In the English-speaking world, women traditionally change their last names to their husbands’ when they marry, though women keeping their maiden (or birth) names now make up a significant minority.
These are hardly the only options and there are different traditions around the world. A patronymic (or matronymic) name doesn’t get changed: in Iceland, if a man named Jon has sons, they get the last name Jonsson, and daughters get Jonsdottir. Muslim women traditionally keep their last names, but in light of European (and especially English) influence, it may actually be seen as more “modern” for a woman to change her name.
A last name expresses connection to a family group, but in this culture a woman doesn’t stop being a member of her birth family if she marries and/or changes her name. Does this mean that names are meaningless? No, but they express a different kind of affiliation.
When you have a choice of names, whatever you choose you will communicate something, and a name is part of one’s public identity so it makes a public statement. Name keepers are generally seen to be making a statement about modernity, feminism, and/or career, while name changers are seen to be making a statement about tradition, religion, and/or family and motherhood.
But these aren’t necessarily the reasons underlying any specific individual’s choice, which may be more idiosyncratic. Although feminism is important to me, the uniqueness of my name and my strong attachment to it felt like the single biggest factor for choosing to keep it. In contrast, an acquaintance (who I believe is also a feminist) was very keen to get rid of a name she found embarrassing.
People who agree with a woman’s choice are prone to assume that she shares their values, while those who disagree are likely to assume she rejects their values. Some people go even further, understanding a rejection of their values (any values, not just re names) to be an attack on those values. Because these values go to identity, people tend to get defensive and thus automatically look for reasons why the other person is wrong, which undermines rational consideration.
A branch of feminism critiques the tradition of changing names because it’s patriarchal and reflects a view of women as possessions of men with no independent identity, rather than the autonomous individuals we know ourselves to be. While history is very important, the meaning of a tradition that you choose to observe is what it means to you now. If a woman changes her name because it is her authentic choice, we can safely assume that she either rejects the property connotation or she feels comfortable with it for one reason or another (maybe she’s marrying her dom and it feels deliciously submissive). Autonomy means making decisions for yourself, and if women must keep their names in order to qualify as “feminist”, this simply exchanges male authority for female authority, and a woman’s individual autonomy is denied just as much under either system. To me, the true feminist approach is one that gives women a meaningful choice and honours their decisions.
I think boundaries have a role to play here. It’s important to understand that your choice is “your stuff” and other people’s choices are “not your stuff”. My choice is about me, not you, and vice versa. I’m a name keeper, so if you’re a changer, I may expect to find that we don’t have much in common — just like if I found out you were into jazz — but I’m willing to be proved wrong.