Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris didn’t change her last name after marrying her husband Douglas Emhoff, and it’s kind of a big deal. Changing or keeping your last name after getting married is a personal choice and wouldn’t ordinarily be notable—but Kamala is breaking glass ceilings in more ways than one.
The Harris-Emhoff relationship is emblematic of the 21st century. The interfaith (she was raised practicing Christianity and Hinduism, while Doug’s set to become the first Jewish spouse in the White House), interracial (Kamala is Indian and Jamaican, while Doug is white and Jewish) couple wed in 2014, making Kamala a Momala to Doug’s two children. She made history as the first-ever woman VP, the first-ever Black VP, and the first-ever VP of South-Asian descent. He’s making history as the first-ever Second Gentleman. So, what’s so important about her last name? Actually, quite a bit.
While you’d think women keeping their last name would be nothing new or taboo anymore, it’s relatively new to the White House. Former FLOTUS Hillary Clinton—the name she used in her official presidential campaign—changed her name several times. She initially used her maiden name, Hillary Rodham, even through the first decade of her marriage, which she told NPR might be part of the reason her husband, Bill Clinton, lost his Arkansas gubernatorial re-election in 1980. “I learned the hard way that some voters in Arkansas were seriously offended by the fact that I kept my maiden name,” she wrote.
She then became just Hillary Clinton, and for various political, personal and social reasons, she went back and forth between that and Hillary Rodham Clinton before settling on Hillary Clinton, but it’s hard to say if her maiden name will come back.
A 2015 The New York Times study found that about 30 percent of married women keep their maiden names or add their husband’s name to their own—a big uptick since the 1980s and the 1970s when state laws often required women to have their husband’s name in order to vote, bank, or get a passport.
Women today might or might not change their name for several reasons: professional reasons, familial pressures or to have the same name as their children. Though it’s a personal decision, we still see men and women judged when a woman keeps her maiden name. Sigh.
According to a 2017 survey of UK and US adults, when a woman chooses not to take her husband’s surname after marriage, many perceive her husband as being higher in traits related to femininity and lower in traits related to masculinity. In addition, he’s also perceived as having less power in their relationship. And a 2017 study found that a whopping half of respondents think women keeping their maiden names should be illegal. The reason they think women should take their husband’s name? It prioritizes their marriage and their family ahead of themselves. Interesting.
This brings us back to present day. Though Kamala hasn’t spoken publicly about her decision to keep her family surname name post-marriage, her decision proves just how much has changed in the past few decades. And most importantly, her name shows that women can do whatever the hell they please—and still become VP. Finally.