The Embedded Patriarchy of Surnames

It kind of goes without saying that in the many cultures around the world norms around surnames are deeply patriarchal. In so far as I identify with a culture I guess we are “Western” where wives traditionally abandon their own surnames in favour of their husbands, and children automatically take on their fathers’ names.

Since Mou and I are unmarried, I still go by own surname. Of course, even, if we were married, I would keep my surname. It actually means a great deal to me, since it is my mother’s maiden name* and represents the strong women in my family for the past three generations. It’s not the surname I was given at birth but one which I took on at about 16. There were a number of reasons for changing my name, including the fact that it was a damn nuisance to have a different surname to my single-parent mother, who was the only parent my school (or anyone else) interacted with. It was a conscious decision and hence I feel rather more strongly about it than I guess I otherwise would.

Nevertheless, Rose and Fynn both have their father’s surname.

Initially, I thought this would be one of the issues I would fight to the death, but pregnant and ill it somehow didn’t seem worth it. Our surnames don’t double-barrel easily and so instead we opted to include my surname as a middle name. I thought this was a great solution until the first time I saw my daughter’s name written out on her clinic card with the middle name discarded. Suddenly she was her father’s daughter, not mine.

Over time, I have gotten used to it, and have even gotten used to occasionally being called Mrs Mou. (The opposite happens frequently enough for it not to rile me.) Nevertheless, it continues to amaze me that amongst my circle of feminist friends and acquaintances, I only know one family where the children have intentionally been given the mother’s surname. (A shout out to my current boss: he is an awesome feminist).

I also need to give a shout out to my friends, J&W, whose rather complicated naming strategy is inherently equal, even though it ultimately didn’t pan out. They agreed that the first child would take the surname of the parent of the same sex, the second child would take the surname of the other parent. Unfortunately the plan has been derailed by the fact that they have decided to have only one child.

I’ve raised the issue a few times with friends whose kids have their Dad’s surnames without pushing them to explain themselves, and none of them have ever volunteered much of an explanation.

As I mentioned, my own justification is that I was just too sick and tired to fight about it. And it would have been a fight, which really surprised me. I had not expected Mou to care one way or the other, but he did, and I conceded, and consequently am a little annoyed with both of us.

Since it is much more common these days for women to keep their own names when they get married, there are a lot more children out there with names that are different to their mother’s. So the practical challenges that I experienced as a child are mitigated somewhat. Yet I am surprised at how little discussion of this issue there is in feminist circles, or at least in the feminist, suburban, working mom circles that I move in.


* It suddenly occurs to me how awful the term “maiden name” is



The mother of two girls (Rose, 6, and Fynn, 11 months), Mombot is a feminist and human rights activist based in Cape Town, South Africa. She has a fairly laid back approach to parenting if you ignore the regular rants about the proliferation of the colour pink, the lack of diversity amongst "girls' " toys, the scarcity of good role models for girls in the media etc etc etc.

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  1. Here are some of my reasons:

    1) I don’t like the surname I inherited from my father very much. Too many consonants.
    2) I rather liked the idea of having a new name as an adult, a new identity which made all my teenage foolishness on the internet much harder to find via Google.
    3) My husband and I kept our relationship “secret” for a little while because we worked together and it was awkward. I liked how sharing the same last name made our relationship completely public. We still work together, but there are no awkward moments where we reveal our status as a couple any more. Everyone knows as soon as we are introduced.
    4) I did want to have the same last name as my kids, for some of the reasons that you no doubt experienced when your name was different from your mom’s. I also wanted my husband to have that privelege, and for my kids to have the same last name as each other.
    5) I just wasn’t that attached to my original name to begin with. Unlike you, I didn’t choose mine, and it wasn’t connected to my mom, only my dad (whom I love, but don’t strongly identify with). Whereas my married name, I did choose, just as I chose my husband.

    Of course, since part of the reason I like my married name is that I chose it, I would not like it nearly as much if I hadn’t felt like it was a choice.

