LGBTQ & Gender Opinion

Why your surname is a sir-name: the implicit sexism of our naming traditions

I am often referred to by a name that is not mine. This is because I am married. I am referred to by my husband’s last name.

After more than eight years of this experience, I am a practised observer of how swathes of society react to a woman who does not change her name after marriage or agree to use it socially. Mistaken parties, when corrected, generally appear momentarily discombobulated, inclined to label me, or at worst, outright offended.

hello my name is

It is a common custom across the world for women in opposite-sex marriages to change their last names, and at times, their first names, after marriage. It is an even more common custom for children to be given only their male parent’s last name upon birth.

Even in the Spanish-speaking world, where women routinely keep their birth surnames, it is fairly common for women to add their husbands’ names on to theirs for social use.

While children usually get both parents’ last names, ultimately, when they themselves get married, they give up one (often the one that belonged to their mother). Even in the few countries where one cannot legally change one’s birth name, social flow often dictates women taking on the husband’s names demotically, and children are still primarily bequeathed only the male parent’s last name.

In China, women generally do not change their names after marriage legally, but informal socio-cultural practices of referring to married women by their husband’s last names, or putting the husband’s last name in before his wife’s, are habitual.

Our names are the signifiers of our identities. They have the power to define us, at least in a broad context and symbolically. We turn our heads to them, we have them on our property deeds, our bank accounts, our business cards, and our identity documents. We learn to write them before almost anything else as children. We learn to say them before most things.

In many communities, one’s last name carries a great deal of significance, whether private or public, beneficial or detrimental. It can open doors or provide security, reflect the geography of one’s family origins, or it can risk reducing one’s identity to something beyond one’s control or desire.

It would be hard to imagine that every one of us loves our birth names, given that we don’t participate in that choice. Changing a name or simply deciding to use another can certainly be a logical adult choice anyone can make.

But the ineluctable reality is that those who do are disproportionately female, and that those name changes happen mainly after marriage.

I hear a slew of reasons from female friends and family who have changed their names after marriage, ranging from wanting to feel like a part of their spouses’ families, preferring their spouse’s last name, having never liked their birth name to begin with and seeing it as an opportunity to change, making the change as a sign of commitment and love, and because they want the same name as their future children, who are expected to have the male parent’s last name.

Wedding cake

Photo: Pexels.

Some, from older generations, tell me frankly that they didn’t think it was a choice to maintain their own names when they got married. A lot of these women are proud and vocal feminists.

I appreciate that changing one’s name can be defined as a personal choice. Post-marital name changes are socially expected for cis women, even demanded, and therefore can also be easier to choose. The idea of having the same visible identity to one’s closest family, such as a spouse or a child, is hugely appealing and can run deep. Going against that grain can call for explanations which one can tire of giving, or cause one to be singled out unpleasantly.

I also understand that a lot of us don’t like being questioned on our choices and don’t want to bother explaining them. Let me be clear to dubious readers: this is not a diatribe against women who have made that choice nor is it a remark against people changing their names generally for other reasons.

It is an exhortation to consider the social implications of these mass changes and to consider the patrilineal systems, traditions, and cultures at large, that have solidified into these circumstances. Choices rarely happen in a vacuum.

When a choice manifests in a disproportionate number of women making this visible and significant change after marriage, or for a blatantly unequal socio-cultural tradition to carry forth, it is hardly picayune and is worth continued scrutiny. 

Questions we should all ask:

  • Why is the choice so disproportionately female? Do the other partners in marriages in which names are changed not feel like being a part of their spouse’s families?
  • Do all men love their birth names anyway and never prefer their spouse’s name?
  • Do they not want to declare love and commitment or share a consistent name with their new family?
  • Why do most children only receive their father’s last names?
  • Are there factors that could be blurring choice with social expectation?
  • Are spouses doing enough to ensure comfort for their wives maintaining their own birth names or seeing it as a real choice?
  • To echo Jill Filipovic, why should women allow themselves to be defined relationally when men do not?

I am aware that if it’s socially strange for a woman to not change her name after marriage, it is perhaps even more eyebrow-raising for a man to change his. That too, is worth scrutiny.

Social expectations of straight males insist on visible dominance, which can do men a great disservice. And, if keeping and propagating one’s last name equals dominance, it is worth deliberating what naming cultures are actually inflicting on women who are expected to change theirs.

There was a time when women were treated as men’s property, not allowed to maintain their birth names after marriage in many places, and when we couldn’t even have passports with our birth names if we were married.

Lucy Stone was the first married women in the United States to not change her name, in 1855. She and the organisation started in her name to fight for women to be allowed to keep their names, The Lucy Stone League, were referred to as “maiden names.”  

wedding

Photo: Pexels

Maiden, a term still very much in use, implies that women are virgins before marriage, another point of contemporary dissonance.

In 1924, Helena Normanton, the first female practising barrister in the UK, became the first married woman there to have her birth name on her passport, a practice previously unheard of. Thankfully, these women laid the groundwork for the rest of us to be able at least to sally forth without fighting for these basic name related equalities for ourselves.

Sadly, in Hong Kong, this does not extend to naming rights for our progeny. New parents here arrive at the Births and Deaths General Register Office to be politely told that “by law,” the name of the father is the last name of the child.

Under current rules and regulations, children born to married parents must have their father’s last name recorded on their birth certificate as their own, and their father even has the primary right to determine their first name. Should a mother want her last name as the child’s last name, she must have the father’s permission and must file a deed poll, which can cost several thousand dollars and requires the aid of a lawyer.

This serves as a very real obstacle to tired new parents, even if they really wanted to name their child more equitably. The very thought of having just birthed a child, then to be told that the child could not have the birth parent’s own surname, is cause enough for fulminations and psychological distress.

This practice also appears directly contrary to the Human Rights Committee of the UN’s stipulation that women have a right to equal participation in the choice of the family name and to the rights of women and children to equality under the Hong Kong Bill of Rights as well as the Basic Law.

basic law

File photo: GovHK.

The names that most of us born in patrilineal societies have, are certainly not balanced or equal as they usually reflect only the male parts of our parental heritage.

One could argue that we should abandon the names we were given instead of fighting for them, and take on all new names, whether they are shared with our spouses and children, or simply for ourselves. One could also argue that if everyone keeps their own names, and gives their children both parents’ last names, our future generations are going to be overloaded by a deluge of barrels and hyphens.

Or, perhaps we could simply create new names. All that aside, not having a neat plan in place should not mean we don’t question or attempt to abandon the current unequal system.

Why your surname is a sir-name: the implicit sexism of our naming traditions