam Issues. 2010;31:681-701). That’s up from 2% in 1984, according to Dr. Scheuble’s research (J Marriage Fam. 1995;57:724-732). Another 1% hyphenate their maiden name with their husband’s last name, she said.
“When I started to do this research, I was convinced that the percentage of women keeping their birth surname would increase, but now I think that there will be very little increase in women keeping their birth surname as a last name,” she said. “I think this is interesting, as women have worked hard to have equal rights and opportunities in work and housework roles. Naming seems to be the last socially acceptable sexism.”
But the general population differs from the medical field, based on the results of a Harvard Medical School (HMS) report believed to be the first of its kind, according to its author, Leigh Ann Humphries, an HMS student in the graduating class of 2017.
The study of 75 women in the class of 2017 at HMS, conducted by Humphries and published in the Harvard Medical School Review in January 2015, found that 65% of single women intend to keep their maiden names, and 63% of the married women had already done so. “Most felt that marrying later in medical training would make it more likely for them to hold on to their maiden names,” Humphries wrote.
There are several options married couples can consider when deciding which names to use after the wedding. A woman can continue to use her maiden name both professionally and personally or use her maiden name for work and her married name for social situations. She can use her husband’s last name and drop her maiden name entirely or use it as a middle name. She and her husband may choose to hyphenate their names or change their last names to a name that combines a portion of both last names. Finally, the man may choose to take on his wife’s last name and drop his own. Ultimately, “it’s a personal decision, and there’s no right or wrong,” said Sonya Malekzadeh, MD, professor of otolaryngology at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.
“I used to joke that I couldn’t wait to get married with someone named Brown or Jones or Smith, but I didn’t get a better name,” said Dr. Malekzadeh, who uses her maiden name professionally but is Sonya Chiaramonte at home. When she married her husband at the end of her residency, she retained her maiden name on everything at the time, including her medical license, professional certificates, educational degree, and research papers. “It didn’t make sense to change it,” she said. Also, she believed it was important to keep her birth name because, she said, “I was the first in my family to go to medical school, and I wanted to give credit to my family. My dad was very proud.”
But she began to think differently once her own family expanded. Now, with four children aged 17, 15, 11, and 8, she appreciates the value of having a single family name for unity. “We travel quite a bit, and the kids have their father’s name, and I didn’t want it to be awkward,” she said. She now uses her husband’s last name. “The only glitch has been with
taxes. I had to change my social security card to reflect my name change, and it became somewhat complicated from a tax perspective. I put both names on formal paperwork and with legal documents.”
Paging Dr. Who?
For couples in which both partners are physicians, sharing a last name can be problematic. Gayle Woodson, MD, professor emerita of otolaryngology in the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, had already launched her career, established her medical practice, and published papers as Dr. Woodson when she married her husband, Tom Robbins, MD, and did not want to drop that identity. Because her husband can also get paged for
medical service, “it seemed that it would be confusing if someone called in the middle of the night and wanted to speak to Dr. Robbins, and we would have to ask ‘which Dr. Robbins?’”
Being in residency at the same time as her husband also factored into Dr. Malekzadeh’s decision to keep her maiden name after getting married before the couple had a family together. “When we were at the hospital together, we didn’t want to get each other’s pages,” she said.
History in the Making
The name connection can mean different things depending on where you live. In Greece, Korea, China, and Spain, it is more common for women to keep their maiden names. But in the
U.S., “there is a great deal of normative pressure for women to change their names,” said Dr. Scheuble. “In the United States, it is how we define a family, which also makes little sense given that we have high rates of divorce, single parenting, and reconstituted families.”
For some, a maiden name is a bridge to past generations and promotes a sense of familial, and sometimes vocational, pride. “I come from a long line of Dr. Woodsons, dating back to the 17th century,” said Dr. Woodson. “So I liked the idea of being another Dr. Woodson.”
Others cited the importance of cultural heritage and maiden names.
“I feel strongly that my name is part of my identity,” said Debara L. Tucci, MD, MBA, MS, professor of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. She used her maiden name both personally and professionally before getting married and never considered changing it.
“I have never used my husband’s name,” she said. “However, I find it surprising that people make assumptions about women’s ethnic heritage when their last name may or may not reflect their ancestry, but their husband’s. People often ask me if I am Italian, which I am, as my name is my birth name; however, they also ask my mother this question, and Tucci is her married name. This is the reason that I say that my name is something I would not change. It says something about me.”
And, in some cases, using two names can provide some levity.
“It was a long time ago when I got married, and the world was a little different,” said Dr. Woodson. “When my husband and I checked into a hotel, we used to get some funny looks or raised eyebrows when we registered with two different names. I would often explain that we were married, and my husband would tease me by saying, so the clerk could hear it, ‘Oh, you don’t have to lie. No one cares if we’re not married!’”
Cheryl Alkon is a freelance medical writer based in Massachusetts.