What’s in a woman physician’s last name? A lot.

A recent post about a physician using her maiden name professionally generated major controversy on a physicians’ group. Hundreds of comments later, it became evident that female physicians who chose to use their maiden names are subjected to negative judgment.

I am a physician married to a supportive man who understands my choice to keep my last name. I am not unique in my circle. Most of my female physician friends have not changed their names. Moreover, two male physician colleagues took their wives’ last names. I believe a woman has the right to make her own choices. Hence, I was amazed by the controversy and felt compelled to write about it.

Many of the responses to the post implied that if the husband is helping the physician, she should honor him by taking his last name. One responder wrote that she took her husband’s surname because he cared for their children and home while she studied. If men shared her sentiments, the majority of male physicians would have taken their wives’ surnames. After all, it was not long ago that most physicians were men and wives were stay-at-home mothers. I doubt any of those men have ever been questioned about their decision to keep their surnames. The few who take their wives’ last names are often viewed negatively (as “not man enough”). These attitudes only serve to normalize and perpetuate patriarchal ideologies.

Some female physicians keep their surnames out of respect for their supportive families who, in some cases, paid for their medical education. I often wonder how it would feel to care for a daughter from birth to adulthood and not hear the name I gave her called when she receives her diploma.

The fact is, that little a girl grows up to be a woman, perhaps a physician, who is free and capable of making her decisions, including changing her last name if she so desires. Or is she? Where does this desire or need to change her last name originate? Is she truly free to make that decision? Since the women’s rights movement, more women are choosing to keep their surnames. Yet, the majority of American women take their spouses’ last names. A woman’s decision to not take her husband’s last name is still viewed as abnormal in the United States. People perceive women who chose to keep their surnames as “defiant,” “selfish,” “disloyal” and “too ambitious.” They assume she values her career more than her family and that her marriage will fail. As a male physician stated, “the bomb [is] ticking” when she keeps her last name.

These assumptions are not only misogynistic, but also ethnocentric. More than 25 percent of physicians in the U.S. are foreign-born. They have their own sets of values and norms, which may not include taking their spouses’ last names. Countries like Greece and France have laws requiring that women keep their maiden names. Quebec forbids a woman from taking her husband’s surname. In some Asian countries, taking a husband’s last name is a foreign concept. In many Latin cultures, it is the norm for women to add their husbands’ surnames to theirs.

Commonly, names reflect one’s identity. Some names carry information about a person’s unique history. As one physician complained, suddenly society expects her to abandon her name and herself. “They expect me to become my husband, to forget who I have been for decades and hide behind his image.” Historically, married women were legally expected to change their surnames symbolizing the couples’ “oneness.” However, women were second-class citizens, an unequal part of the unit. The husband’s identity became that of the couple. Nowadays, more than 50 percent of physicians are women, and many are married to men with lower education and financial statuses. Still, society expects women to be graceful about adopting their spouses’ identity. As one man stated, “I would not have married my doctor wife if she had not taken my last name.” He is not alone in his way of thinking. In 2013, 63.3 percent of readers of Men’s Health reported they would be upset if their wives kept their maiden names.

Some physicians regret taking their husbands’ last names. When a physician changes her last name, she goes through an arduous, complex, and expensive process of changing her professional documentation to reflect the same surname. If she is one of the 50 percent of American women who divorces, she undergoes the same extensive process to reclaim her original surname. The changing of last names has emotional and professional implications. If she is a published author, her publications may be under different surnames, and her work may not receive the recognition it merits. It takes time for patients and colleagues to adjust to her name change. She loses “name recognition,” albeit often temporarily.

Some women are proud to take their husbands’ names. Some find it easier to be perceived as “one unit.” Some are facing prejudice that lessened by adopting the husband’s last name. As one physician said, “I do not want the hospital to think that I am a single mother with a baby daddy.” Some women do not need or desire to honor their family surnames. A friend of mine was abandoned by her father. Yet, he demanded that she keep his last name. Instead, she welcomed the opportunity to have a new name identity.

There are a myriad of a reasons a female physician may choose to change or keep her last name. Whatever her reasons, they are valid and important to her. No one should be questioning her family loyalty or her professional ambition. We should respect her the way we respect her male counterparts. She should have the freedom to make a name choice without coercion or fear of judgment. It is time to stop pressuring and judging women for the decisions they make about their names and their lives.

Veronica Maria Pimentel is a maternal-fetal medicine specialist and can be reached at VeroMD.net.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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