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If your last name is Glah, odds are that you’re closely related to Michelle Glah McCleary of Denver.
McCleary’s maiden name, which derives from a misunderstanding when her family immigrated from the Glahn region of Germany, is extremely rare in the United States, and McCleary values its uniqueness. So when she got married this year, she decided to keep it as a middle name and become Michelle Glah McCleary.
“It’s a cool name and it’s also who I am. I’ve identified [myself] that way for 30 years,” she said.
The practice of women keeping their last name as a middle name after they marry has quietly taken hold in the United States. Current studies show that 90 to 95 percent of married women take their husband’s last name. And as many as 25 percent of married women use their maiden name as their middle name. That’s a marked change from the 1970s, when there were very few maiden-to-middle name changers, said Penn State senior lecturer Laurie Scheuble, who has studied marital naming.
“It’s definitely on an upward trend,” says Danielle Tate, founder and president of the marital name-change website MissNowMrs.com. “Virtually no one is hyphenating anymore.”
Back to the ’70s
The modern practice of retaining maiden names as middle names can probably be traced to the women’s movement of the 1970s, according to the genealogist Sharon DeBartolo Carmack. Prominent examples include Hillary Rodham Clinton.
There were scattered examples before that, including the pioneering 19th-century feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and child star turned U.S. diplomat Shirley Temple Black. But the practice doesn’t appear to have been widespread, according to Carmack, and the considerations were often practical: Either the woman had already made a name for herself before marriage, or she wanted to emphasize her ties to her well-known birth family.
Today, the middle name switch is often related to family loyalty, according to Weddingbee.com editor-in-chief Cathleya Schroeckenstein.
“We want to figure out how to honor our families,” said Schroeckenstein, who plans to use her maiden name, Geefay, as a middle name when she has children. “It’s especially an issue for women who come from families with all daughters. I’m an only child, and my two cousins are women. It’s a very heavy burden to realize that if we don’t do something, this is the end of our maiden name.”
Retaining maiden names as middle names is also part of a broader trend toward marital-name customization, Schroeckenstein said.
Women are dropping or keeping their original middle name when they move their maiden name into middle-name position. Hyphenation, which had a moment in the 1980s (think Farrah Fawcett-Majors) is often rejected as awkward and impractical, but some couples are combining their last names to form a single name.
“It’s almost like a way to personalize yourself now. You almost try to look for ways: How can I be different from other people?” Schroeckenstein says.
In the 1970s, the discussion surrounding marital name change was, in part, political.
Why, feminists asked, should women give up their families’ names as opposed to, say, the other way around?
But Tate says that for today’s 20- and 30-somethings, that argument may not compute. “The more I talk to the people who change their names in this generation,” she said, “they don’t even fathom not being an equal partner in their relationships, so changing their names isn’t as weighted as it was decades ago.”
Schroeckenstein said she wanted to keep her maiden name but still have the same last name as her husband and children.
“It’s a balance between tradition and new tradition,” she said of her decision. “I think most women still say, ‘I’m going to take my husband’s name,’ and, at least for me, a lot of the reason is just based on functioning from an outside perspective as a family unit.”
McCleary said that she considered not changing her name but that her mom wouldn’t have liked that.
The maiden-to-middle name switch is perhaps more diplomatic than just keeping your maiden name. Said McCleary: “It’s kind of making everybody happy.”