Thursday, May 20, 2010

Marriage Name Changing

In the past, in most European societies, women always changed their last name when they got married.  This was never questioned.  But nowadays, it has become optional.  Hyphenated names were used for a while, but now it seems that an increasing number of women simply do not change their name.

This may be for economic reasons as much as cultural ones.  Our society has become much more bureaucratic over the years, with the result that changing one's name is more of a hassle than ever before.  I have heard detailed complaints from a fellow grad student of just how much work was required to change her name.  She was talking to another grad student, who got married later and decided not to change her name.

Of the five women I know from school who have gotten married in the past few years, two of them decided not to change their names.  There does not seem to be any social pattern to this.  One who decided not to change her name was a die-hard libertarian, and the other comes from a fairly traditional farming family.

Maybe there are some women who change their name because it is expected, but increasingly the only relevant consideration seems to be "Do I like my husband's last name?"

I have always thought that the ideal pattern of naming would be as follows:  Nobody changes their name when they get married.  Daughters inherit the last name of the mother, and sons inherit the last name of the father.  This seems logical; everyone has a chance to continue the family name and nobody has to do any paperwork.  The only adjustment would be that we would have to get used to siblings with different last names, but there are already a lot of families like that anyway.

3 comments:

NotanEster said...

There are really two issues here, name inheritance as well as changing 'maiden names'.

Despite the common term 'maiden name', the problem with daughters in inheriting the mother's family name is that the surname would more often than not originate from some male somewhere down the line. Where do you start or stop?

Abandoning the idea that a last name comes from a male is not so easy unless A) you and your society treat the name like fake window shutters (separate from it's original purpose, of marking patrilineal descent) and basically 'forget' it is derived from a patrilineage, and/or B) you are lucky and have a prior matrilineage recorded, or it was/is changed by a (to be) ancestral female.

Both options would be difficult to put into general practice. Also, surnames are often still used as markers of regional origins, not just family. Maybe that could change as people become ever more mobile and technology shortens communication distance and blurs apparent geographic boundaries.

Random thought: let's say I took my mom's birth name and she had taken her mom's birth name, (itself derived from a Swedish patronym) I would have an identical first and last name to my great grandma! That's a common thing for boys but novel to think about for girls and myself...

It is interesting that people have sometimes been so bent on keeping 'family names' alive, when humans still have only a dim awareness of the 'long term.' It's probably only partly due to the need for a unique marker in larger society. For example, a Swedish peasant merely took his or her dad's patronym, i.e. 'Larsson' or 'Larssdotter' and they were done. Their grandkids would use their son or son in law's patronym. 'Family names' in Sweden were only used by middle and upper classes until the 19th century when they became required of everyone.

The attractiveness of the husband's name is not the only reason why a woman may keep her birth name. I know there are women with publications that choose to keep their name, for reasons of keeping authorship constant. For others aesthetics is less important than the idea of losing a name they have had for years, whether a birth or married name. Despite being now divorced, my mother told me she will probably keep her married name because she has used that name longer than she had her birth name.

With 'family names' still being intricately wrapped up within patriarchy and bureaucracy, I have no good solution for inheriting family names (though I like the idea of taking a surname from both parents per the Spanish custom, allowing a nominal connection to both parents).

But a solution for the dilemma of changing names at marriage is: Stop assuming names must or will change with marriage. For that matter, since naming customs are so varied across the world, probably best not to assume names will not change either, at marriage or any other time.

Alleged Wisdom said...

I never thought of a last name as a marker of patriarchy. I always thought of a last name as an identification tag, nothing more. I do not think it would be hard to society to change its customs. The last name custom is fairly recent, and only comes from one culture, so it is not that entrenched.

In the short term, a girl would indeed end up with her mother's father's name. But in the long term, there would be a consistent matrilineal name.

Inheriting both names simply does not work in the long run. If someone with a hyphenated last name marries someone else with a hyphenated last name, you either have to drop some of the names or end up with four names string together. If they decided to keep that, their kids could end up with eight last names. The question of which name to keep or drop does not go away, it just gets pushed back a generation.

NotanEster said...

I still do not see the point of using a last name that really originated with a man for delineating a matrilineage.

I believe in Spain, the name of the kids are the 'first' last names of the parents (usually the father's, but laws have allowed name order to be parents' choice so they could still take the mother's name). They do not end up with endless strings of surnames. Everyone in the family does have a different set of last names (except siblings, assuming parents are consistent in name choice).

Let's say the kid takes mom's matrilineal name. Dad can then give the kid his father's name. Voila.