    1. I should confess here, that my birth surname (my father ‘s surname) was AWFUL and massive fodder for life-long teasing. That certainly played a part in my initial name changing.

  2. Thank you for this post! I kept my “maiden name” when I got married. I let both my kids take my husband’s last name because I wanted them to share the same last name (arbitrary I know, but so ingrained!) The compromise is that I got to choose their first names. My parents come from a culture (south Indian) without surnames at all, so my dad had to give his family his first name as our family’s last name to make it work in the U.S. It’s confusing, because now last names are becoming necessary, so it’s become the norm for a man to use his first name as last name. So there are a lot of people with two of the same name, or in my dad’s case, he took his dad’s first name as his official first name. And all of my cousins have different last names. Confusing!

    1. This made me laugh! Amongst some groups in South Africa, it is (maybe was) the in thing to give your child the same name and surname, or least a variation. Local poet Breyten Breytenbach is a great example. Also, my grandfather and his siblings (I think there were six of them) were all given some version of the name Cornelius!

  3. I decided early on that I wanted to hyphenate my name when I got married. My husband had no problem with it (unlike some prior boyfriends) because his mom also has a hyphenated name. I have a friend who when she got married both her and her husband hyphenated their names. However, it turns out that having a hyphenated name is really inconvenient. There’s a lot of computer systems, especially airlines, that don’t handle it well. If I had to do it again, I’d just keep my maiden name.

    For my son, my maiden name is his 2nd middle name. This goes along with my husband’s family scheme where he and all his siblings have their mother’s maiden name as their 2nd middle name. For my son, it’s not too bad (at least yet). For my husband it proves to be mildly problematic as his name is long enough he can’t get a passport card, only a regular passport. Also, computer systems and people do random weird things with two middle names. I believe my husband often just uses initials.

    I’m not sure what the best solution is.

      1. I’ve heard of people who solved this problem by creating a new hyphenated name, each keeping half of their original hyphenated name. Like Mary Smith-Jones marries John Doe-Ray and they become Mr. and Mrs. Doe-Jones. This seems like quite an equitable solution which allows each party the perks that I enjoyed about changing my name (like getting to ditch at least one if you don’t like it, an opportunity to change your identity if you want to, choosing to publicly attach yourself to each other and your new family rather than your old one) but also honors family history on both sides. Of course, it might sting for the parent whose contribution to the original hyphenated name gets dropped when their kid gets married!

  4. Our daughter may have a double-barrelled surname if we get around to it, but for the moment she has her dad’s. The reason is quite simple: when we went to register her birth we were told she could only have one surname on the certificate and getting a double-barrelled name is a separate process. As the unmarried mother it was my choice, so I crossed out mine and left his as we don’t plan to get married and everyone can immediately tell she’s my daughter but struggles to see any resembalence to him. At the very least they should share the same surname for the sake of every busybody who thinks there couldn’t possibly be a father/daughter connection given their very different skin hues.

    1. I have a couple of so-called “mixed race” sets of friends who have this same problem and can imagine that it must be particularly horrid for the parent on the receiving end of the “is that really your child” comments – so for them to share the same surname seems like a great solution.

  5. I’ve never heard of someone else come up with our gender-based plan before! Our original plan was to give each child the surname of the same gendered-parent. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I began to wonder what would happen if we were to only have girls. So we decided that the first would get my name, since she was a girl. Our second child will get my husband’s surname. Since we plan to only have 2 children, we have no need for further strategy.

  6. I liked the comment about choosing my name the way I chose my hubby. Also I love the fact that we all have the same name, that is part of my personal definition of family, possibly just because of the way I was raised. I love tradition.

  7. We very intentionally both kept our last names, but we haven’t yet figured out what to do when we have children. Hzphenating children’s names is not allowed in Germany, as is giving children from the same marriage different last names; and since my sister changed her name and his half sisters have a different surname we are both the “last” in our families with those last names. Maybe we should flip a coin…

  8. We each kept our surnames at marriage, and haven’t decided what to do about the eventual child’s name. Neither of us is deeply invested in having the child share our surname, so we’ll most likely give them the one that goes best with the first name we choose (and as a slight obsessive about baby naming, I love having that option!) I’d probably be upset if my husband were insistent on having a child share his name, but I’m fine either way as long as he is. His dad would be pretty upset about a child not “continuing the family name,” especially if it was a boy, but we don’t talk to his dad much so we’re not worried.

