Taking Names

A link I buried in the comments got such a strong reaction so quickly that I thought it best to move it up into a fresh post. 

The following is a (2009) poll of about 900 Americans, as to whether or not women should take men’s surnames for their own/ new last names, after they enter into marriage:

70% say brides should take husband’s last name

22 thoughts on “Taking Names

  1. Even among my friends here in Ann Arbor MI, US, at least 70% of the women have taken their husbands’ names. Some have kept their own surnames on as middle names. And this group is pretty uniformly liberal (at least on social issues) and many of the women have advanced degrees. My wife kept her name, but she’s in a dramatic minority.

  2. Wow–and the question wasn’t even “would you personally do this,” but rather “should” women change their names. I know a lot of women who *say* they’re taking their husband’s last name because it’s their personal choice–they just “want” to do this, so that they’ll share one family name (or because they just like the man’s last name better). But to say that you really believe that’s what other women “should” do goes even farther. (Or maybe just makes more explicit what’s really going on…?)

    With the rise of facebook, I think I’m even more aware of this than I used to be–many of my “friends” (almost all of whom are liberal or progressive) change their name on facebook immediately after the wedding.

    I wonder if the changing attitudes towards gay marriage (at least in the U.S.) will lead to changing attitudes about this…

  3. Not sure if someone else already raised this in comments elsewhere, but … Would you believe that everyone’s favorite beleaguered evolutionary psychologist, Satoshi Kanazawa, wrote a reaction piece on this very same study a couple of years ago?


    Actually, though it purports to be about the “husband’s last name” issue, Kanazawa’s piece really just used the study as a jumping-off point to discuss his main thesis, which was the evolutionary-biological importance of children having the same last name as their fathers (nothing new here, basically the same arguments have been known since long before the rise of evolutionary biology).

  4. I’ve been thinking about this recently as I kept my last name and never thought to do otherwise but I recently had a real shock when i realized i had unthinkingly assumed that our potential children will get my partners last name.

  5. Re: Lucy in particular. Yes, I have always been really interested in the extent to which my seemingly maximally feminist friends give their children their father’s last name. I kept my name, genuinely never considering doing otherwise, and my ex-husband and I hyphenated my son’s name. I have probably two dozen female friends who kept their own name and gave their kids the father’s name, and only one acquaintance who gave the kids her name, and I am the only one I know who hyphenated. I’ve long wondered why this seems to be an unquestioned practice even among very self-reflective and theoretically savvy feminists.

    Several people have commented, critically, over the years that now I have created a ‘problem’ for my son by giving him a hyphenated name, because what in the world will he do when he has kids himself? I have two responses to this that seem to me obvious: (1) it begs the question – he would have a ‘problem’ already, regardless, *unless* you assume that passing on a single patrilineal name is ‘unproblematic’; he’ll have no more nor less problem than anyone else, and will be stuck like the rest of us figuring out a naming practice that feels right in a sexist world, and (2) given that we currently have no non-sexist settled norms of naming, I think it is actually *good* if he is forced to critically reflect on and struggle with the naming issue when (and if!) the time comes, and hence to see naming as ‘problematic’ – it’s not like there are lives at stake here and a little consciousness-raising inconvenience never hurt anyone.

    I am genuinely curious though … among those of you who kept your name, consider yourself a feminist, and gave your kids their father’s name, what was your reason? I am sure there are some and I feel like I’d learn by hearing what they are. I promise not to argue back (much)!

  6. Rebecca,

    You might be interested to know that in the province of Québec, women since 1981 have not been able to take their husband’s name upon marriage (although they’re free to change it through the regular channels if they so desire–which is particularly difficult in this province, and only accepted due to serious reasons like infamy or difficulty of use). That, coupled with the highest commonlow-couple percentage in the world (a little more than 30%) has result in a massive number of hyphenated family names. I haven’t noticed many (any) anglophones doing it (IIRC, the commonlow rates are lower among anglophones), but most of the francophones I know in my peer group and younger have a hyphenated family name, including three of my stepbrothers. When it came to children, my stepbrothers and their partners at the time chose whatever combination of names sounded best to them. I have my mother’s family name, and it’s pretty awesome to have a long string of letters beginning with ‘X’ after your name.

