Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Man Works Harder

Tonight my five year old niece explained to me that the reason why girls change their name to their husband's when they get married is because "the man works harder."

"Where'd you hear that from?" I asked her, trying not to frown. "Did someone tell you that or did you figure that out by yourself?" 

She just shrugged and moved on to something more interesting, leaving me wondering where she got that idea from. Did someone in her class tell her that, or did she figure it out from her (limited) life experience?

Why do we women take our husband's names, anyways? I'm not questioning it, nor am I saying that I want to keep my own last name when I get married, but I'm suddenly curious about where the custom came from. 

Does anyone know?


  1. I would think that it's because once upon a time, women were considered their husbands' property (note, I'm not talking specifically about in Judaism here, but around the world in many, many cultures). Changing her name meant an immediate association with the husband, proof of "ownership." I would also think that it conferred a certain legitimacy on the woman--everyone knew that she was in a sanctioned marriage and not just a concubine of sorts. Also, because husbands were the wage earners and women used to be primarily at home, no one would notice in the same way if the woman changed her name.

    I think, though, that today more often it has to do with the idea that it's nice to have continuity in the family--mother, father, kids all having the same name. Of course, I (a secular Jewish feminist) write this as someone who *didn't* change her name. I don't regret it and even my young kids understand that Mommy has a different name. But I certainly understand the desire to feel like a family belongs. "We're the Smith family!" As opposed to "We're the Smith, Jones, and Williams family!" :-)

  2. kind of the same idea as the slave taking on the surname of the master. her identity is subsumed in his.

    however in current times it doesn't have the same connotation so their are many woman who are otherwise feminist, who are cool with taking on their husband's name, to them a rose by any name would smell as sweet. it's simply a convenience to have the whole family known by one name.

    and why should the family name be his name? because most of the world is patrilinear. (traces identity through the father.)yes it's an outgrowth of patriarchy but its good for kids as it promotes paternal investment in offspring.

  3. Interestingly enough, your niece is right on the money.

    Way back when, it used to be that too many female children were considered a burden on a household since there was a high demand for laborious activities to put food on the table. Many of these laborious activities required lots of muscle, and thus, male children were preferred over female children.

    When a male from one family took interest in a female from another family, it was considered a blessing for the family with the female because it meant that they would no longer have to have an extra mouth to feed. It was also for this reason that it was traditional for the woman's family to provide a dowry as a symbol of the family's gratitude for alleviating them of their burden. The dowry usually included not only money, but also livestock.

    Since the woman was entering the man's family and not the other way around (because men were preferred financially), it made sense for the woman to take on the man's last name because she was now was no longer part of her fathers family and she now belonged with her husband.

    Of course, things have changed since then, but we still retain quite a bit of our traditions even in our modernized culture, which is why most women still take on the last name of their husband.

    (As a side note, many remnants of previous traditions regarding how women are viewed are even preserved to this day in some religious texts.)

  4. Wow, great answers.

    Jenny and Kisarita, I really appreciate your point of view.

    YA, thanks for the detailed historical note. It's very interesting.

  5. If you go way, way, way back... women were highly-valued because they were capable of reproducing whereas men were not. As a result, men were tasked with hunting (a violent, physically-demanding job which often led to death/injury) while the women raised the children and gathered near the camp. Perhaps that's where the old adage -- "strong back, weak mind" was developed :-)

  6. there are also some women who play both games, especially if they marry after they've already established their professional credentials. They use one name for their business, professional and official affairs, and their married name socially.

  7. According to the laws of Judaism, the wife must follow the minhagim [customs] of her husband.

    The wife is a member of her husband's family, but the husband is not a member of his wife's family.

  8. The Torah in Bereshis (2:24) states, “Therefore a man shall leave his parents and cling to his wife." Sounds to me like the husband is, in fact, supposed to become a member of his wife's family.