The name game is worth it

Rita Panahi is the latest in a series of opinions I have seen in the Australian media commenting on women keeping their ‘maiden’ name. She thinks it is bad because they end up with a different name from their children. As usual, she fails to understand that that need not be the case if women’s children get her surname. In any case, the criteria is a value judgment that seems ridiculous to propagate. Indeed, I recall one father — whose wife had kept her name — once telling me that he wanted his children to have his name so there would be a part of him with them. I guess he was not expecting to have much of a role in their lives apart from that.

Let’s be very clear: keeping one’s own name is (a) convenient; (b) allows more options should things not work out; and (c) is exercised by almost every man. For those reasons we should look on the practice or call for women to keep their original surname with suspicion.

That said, what to do about the children? Hyphenated names last a generation at the most while new surnames can be difficult to arrive at and lose two convenience points. I have heard of some parents alternating their children’s surnames. But that only gets you into siblings not having the same surname which seems to me to be very problematic.

So let’s approach this logically. There are three core assumptions that many couples face: (1) All siblings should have the same name; (2) Children should have an equal chance of having either parent’s surname; (3) Neither parent wants to change their surname.

In this regard, there is only one logical outcome: you need a random device to decide the surname of the children. And it seems to me that the best and most poignant such device is a gender lottery. There is a roughly a 50:50 chance of your first born being a boy. Prior to the birth you agree and announce a rule — if the baby is a boy, they will take the mother/father’s surname. You then just have to decide with a boy is associated with the mother or the father. But that is an arbitrary choice. The key is to do it upfront. In this world, 50 percent of children with have their mother’s surname.

My partner and I worked this one out on our second date — showing it was all meant to be. If the firstborn was a boy, the children would get her surname. We announced this during the pregnancy and stuck to the choice. Of course, our firstborn was a girl, so any demonstrable social non-conformity did not occur. But nor should that be what arises here. That is the point of having an announced rule.

8 thoughts on “The name game is worth it”

  1. I’d say that assumption #2, while a good one when everyone does this, is a lousy one when most people don’t. There’s a 50% chance that you’ll look – to all the world who don’t read your blog – like yet another couple where the kids, of course, get Dad’s surname. And that’s just what happened.

    Some will say… very convenient. How will you answer them? Where’s the documentary evidence about that second date of yours? Of course, if your first-born had been a boy, then no-one would be questioning your willingness to put your surname on the line. Or, if you’d just decided to give all your kids their mother’s surname.

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  2. I’ve got to say I find your reasoning very strange…especially the following….. (2) Children should have an equal chance of having either parent’s surname; (3) Neither parent wants to change their surname.

    You are indeed very strange and on the fringe of what is normal. Some of us value tradition and really I don’t see a point in getting married if I was not going to change my name as part of the process. I could just continue to live with my partner in a defacto relationship, I’d have the same legal rights and the same protections in terms of splitting of assets if we ever separated so why go through with a marriage if you are not going to embrace the traditional elements>

    My husband and I are equals in every way, this isn’t about me playing second fiddle to him but even the suggestion that he adopt my name seems absurd in the extreme….I’d think less of him if he wanted to do that. After all why would he want to adopt his father in laws name? Whatever the choice, you end up with a man’s name, I think that was the point of the article so why are some women (a minority) getting so worked up about keeping their maiden names or their father’s name.

    Have to say you sound like a Lucy Stoner which the article referred to, in fact your assumptions match what they advocate. That should be a worry for you! Have to say if you asked me this morning about this issue I would’ve said it doesn’t matter to me either way but after an eventful day at work where this article was discussed at length, it seems everyone feels passionately about this issue. I don’t know if I work at a conservative people ( I doubt it given the jubiliatin when Howard was thrown out of office) but the overwhelming majority agreed with the opinions expressed in the article. Sorry about the long response, I don’t normally respond to the sites I read but after today’s dicussions I wanted to contribute to the debate.

