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The Dilemma of Last Names

Posted by Curt on Wednesday, 16 June 2010

It may seem like one of the more mundane issues, but both surprisingly and not surprisingly, it’s one issue many feminists feel quite adamant about.  Even Finally Feminism 101 refers to it as one of the ways in which women are oppressed.  On the one hand, our last name doesn’t change a thing – it generally won’t provide someone a job opportunity, it won’t change their education and other qualifications, and it won’t change them as a person.  Our last name could be whatever we want it to be (other than something obviously offensive like a bad word) and our lives will generally be more or less the same, now and in the future.

But that’s not the point.  The symbol of a wife changing her last name to her husband’s is the point and it’s that symbolization which is representative of a larger issue.  Think about it for a second: What does women changing her last name to her husband’s, but never the other way around, suggest?  What does a patrilineal system suggest, where the children of the couple take on their father’s last name?  It is very implicit of the idea of the male as the head of the household – the family.  And on this point, feminists are entirely correct.

Such symbolizations are holdovers from the past, in a society where this was unquestionably the reality.  Take a look at common wedding practices and what they represent; such as the father escorting his daughter, the bride, down the aisle to hand her over to the groom.  This is representative of the father passing on the responsibility of his daughter to the groom.  This symbolization, when thought of in more practical terms, is also why the traditional fathers (though relatively few this extreme still exists in Western culture) expect the man to ask him for permission to marry his daughter before he proposes to her; it is a way of making sure that the potential husband can provide and take care of his daughter.  This, of course, is implicit in the notion that women can’t, or shouldn’t, take care of themselves.

Thus it should be no surprise why feminists detest this symbolization, and here I’ll agree with them.  However, a name doesn’t just symbolize that – it also symbolizes a union between husband and wife.  By sharing a common last name, the two essentially become “one”; a family unit.  It is for this reason why some men may feel skeptical if his wife refuses to take his last name.  At the risk of speaking for others (but I think this is almost universal among those particular men in our society based on my own experience; please correct me if I’m wrong), in their minds, a wife who wouldn’t take his last name and thus not participate in this symbolization appears to him to not be totally committed, almost as if she’s planning on breaking up somewhere down the road.  Such a thought would understandably make anybody feel uncomfortable if they’re wanting to marry given that very few people enter a marriage with the intent that they will permanently split up in the future (note: this is different from recognizing the possibility, such as signing a prenup, as it almost seems planned).

Personally, I think a husband getting worked up over his wife not taking up his last name is unnecessary when you logically think about it.  It is merely a symbol and thus is only as significant as you make it – a couple having two different last names hardly takes the happiness out of a marriage or makes them any less committed to one another.  The only difference it makes is in terms of convenience (it’s a bit harder to convince insurers that you’re married if you have two different last names).

Some feminists would describe men reluctant to the idea of a wife having her own last name as insecure; this may well be the case.  Although I wouldn’t denigrate such men for it as I understand the reluctance completely.  After all, it took me some time to think through it and feel comfortable with the possibility of having a wife with her own last name as well.

The bigger issue with having two different last names, however, is when it comes to any children.  Who gets the last name?  Jill at Feminste makes this claim for herself:

“I’m not exactly on the marriage-and-babies track, but should either (or both) ever happen, my name is staying mine — and if I’m the one giving birth, you can bet those kids are getting my last name as well.”

While she certainly doesn’t appear to be telling anybody that the child’s last name should always be that of the mother’s, it would suggest that she’s lukewarm toward a matrilineal system (though the man wouldn’t share the last name; instead his would be his mother’s last name, much like how a woman’s last name is that of her husband’s or her father’s).  This, I think, would irk me because in my mind it almost suggests that the mother’s relationship to the child is more important than the father’s.  It’s true – women are the ones who give birth and are the ones who breastfeed a child, but how applicable is that to a child’s life beyond that stage?  Pregnancy certainly is hard on a woman, but what of the man who supports his wife throughout her pregnancy by doing tons of little things such as getting her water in the middle of the night upon her request when she can scarcely move?  They sound pretty minor at a glance like this, but take it from me; it’s always easier said than done, especially at 3 in the morning.  Feminists would disregard such devotion at their own risk.

However, I do not advocate for hyphenated last names either.  This is more of a personal thing than anything, but I think hyphenated last names just plain suck.  I’ve known people who had them and they all disliked it, usually opting to take the last name they like better once they turn 18.  This may work from the perspective of a parent, but honestly, I tend to think it would work far better for the child if they just had one last name with the option to switch to the other later on.  But if they receive a hyphenated last name and do decide to keep it, what if they have kids with somebody else who decided to keep their hyphenated last name – would their kids have four hyphenated last names?  It could get a bit ridiculous, which is another reason why I don’t like it.  Such things remind me of medieval surnames where something like having seven or eight surnames were fairly common.  Eventually by the early modern period, they were condensed into the first, middle, and last name familiar to us and which follows the patrilineal system.

Of course, if you don’t hyphenate the last names, then which parent’s last name does the child get?  That’s the question.  I’d suggest the idea, which a friend gave to me, that a son gets the father’s last name while a daughter gets the mother’s name, with a rock, paper, scissors match if the child turns out to be intersex.  This is obviously arbitrary, but so are names themselves.  Ultimately, I’d simply advocate for any individual to choose what they wish (while strongly discouraging the use of hyphenated last names).  If a woman decides to take her husband’s last name, then so be it; so long as she made the choice on her own terms, what right does anybody have question it?


On a more personal note, I find this entire topic a little amusing because I can’t help but to hearken back to my younger days when I wanted to change my last name to my mother’s maiden name or declaring to everybody that I was going to take up my future wife’s last name.  I was quite miffed when I learned that this isn’t “supposed” to happen.  It isn’t too surprising though – my last name, Pugh, is pronounced as pew, like a church pew; thus in elementary school, everybody kept saying to me “hey look, it’s Curt P-U!!!” with the hand waving across their nose gesture like I smelled.  Everybody always snickered when my name was read off the attendance roll.  Such is the Pugh family’s experience.  My sisters were quite happy to rid themselves of their last names when they could.


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