Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What's in a Surname?

  People's fates are simplified by their names.  ~Elias Canetti


When my ex-husband and I married, I adopted his last name but paperwork technicalities kept it from being legal. After our separation, it was very easy to revert back using my maiden name socially. I decided then that I would never change it for a few reasons. 1) If my last name isn’t going to be the same as my sons’ then it should stay the way it is 2) I’ve had my name for over 26 years now 3) I like being a Faulkner (I’m actually the only Ms. Faulkner in the whole family) A few years ago, I was engaged and though the dress was bought and plans made, we still had one big snag; I didn’t want to change my last name after we were married. About an hour after I explained this to my fiancĂ©, I received a call from his mother, wondering what I had against their last name.
In my case, retaining my maiden name over the years is due to various reasons and it got me wondering why other women kept their birth names and who did the tradition of taking a spouse’s name come about in the first place? First, I learned that there is a word for keeping your maiden name, its called abstention. A very famous suffragist named Lucy Stone spoke out for women’s rights to retain their maiden name across the US and women who choose this path have often been referred to as ‘lucy stoners’.
As it turns out, there are actually many different paths taken, as far as deciding on a surname after the wedding. Of course we all know about the wife taking her husband’s last name, or not taking the last name (let’s hear it for the lucystoners), but sometimes a woman will hyphenate her last name and her husband’s last name, with either name listed first. The husband might also hyphenate his name so that they, and their children, can all share the same family name(s). In more rare cases, both spouses will come up with a new name by combining both of their names (Ms. Smith and Mr. Ford will become the Smithfords). In some cases, both spouses will retain their own name and their children will be assigned the last name of a separate, neutral party. One thing becoming more common lately is for the woman to retain her maiden name as a middle name (Hilary Rodham Clinton)
All of my research seems to take the tradition all the way back to biblical days, where it was done to secure the family name, to show solidarity between the husband and wife and to prevent any confusion as to who was married and who was not. But in the U.S., it all comes down to something called coverture. Coverture is a doctrine abided by common law and under this stature a woman had no legal rights on her own. Her name had no power and she did not have the right to create contracts or own property without her husband and his name. In fact the husband retained the legal rights for the couple. And though coverture faded away from the legal system in the 1960s and 70s, some states still forbade a woman to take out a line of credit in her own name without a male family member or husband with her. Although the laws have changed, for many the stigma still remains.
Interesting multi-cultural facts: Up until the 1700s, women in Scotland were expected to take their family name with them after marriage. In Japan, the woman will take her husband’s family name to show that she is part of his family but can still be socially referred to by her maiden name. French law mandates that men and women have equal rights and therefore both shall go through their lives with the name listed on their birth certificate. Icelandic women do not change their name after marriage because regardless of who she marries, she will always be her father’s daughter. For a change though, in Malaysia a man takes his wife’s last name and once he has adopted her family’s surname it is unacceptable to ever divorce her.
Reasons women take their husband’s last name
·         Both spouses and children will have the same family name
·         Religious or cultural reasons
·         Financial  and legal reasons
·         To show love and devotion to her husband
·         70% of Americans agree that a woman should adopt her husband’s name
Reasons women keep their family name
·         Tradition; either cultural or within the family
·         To avoid embarrassing situations that the name change could cause (Callie O’Malley anyone?)
·         Professional degree or career already based on maiden name; to be prevent loss of credit or recognition
·         Feministic standing, where she will remain her own person and not property