What’s in a Name?

Maiden namesFor most of human history men have ruled over women. Even in the civilized West women were the property of their husbands up and through the nineteenth century. It took until the twentieth century for the United States to grant women the right to vote. We have come a long way in a very short time. Women now work in the same jobs and for nearly the same pay as their male counterparts. Women are free to divorce their husbands and speak for themselves. They attend colleges and university at rates higher than men. These are all positive achievements.

Many women, however, continue to give up their family name when they marry. This archaic tradition is beyond silly. It is a throwback to a time when women belonged to their husbands. It is a tradition, like marriage, that should stop, and soon.

The California Name Equality Act of 2007 allows marrying couples to change their last (or middle) name free of charge. The women doesn’t have to assume the family name of her husband or add a silly hyphen. Each of them can blend their names to form a new name.

Effective 01/01/2009, one party or both parties to a marriage may elect to change the middle or last names by which that party wishes to be known after solemnization of the marriage. Each party applying for a marriage license may choose to include on their marriage license the new name in the spaces provided on the marriage license application without intent to defraud.

It was a news report I saw about this new law that got me thinking about this issue. This is a very small step in the right direction. At least it might get people thinking about the issue and questioning traditions.

Men should retain their family name. So should women. Our last name is part of our identity and heritage. It is, in a very real way, part of who we are. It should not change, ever.

I have strongly encouraged my best friend, Kirsten, to legally change her last name to her maiden name. She has resisted because, she says, my name is easier for people to pronounce (her maiden name is Uhler [you-ler]).

That was easy. But what about the children? I propose children use a new name that is a creative blend of the last names of both the parents’ last names. This would give them a connection to their ancestors and an identity all their own. We have discussed this with our three daughters. They like the idea of changing their last names from Danley to Danler.

Right now you’re probably thinking I’m nuts. It’s not so crazy, though. Every parent chooses a last name for their child just like they choose first and middle names. They just choose a last name without considering an alternative from tradition. And that traditional last name choice is almost always the last name of the father. Misogyny marches on.

What do you think?

4 Replies to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. Great post, Brent. That women have always taken their husbands’ last names is misogynistic. I can see how it may be more convenient for everyone in the same family have the same last name, and perhaps make them feel unified. But why does it have to be the man’s name?

    On one hand it would be nice for husband, wife, and kids to all take on a combination of the two last names. Everyone is connected. However then both the husband and wife are changing their identity.

    I do like the idea of having the girls change their last name to be a combination of each of our last names. But of course the “connection to their ancestors” would only go as far back as their parents. If each generation were to change their last name, well, that would make genealogy a little difficult.

    Heritage aside, the idea of children using a combination of their parents last names is an good idea.

  2. “Danler?” What’s wrong with “Uhley”?

    But seriously – as Kirsten said, the difficulty is indeed as you go further down the generations.

    Our children have different surnames. My step-son carries his Jen’s family name, since she was his “primary parent” for most of his early childhood; and both of my daughters carry my surname. My ex-wife, who has re-married – retains my family name as well – because she likes having the same family name as her daughter!

    Maybe nowadays it’s becoming less important for the people to have the same surname as their ancestors since we can (almost) prove ancestry with DNA testing. So we could go back to the old practice of basing family names on our occupation! I guess it might get equally confusing, though, with all of those “Joe Bloggers”.

    I guess many people do enjoy the public statement of ancestry their surname provides, but it sure is a tricky one. I’m not sure if there is a simple answer – especially an OSFA one.

  3. @Kirsten – The only way to solve the “genealogy problem” is to have an impossibly long string of hyphenated surnames. Changing the names doesn’t create a genealogy problem, the problem already exists. Having some connection to both the maternal and paternal families would remedy this complication, if just a tiny bit.

    @Steven – Everybody I’ve mentioned Uhley to just laughs. My mother laughed at Danler every time I mentioned it, too.

    Thank you for the example of your own children. I’ve said privately to Kirsten that any argument based on simplicity is denying the fact that the traditional family is dead in 2009 and has been dying for a long time. People no longer stay married for their entire lives (this is a good thing). We are more Brady Bunch than Ozzie and Harriet.

    I agree that it is less important, in light of DNA testing, to have the same surnames. I’m not sure, besides a hobbyists’ curiosity, why we need to prove ancestry at all.

    No OSFA. I agree. Which is one of my major contentions against traditional marriage.

    My mother read this post and we discussed it over the phone at length. She told me three stories that both angered me and solidified my feelings on this issue.

    Her family, the Longacres, are somewhat known and important in Anchorage, Alaska. She is the eldest of five children; she has four younger brothers. After she married my father they were at a “function” and everybody introduced themselves. My uncle’s wife introduced herself as a Longacre. My mother introduced herself as a Danley. People could not make the connection. My aunt was in, by marriage, and my mother was out.

    One of her brothers is into genealogy. He traced back the family name for many generations. But only up the Longacre branches. No search for his maternal grandfather, maternal grandmother or paternal grandmother. Just the “Longacres”.

    My mother, being the eldest sibling, has had custody of family photos since her parents died. A brother requested she give them to my cousin, Chris Longacre, because he is a Longacre. My older brother, Scott, is the eldest grandchild of my mother’s parents. But, you see, he’s a Danley and not a Longacre. It wasn’t suggested, even, that the photos be given to Chris’ oldest sibling, Linda, because, you know, she wouldn’t be a Longacre forever. My mother, understandably, was upset. Her children, she argued, have just as much Longacre in them as does Chris. The Longacre name, to her brother, is all-important. Which is sad.

  4. […] Brent’s post about women, marriage, and the tradition of women taking the last name of their husbands. It is […]

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