Passing men’s names on to their wives and children is a fundamentally flawed practice

Heirs and graces.
Heirs and graces.
Image: AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Sparrowhawk. For some of you, this will conjure an image in your minds, and not of a bird. For everyone else: Sparrowhawk is the central character in A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula le Guin. He uses that alias because his true name is secret. The key to his power lies in his name.

I first wrote about names back in June, before a marriage that, for the first time, presented me with the possibility of renouncing the name that had always signified “me.” The article elicited a flood of feedback so diverse that it became clear to me that changing or keeping names is a pressing problem, spanning identity, gender politics, family and, yes, power. It’s complex, important, and—in my society, at least—utterly unsolved.

The central problem is this: In many parts of the world, for hundreds of years, a bride changed her surname to her groom’s after marriage. Now, lots of people feel losing their name implies the erasure of a part of their identity, as well as perpetuating a tradition that’s outmoded in a world where women are no longer the property of their partner.

But there’s no clear solution. And people are trying everything.

Come together

“I feel very strongly about my right to my name and that anything my husband and I did would be reciprocal,” says Ruth Barnett, a communications director. “If I’m changing something, he is too.”

The couple’s solution was to keep their own names, but add each others’ surname as a middle name, so that on passports and other official documents they would be linked. Lots of other women I spoke with said they planned to do the same.

Across cultures, name-changing conventions vary. Women in the US, UK, India, and many African countries change their names. Chinese, Italian, and many Spanish-speaking women don’t. Islamic cultures don’t insist that a woman change her name, and in some it’s discouraged. But almost everywhere, children take their father’s last name, meaning that they won’t share a name with their mothers, if the mothers keep their pre-marriage name. In some Latin cultures, children get both names, but the father’s is the one passed on to the children’s children.

‘Twas ever thus

All of this obsessing over lineage may sound a bit Henry VIII. But that’s because these traditions extend that far back—to the times when the need to prove paternity was desperate, in order that property and title might be passed on. Today, these conventions are utterly outmoded.

Simone de Beauvoir in 1972.
Simone de Beauvoir in 1972.
Image: AP Photo/Jean-Jacques Levy

Women have been writing about the issue since the 1940s, and probably before. In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir noted in The Second Sex that marriage entailed both a woman’s only chance of freedom, and the subsuming of her personality into that of her husband:

In marrying, woman gets some share in the world as her own; legal guarantees protect her against capricious action by man; but she becomes his vassal. He is economic head of the joint enterprise, and hence he represents it in the view of society. She takes his name; she belongs to his religion, his class, his circle; she joins his family, she becomes his ‘half’. She follows wherever his work calls him and determines their place of residence; she breaks more or less decisively with her past, becoming attached to her husband’s universe.

Things are different now. Few men I know think of their wives or girlfriends as vassals, though there are plenty of places where equality is by no means as advanced, and some where it remains nonexistent. In the 1970s, many women in countries with strong feminist movements stopped changing their names. But that seems, to some extent, to have petered out.


Compromises are common. Creating a double-barrelled name is now an increasingly popular option. This in itself creates problems. One British artist I spoke to married a man with a double-barrelled name and saw little option but to take it, despite her reservations, in part because adding another hyphenated segment would have been awkwardly long.

I never planned to change my name—or get married. But when I found myself doing the latter, I thought hard about the reasons for a change. So far, I haven’t changed anything and nor has my husband.

But I’ve been taken aback by the number of times I’ve been asked about my choice. The official who married us asked me whether I planned to change my name, but not my husband. The bank asked me, and not him (more than once). Family members asked, and several simply assumed I had renounced my name on the day of our wedding. This will, I imagine, keep happening.

No one has ever asked my husband if he planned to change his name, and I would be surprised if they ever do. In fact, men do change their names—and not just when their wife is famous.

A young festival-goer walks with her father
Some dads are doing it.
Image: Reuters/Murad Sezer

Phil Buckley, a computer programmer who lives in London, changed his surname to his girlfriend’s just after their daughter was born. He said that carrying the name of his father, who he had barely known, was strange anyway. When his child was born, “I wasn’t going to have my surname go anywhere near her,” he said. His partner, meanwhile, “has a large family who all care about her very much,” he added. It made sense that “our daughter would share a name with them, rather than our fragmented very small unit with a name that isn’t actually my mum’s maiden name.”

But even for the willing, the switch isn’t always easy. Torsten Müller, a Berlin-based entrepreneur, planned to change his name to his Brazilian wife’s, but was dissuaded by the inflexible German and Brazilian legal systems. In both, he’d have had to take all of his wife’s surnames (in the Brazilian tradition, children take the surnames of their mother and father in that order, passing on the father’s to their children). He kept his name, and the couple’s daughter has both names (with Müller’s last). It isn’t ideal, “but since we both want to be able to travel with her hassle-free, it’s the choice of reason at this point,” he said.

It’s worth noting that some women I spoke with happily changed their names to their husbands’. One, a young doctor, was positively looking forward to getting rid of a name—Smith—that’s both very common and that she felt was connected to painful memories in her father’s past. Everyone should have the choice.

The family dynamic

Children are a big sticking point. Almost all the women I spoke with who planned to keep their name, or add their husband’s as a middle name, said they would pass on the paternal name to their children.

Sarah Punshon, a television director, said she never planned to change her name but that she had “always assumed that if we have children they’d take my husband’s surname—at least the first one would—because it would seriously bother his Dad if they didn’t. Also I suppose I think children are so fundamentally their mother’s that the father has to assert his connection somehow, poor sod.” Both of Punshon’s sisters changed their names when they married.

The sensitivity of fathers’ parents was mentioned more than once. One Canadian grandfather recently suggested a way to get around the problem by giving girls their mother’s name, and boys their father’s.

Another proposition is that partners should interweave their names, or choose completely new ones. But this carries the same career problems, and the same admin hassle, as one partner making the change. Plus, there’s a lot more explaining to do.

The permutations and sheer work of adopting a new system—for individuals, let alone for society as a whole—makes me wonder whether this is a fight worth having. After all, it’s just a name.

But as Sparrowhawk could appreciate, names are important, and have always been. Literature is full of stories about both women and men who lost their “name,” which was synonymous with standing, honor, and integrity. Think of The Crucible: John Proctor is offered the chance to save his life if he signs a confession. But the loss of his self-esteem, his identity, would be too much. Why?

Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

Granted, marriage is often a happy occasion, not a death sentence. But the loss of identity is a problem, and one that befalls a lot more women than men.

But as same-sex marriage becomes more widespread, more and more couples—and more and more men—will have to make a decision about what to call themselves in the absence of a “traditional” choice. That can only be a good thing.

Wild child

The reason most cited for sharing a name is a sense of family identity. I don’t find that persuasive. My mother has a different surname to me, which makes no difference to how I feel about her. People divorce, and remarry, and end up with different surnames to their children.

Where children are concerned, there’s another option that is growing on me. Back in the 1970s, a group of families in the UK decided to live communally, and give all their kids the same surname: Wild. I like the idea of any children I might have getting a whole new name—and of them sharing it with the children of our friends, who will hopefully remain part of their support network after we’re gone.

Now I just have to convince my friends. And my husband. And the rest of the world.