Can We Stop Using The Term “Maiden Name”?

This weekend, the New York Times ran a story about the recent trend (as with all Style section stories, this trend is actually pretty dated) of married women keeping their last names instead of taking their husbands’, but for reasons that have less to do with feminism and more with practicality and convenience. Putting aside the kind of annoying framing — it’s so boring to keep your name for political reasons, silly — I was nonetheless pleased to see that more women are recognizing the ridiculous inconvenience of this old-fashioned and, yes, sexist “tradition.” But you know what else is sexist and old-fashioned? The term “maiden name,” which the Times uses copiously throughout the article, including in its headline.

As those of you with 20/20 vision likely noticed, I have two last names. I’m unmarried so this lengthy surname of mine is the result of my mom keeping her name when she married my dad, and my parents giving their two children both of their last names. (They were so egalitarian, that my brother’s last name is flip-flopped to be Parry-McDonell.) I’ve spent the better part of 35 years thinking and answering questions about my name, but I don’t think I’ve ever consciously used the term “maiden name” when explaining that my mom kept her last name when she married my dad and that her last name is also part of mine. Cheryl Parry is and always has been her name just as Amelia McDonell-Parry will always be mine.

The term “maiden name” has been used for as long as it has been assumed that a woman, upon marrying, will take her husband’s last name. A “maiden” by definition is an unmarried woman – and in not-so-old-timey terms, a virgin – so whether a woman “keeps her maiden name” or “takes her husband’s name” or not, her name is still defined by her relationship status. And it’s a gendered term for which there is no masculine equivalent, though “birth name” is at least a gender neutral option. I generally don’t really care what individual women choose to do about their names post-nuptials, though I very much appreciate hearing a reason besides “it’s tradition!” Beyond that though, I’m very much in favor of discourse that pushes back against those archaic “traditions” associated with marriage — especially in light for the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage. Marriage has absolutely evolved and it’s well past time that our traditions and language do so too.

With that in mind, there really, really, really isn’t a reason to continue using the term “maiden name.” Heterosexuals are no longer the only citizens who can be wed in holy matrimony. Who is the “maiden” in a marriage between two men or, for that matter, two women? And even if legal gay marriage wasn’t the law of the land, as the Times notes, many, many straight women are opting out of taking their husbands’ last names, or are at least splitting the difference and hyphenating. But besides that, there is no good reason to use the term maiden name instead of the gender neutral “birth name” or even “name prior to marriage.” I imagine there are a few of you who are reading this thinking, What’s the big deal? It’s just a name, but words have power. They matter.

Yes, I’m an unmarried woman, but I’m no maiden – being unmarried does not define the 35+ years I have spent signing or introducing myself as “Amelia McDonell-Parry, one N, two Ls in McDonell, hyphen, Parry with an A.” So whatever the hell I decide to do about this already lengthy signature of mine (probably nothing), in the unlikely event I DO end up getting hitched some day, I sure as hell don’t want it referred to as my maiden name. Please and thank you!

[NY Times]