    Janet Kelly

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  3. Frankly, I don’t give a stuff whether other people think how things turned out for us is convenient or not. It was what we did and the random element is the random element.

    Of course, I also don’t care whether people want to use a non-random rule to make a statement. Indeed, when you do so, that is precisely what you are doing.

    My objection to today’s article was the premise that one was making a statement and the bias of assuming that only women had that option.

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  4. I found this line from the article funny: “The unhealthy focus on maiden names is just another example of modern day feminists being hopelessly out of touch with what really matters.” And of course, Janet’s plaintive echo “Why are some women getting so worked up …”

    Quite frankly, every article I’ve seen on this has been written by someone advocating that all women should switch to hubbie’s name, and chiding women who don’t do this for their selfishness and triviality. The women I know who keep their birth name after marriage don’t spend any time writing articles in newspapers about their decision, or about how all other women should follow their choice.

    Re Janet Kelly: I think one of Joshua’s points was that the fact that women “end up taking a man’s name” no matter what is a result of the particular set of institutional arrangements we currently subscribe to. So using that to make an argument in favour of the status quo is begging the question.**

    FWIW, I’m married, I go by my birth name, and my son’s surname is that of my husband because I just didn’t care all that much, because at birth it’s just a name. (I would have pushed for Joshua’s approach if I’d thought of it, but I suspect my husband wouldn’t have been secure enough to go for it.) I kept my birth name because it was the name I’d been known by for the past 27 years, and I rather liked it and wanted to keep it. Janet obviously doesn’t feel the same way, and I’m perfectly happy to let her make her own decision without telling her she’s wrong, or strange. She isn’t able to extend the same courtesy to me, though. Why is that?

    ** Any “begging the question” pedants out there want to tell me whether I got this right?

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  5. Surely ‘making a statement’ is very important. It’s the absence of people actually implementing Joshua’s assumptions – rather than just talking about them – that makes Janet regard them as ‘on the fringe of what is normal’ – Janet, the figure I’ve heard is 20%, not 4%; the latter was the number in the 1970s – and Christine’s husband feel insecure.

    (Honest call there, Christine. All of this is about insecurity – of one or both partners – I think. And, Janet, you need to check the law a bit more. De factos and marrieds are, for now, subject to completely different rules when it comes to property allocation after divorce. The person with more property is much better off unmarried. If a name change is the point of marriage, then you should have just done a deed poll.)

    Joshua, if you really want people to have a choice to buck the tradition, then what you do is much more important than what you say. In the 1990s, before this recent backlash, there were any number of couples or parents I knew who went through the pretense of ‘choosing’ which surname to use as the common surname (for themselves or their kids), with the key criterion being aesthetic. But, weirdly, EVERY couple chose the husband’s name, in most cases contrary to any plausible aesthetic. If they’d been more honest, or secure, then maybe this current backlash wouldn’t be happening.

    (Actually, I also think a big catalyst for this backlash was the decision of a high profile US political figure to change her name when her husband ran for president. But I’m sure she just did that because of aesthetics. Or for Chelsea. Or maybe because Bill was insecure.)

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  6. “You are indeed very strange and on the fringe of what is normal. Some of us value tradition and really I don’t see a point in getting married if I was not going to change my name as part of the process. I could just continue to live with my partner in a defacto relationship, I’d have the same legal rights and the same protections in terms of splitting of assets if we ever separated so why go through with a marriage if you are not going to embrace the traditional elements>”.’

    Janet’s comment made me chuckle, although not in a good way. There are plenty of people who get married for reasons that are equal to your own, but they don’t feel they have to bend to the old patriarchal (I said it, so there) rule that demands women change their name.

    How about we stick to other traditions like errr, well there are so many crap ones.

    Call me fringe (who’d want to be normal, anyway?), but the idea of creating a new family name is a good one.

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  7. Jeremy: you know what, I find it quite easy to be honest in describing other people’s motivations 🙂

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