What's in a (last) name?

New brides are returning to an old custom. They're adopting their husband's last name because they want to, not because they feel they have to.

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Emma Rosen is soon to become Emma Sugerman. Rosen, 25, who works in health care marketing, will legally take the last name of her husband-to-be, medical student Noah Sugerman, when the two marry this summer.

Vanessa Messersmith, 32-year-old owner of the hip clothing shop Blacklist Vintage, took the name of her husband Jeremy, a musician, when they married six years ago. Both consider themselves to be feminists, and neither made the decision lightly.

The majority of married women in America have always chosen to legally assume their grooms' last names. But at the end of the 20th century, more women retained their maiden names as a way of retaining individual identity.

A widely noted Harvard study of college-educated women found that between 2 percent and 4 percent in 1975 kept their names. Those numbers sharply increased through the 1970s and 1980s before declining in the 1990s to just below 20 percent in 2001.

While it's more socially acceptable than ever for brides to keep their surnames, fewer are, according to wedding planners and other observers. Of nearly 19,000 women surveyed by the wedding site TheKnot.com last spring, 86 percent took their husband's name.

The reasons often fall into one or more of these camps: It's easier. It makes the family seem more unified. They don't feel like their personal identities are being swallowed up in the process.

"It's something to think about, but I've always known I would take Noah's name," Rosen said. "For me it's just practical. My career is very important to me, but I've only been in the working world four years. I can understand women wanting to keep their maiden names, but I don't feel my identity is wrapped around mine. If it were five or ten years from now I was getting married, it might be a different discussion."

What about the compromise practice of hyphenating surnames, which also surfaced a generation ago, and bestowing them upon your children?

"Well, what happens if you marry another hyphenate, and then have kids? You have to wonder who benefits from having four hyphenated last names," she said.

Messersmith, whose maiden name was McKinney, said her husband "didn't care what I chose either way. I thought long and hard, but in the end I didn't see the logic in keeping one patriarchal name -- my father's -- over another. I also thought Jeremy's name was cool."

In a national survey conducted last year by Indiana University researchers, two-thirds of more than 800 respondents across all socioeconomic backgrounds felt it was "best" for a woman to take her husband's name. More surprising to the researchers, half of them supported a law actually requiring them to do so. Then again, half also found it acceptable for a groom to take his bride's last name, a very rare occurrence. The study also noted that gay couples tended to keep their original surnames.

Shonda Craft, 37, kept her name when she married 10 years ago. Craft, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota's family social science department, said she had "already been in the professional world, had things published under my name."

Also a licensed marriage and family therapist, Craft said she often listens to client couples discuss changing or hyphenating their names.

"What I hear is that people want to create a sense of union, and having that hyphenated name complicates things," she said. "They don't feel that it gives the impression of a unified team, or they get tired of always having to explain their relationship. Are you divorced? Cohabiting? One last name cuts down on confusion and creates a sense of cohesion. My own kids' last name is hyphenated. It is a little bit of a pain. I might do it differently if I were to do it over again."

Craft said that she's also observed a bit of a shift toward "conservatism in values when it comes to marriage."

"As a therapist I stress that there are different ways you can individuate, carve out your separateness and balance it with the togetherness."

She pointed out one other possible reason that young women aren't experiencing the identity insecurity of their forebears: "The age at which people get married has increased so much, a lot of women are looking for a life partner, feeling pretty well established in their own lives, not worried about feeling smothered."

Nancy Battaglia, a florist and wedding planner for Bellagala in St. Paul, said she works with brides who keep their names so rarely now, she's surprised when it happens.

"It's less often than even eight years ago, when I started in this business," she said. "It comes up every time because I remind the couple that not only legally for the marriage license, but if they're planning on taking off for an overseas honeymoon, the name on their passports and itineraries have to match, so they have to decide what the legal name will be well in advance of the wedding."

Something about getting married tends to bring out traditional yearnings in both sides of a couple, Bataglia said.

"With grooms, it's not wanting to see the bride in her dress [before the wedding], even if they've been living together for years," she said. "With brides, it could be doing the name change."

Battaglia, who is in her mid-50s, said she had friends who went both ways when they were in their 20s and 30s. She took her husband's name. A few years ago, sitting around the dinner table with her husband of 31 years and their young-adult children, she announced she was thinking of going back to her maiden name, Wesley.

"My husband wasn't threatened by it at all," she said. "It was my kids who were horrified."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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