Carrie Underwood might not know her last name after a wild night in Vegas, but if she kept her own, her momma wouldn’t be so ashamed (You’re welcome. That song is now in your head.).
According to Brides.com, the practice goes back to the Middle Ages, when society began to document laws due to increased literacy.
Unfortunately, at that time, society also favored men, and women had little rights. The law added the practice of coverture, which is the legal status of a woman under common law.
“Coverture is a legal formation that held that no female person had a legal identity,” Historian Catherine Allgor explains in the Brides.com article. “A female baby was covered by her father’s identity and then, when she was married, by her husband’s.”
Under coverture, when a woman married, she became “one” with her husband.
“It sounds romantic, but the ‘one’ was the husband,” Allgor says. “She becomes, and this is the phrase, ‘legally dead.’ So it’s not that women take the last names of their husbands, which is how we think of it, it’s that they become part of [the husband’s] body. She does not exist in law, only the husband does.”
In more modern times, women take their husband’s name for many other reasons, including solidifying their status as a couple, separating themselves from their parents, unifying the family when having children or simply for the sake of tradition, according to a CNN article.
However, some women choose to retain their last name or hyphenate it with their spouse’s.
Keeping their last name is growing in popularity among women with higher levels of education and those marrying at an older age, says Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Innovation in Social Science at Boston University, in the CNN article.
“They have more professional identity built by that point,” she says.
Bottom line: While you might feel pressure from your friends or family to take your husband’s last name, it is ultimately up to the two of you to decide. Currently, in the United States, about 20% to 30% of women retain their name, CNN reports.