A maiden name is the last name used by a woman before changing her name upon marriage. Some people prefer to use the term “birth name.” As a general rule, a woman's maiden name is her father's last name, reflecting the patrilineal system of descent which dominates many cultures.
If a woman is born with the name “Jane Smith” and she chooses to marry “John Jones,” she might choose to change her last name to Jones, becoming “Jane Jones.” In this scenario, “Smith” would be Jane's maiden name. Some women prefer to keep their maiden names, either using it alone or hyphenating their last names, becoming “Jane Smith-Jones” in the example above.
The practice of changing one's name after marriage is controversial among some groups. Some people feel that it is patriarchal, linking the name change with an identification of a woman as man's property, in a sense. Others feel that it simply undermines a woman's personal identity, rejecting her own lengthy family history. For professional women especially, keeping a maiden name may be a matter of career advancement, especially if they became well-known before marriage.
There are a number of ways to indicate a maiden name in text. Using our Jane Smith from above, her name might be written “Jane Jones née Smith,” or “Jane (Smith) Jones.” Many genealogists like to indicate the original of women on their family trees to make it easier to trace the family history of a family's women. Some women may also use this format in formal correspondence, especially if they are recently married, so that the recipients of a letter know who the communication is coming from.
As a general rule, a legal procedure is required to change one's name after marriage, although the fees are often minimal to make it as easy as possible. Women may also choose to leave their maiden names intact legally, but to use a married name socially. When changing one's maiden name, it is important to make sure that it is changed on all legal documents and identity papers, to ensure that there is no confusion.