    I don’t want to hyphenate, but we’re also considering using a portmanteau of our surnames, or possibly choosing a third, unrelated surname. None of the options are ideal but I’m grateful to have them.

  9. Great post! I kept my maiden name when I married. When our son was born, he took my name. It happened to be the one that sounded best with our chosen first name. Plus, I have more identity tied up with my name than my husband does. The only family he’s ever known has a different last name than he does, so he doesn’t have any baggage wrapped up in it. To him, it’s just a name (and one he doesn’t like very much for various reasons). It also helped that I have a pretty bad ass last name. It’s easy to spell, easy to pronounce, and isn’t too common.

    We have no regrets. My husband is very proud of his son’s last name, and doesn’t feel it at all challenges his manhood or his role as our son’s father.

  10. For me the answer was simple when I got married I took my husbands last name because I hated my last name. I relished the change. I really didn’t associate my last name with anyone I particularly care for so I was eager for the change. Also my name now is more unique and works out well for me as an artist. With my daughter though I had her with my ex before I got really into feminism so I just went with his last name, but due to some changes for the better in our family, we all share the same last name. I do hope though that if my daughter would get married, she would stop and consider a name change rather than automatically going through with it. And if she has children I how the some thought goes into the last names for them as well.

  11. I was hoping to see more on alternative modalities of parental naming in this article. It’s an issue that has bothered me for a long time.

    It’s kind of academic for me, since I plan never to have children, but I’m still interested.

    1. A thought – has anyone considered ignoring the family aspect of Surnames completely? Just give the child whatever.

      I guess that can get complicated, though. And stars help the child if their parents give them a terrible name.

    2. This was just my musings in my own experience, but it seems that there really are lots of us struggling to find a nice solution. I may do a follow up piece exploring some of the options and maybe some of the legal constraints in different countries (I was interested to hear about the German ban on double-barreling names that Rebecca pointed out).

  12. It’s been pretty much agreed that my wide and I won’t have kids, but when we got married we agreed that 1) we would each keep our respective last names, but 2) if we DID have kids, we’d want everyone to have the same last name. Since our names don’t hyphenate smoothly, we decided that we would both change to a new, blended name that we would share with the kids. While our name don’t hyphenate well, they blend nicely into a name that sounds like it should belong to a count, and that we would be seriously tempted to put “von” in front of.

  13. We wanted to share a name as a couple and with our future kids, but neither wanted to take the other’s name, and they didn’t mash together well. We decided to take on a new name, and at the time I was researching into the history of our country (New Zealand) and how colonialism had torn many Maori people from their culture. My partner told me how his Maori great grandmother married a Scotsman and had to take his surname and Anglicise her first name (and wasn’t allowed to speak Maori or go back to her marae).

    We decided to take her original surname as our own, to honour her, to revive something that the imperialist patriarchy had (almost) wiped out, and to give our future children a link to their heritage in their name. It’s worked out wonderfully and we’re really pleased we went with that rather than our other idea (Hawkeye)…

  14. Well, before we got married I told my partner that I didn’t know what he would be called after our wedding, I would still be called my last name. Because I “have a name”. I teach classes for adults and many people come to me or come back because they quite like my teaching, so to change it would possibly lose me money.
    The kids have his name, because it’s easier and also because with entrenched sexism, nobody assumes that I’m not the mum, but a man with a different name is easily assumed not to be the dad.
    Issues with this:
    1) “Why don’t you get married?” Uhm, we are
    2) People calling me “Mrs his last name” Even when I spelled my last name 1 minute ago.
    It hardly ever happens to him. The only time he can remember is when we went to a party from my work

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