Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: Why don't women keep their surname?

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Is asking a woman to change her surname a simple case of male ego? Photo / Thinkstock
Is asking a woman to change her surname a simple case of male ego? Photo / Thinkstock

A few weeks ago, a newly married friend wrote a Facebook post in which she explained - in response to those who had clearly enquired earlier - why she chose to take her husband's last name. She liked his surname, she said, and wanted them to feel like a little gang. It wasn't, she said, anti-feminist of her.

Whether or not you agree with her choice, the fact she had even been questioned about it is evidence that the times, they are a changin'. A little bit.

A study by Facebook itself released just days ago shows this may be the case. Researchers looked at the names of women labeled as "married" and then at the names of their husbands. Overall, they found only 62 per cent of women in their 20s took their husband's name, compared to 74 per cent of women in their 30s, and 88 per cent of women in their 60s.

It goes without saying that in terms of its original essence, the practice is outdated. That it was borne of the belief that a woman should exist primarily in relation to her husband - financially, politically, sexually, and so on.

We all know that, I would hope, so I won't blather on about it.

Except to say that the knowledge of the tradition's origins, steeped as they are in the notion that women are property to be handed along from father to husband, makes it a conflicted choice for a lot of my feminist-minded, female peers.

Because despite the reported shift away from the practice, the women who do choose to keep their own names are still the minority. Which is then compounded by the fact the majority of my peers' partners - otherwise modern, open-minded young men - still expect their girlfriends to take their name. Despite being utterly unable to justify that expectation beyond a shrug and offer of "Tradition".

Cue: "I was never crazy about my last name anyway." "It really mattered to his family." "I didn't really care, but he did, so I just went with it." "If we'd double-barreled it would've sounded weird."

It's baffling. Do conservative expectations still wield such power that women are voluntarily disconnecting from themselves - and their children - by name? Is it a simple case of male ego?

Even when the explanation for a shared name is the etymological unity of the family, why must it always be her name that disappears? Why the expectation that she must deal with the complications involved with two names: professional (maiden) and domestic (his)?

Women have always nurtured, and sacrificed in order to do so. Whether it's giving up the best cuts of meat to husband and children or accepting the erasure of her surname, maybe this is no more than our continued role as apple cart stabilisers. After all, it'd be a rare woman who wasn't aware, come marriage, that her partner may well take offense should she "reject" his name.

Or perhaps it's simple biology, as experts have opined. Women have an inbuilt need to demonstrate their husbands are "theirs". They also want the father of their children to stick around, so linking him by name to his offspring (as biological anthropologist Helen Fischer has suggested) intends a stronger bond.

In any case, a name is never just a name - it's our ID, literally and emotionally. Men know this; that's why they cling to the convention for dear life. And why, as women rally against sexist "traditions" like never before, this voluntary obliteration of their own ID continues to confound.

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