  7. Blah, apologies for the typo: that should be *commonlaw*, not ‘low’. And ‘resulted’, not ‘result’.

  8. What strikes me is that the third (probably only theoretical) option is not taken into account: the husband taking on his wife’s name (the poll could for instance have included the option ‘same name, doesn’t matter whose’). That option should make people happy who now have voted for the wife taking on the husband’s name on the ground of the importance of having one family name (which I can understand).
    I wonder how much then would be left of that 70.

  9. That option should make people happy who now have voted for the wife taking on the husband’s name on the ground of the importance of having one family name (which I can understand).

    A philosopher I know fairly well, when she got married, created a new family name for the family. The new name was neither her nor her husband’s family name. (I’m not sure how they decided on it, but do know it was neither of their family names.) This seemed like a nice idea to me. (I believe she uses her old family name as a middle name now. Perhaps her husband does to, though I don’t know.) In my own case, when I got married my wife and I both kept our names in part because we didn’t want to go through the trouble of changing them on official documents. (It would have been especially difficult for her, given the bureaucracy in her native country.) Taking a new common name wouldn’t have helped with that, so we didn’t consider it, but it seems like a nice choice for those who care about having a common name. (I can imagine taking the woman’s name to have symbolic value, and this being a reason in favor of it, too, though how much I don’t know.)

  10. Louise, given the sentiments relayed from the 70%, I suspect that the option of the husband taking wife’s name would not diminish the 70% much at all. The majority seem wedded (punny!) to a traditional conception of what marriage involves.

    I have never found it problematic for my feminism that my spouse and I each kept our names, but that a child who came along would likely have his last name. I have my dad’s last name, and all of these negotiated traditions are just that: traditions which are up for negotiation. I feel no absence of family cohesion from not name-sharing, I make no bid for immortality by passing names on, and I leave it to the next generation to decide for themselves which names to claim, as every generation should. If a child bore my last name instead of the husband’s, they would likely still come to junctures of family-formation at which they would do all the same reflection as adults that we did. Sticking with my arbitrary choice of the father’s surname remains my preference, as does my preference for my mother’s surname as a ‘first’ name; in the grand scheme of things, all these names will pass away as choices continue to be made by the living.

  11. Two of my friends did what Matt describes his friends doing: they created a new last name for their child. In one case, the couple just combined their names upon marriage–in fact, when I met them I had no idea that their last name ‘Kirchmiller” had been formed when they merged “Kirch” and “Miller.” My other friend had a baby recently, and she and her partner had initially kept their own names but then created a new name (by creatively merging elemets of their own names) for the child. They now plan to change their own last names so that they match the child’s, but I’m not sure if they’ve done this yet. It’s pretty clever, I think, and a lot of time was put into these decisions.

  12. My partner I have discussed this a few times (we’re in our late 20s and will have a child in the next…5-8 years if we have one). The hyphenation always seemed a little awkward to me, and our last names combined (one Czech name and one French name) would look and sound weird. The creation of a new name sounds like an interesting possibility. I hadn’t considered the possibility.

  13. In the part of the world where I am from (Norway), it is very common for for partners to hyphenate their last names in the name of gender equality. But since children usually also get two first names, both of which are used in everyday conversation, the result is that children born in the last two decades have ridiculously long and complicated names. So, a three-year old asked what her or his name is would have to answer ” Linnea Amalie Andersen-Instegård” or “Elias-Aleksander Ytterdal-Jentoft”.

    Most Scandinavian family names ending in -sen or -son are the result of 1800-century legislation mandating that every family should have one family name, rather than each person taking their father’s first name and then adding “son/søn” or “dotter” (the practice only persisted in Iceland). This means that women who have a sen- or -son name are really just carrying the name of some remote male ancestor with “son” illogically attached at the end. So one wonders whether “keeping your birth name” really is much more feminist than taking your husband’s name in such cases.

    I opted to keep my last name when I married because it is the name I have always had and because the cost of and hassle of changing all official documents was too much. Our daughter has my husband’s last name (Pakistani). This name, too was adopted in order to create a family name when my husband’s parents emigrated to the US, so it is not the last name of my husband’s father. I never considered giving my daughter a hyphenated last name. The reasons were complex: the name she would have inherited from me would have been the last name of my father’s family, not my mother’s (they are divorced), it would have been a combination of Danish and Urdu, which just struck me, rightly or wrongly, as a little over-the-top, and the kind of name that would immediately require her to explain everything about her parents’ ethnicity whenever she introduced herself. And I also liked the simplicity and convenience of one last name.

    My impression is that my female Scandinavian friends are more likely to retain their last names when they marry if that name is not a “-sen” or “-son” name, but rather a place name or a name that sounds “special” or even upper-class. In Sweden many couples simply make up a new name when they marry (this is particularly common among people with “son”-names), but the trend hasn’t caught on yet in Norway.

  14. Profbigk:

    A lot of my friends have said that the choice to use the father’s name for the children was ‘arbitrary’, as you did. But I think this just has to be a case of failed first-person knowledge. When two dozen friends make that ‘arbitrary’ choice and no one chooses the other way, and when it tracks historical tradition and male privilege, there’s just no way it can be read as ‘arbitrary’, even if it feels that way to the choosers, no?

    Also FWIW, given the thread, perhaps my original post wasn’t clear – I kept my own name and didn’t hyphenate. It is only my son who has a hyphenated name. Not that my particular case matters much :)

  15. Um that last comment was from me, Rebecca. No idea at all why it showed up as ‘anonymous’ but that made things confusing.

  16. Also from the linked article: “Hamilton says that about half of respondents went so far as to say that the government should mandate women to change their names when they marry, a finding she called ‘really interesting.'” Yes, that certainly is “interesting”!

    We did what helenesch mentions–kept our original last names and then chose a separate last name that we liked for our child (children, if there are any forthcoming)–but it’s not a combination of our names, and we have no intention of changing our own names to match his. He’s five now, and we’ve experienced zero issues with the arrangement. He does find it odd that some people are “Mr. and Mrs. Samelastname” and recently asked how that comes to be; I like that it helps him be aware of those sorts of conventions, actually, although that’s not why we made the decision. (For one thing, our names hyphenated would be aesthetically appalling. Truly.)

    We don’t know anyone else whose child hasn’t taken his or her father’s last name straight-up. And the VAST majority of our women friends who’ve married have taken their husband’s last names (no hyphenating). I didn’t realize I was being so weird when I kept mine: it didn’t occur to either of us to do otherwise.

  17. I planned to take my wife’s name (largely because I prefer it). But it turned out to be much harder to arrange than it would have been for her to take mine (especially since I was an immigrant), and so we just kept our respective names. When we talked about kids, we decided that any girls would get her last name, and any boys mine.

  18. Most of our friends who did it say that they did it so they and their kid(s) would have the same last name. Oddly enough, however, it was *always* the husband’s last name that they took. Never the wife’s.

  19. So I took my husband’s last name. I did so in the very dark ages. All my friends getting married at that time changed their names. I knew of only one person in philosophy who had not changed her name, and when I made my decision her having her maiden name continued to be a very big deal. That person was Elisabeth Anscombe. I suppose Iris Murdoch may have been married by then, in which case the number should be two.

    Mind you, I was also quite estranged from my family, and my last name, while looking very simple, contained an unusual combination of letters for Anglophones. Hence, no one could pronouce it correctly at first attempt, and everyone had trouble spelling it. I’d spell it out carefully, but people simply wouldn’t take it in. That was extremely tedious.

  20. I kept my last name and gave both my children (one boy, one girl) my last name as a middle name.
    But I have another question related to this. Do you notice that there is a greater percentage of female philosophers choose to keep or hyphenate their last name than there is a percentage of women in general who choose to do so?

  21. HI, Leigh, and yes, I do notice a greater percentage of surname-keepers among women in philosophy here in North America, than among North Americans generally. I have no data to back this up, merely the experience of circulating in the social network of Anglophone women in Philosophy; the married and heterosexual women in my sphere are extraordinarily atypical in their retention of their names after marrying.

  22. Indeed, J-Bro. Another (surely coincidental) regularity is that even when women keep their names, the kids almost always get the Dad’s name.

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