Monday, 7 July 2014

What's in a name?

Edmund Blair Leighton "Signing the register"

So recently there was an article in the Guardian by Lauren Apfel about how she wished she had given her daughter her surname. It sparked quite a lot of interest - what women decide to do with their names when they co-habit, get married or have children is tricky. All, yes ALL, my married friends, many of whom I think of as having feminist leanings, simply switched to their husband's surname. No debate, no inner turmoil. Just the simple, straightforward route. What was the reason? Mainly because they wanted a "family name"; something that would unite the couple and their children, creating a sense of identity and belonging. One friend said she just "sleepwalked" into it.

Whether you think of yourself as a feminist or not, it's worth taking a look at some of the options. After all, there might be unexpected associations or practical considerations to think about!

Getting married:
  1. Take husband's name - essentially straightforward, traditional, conservative. Boring? Essentially means losing your previous identity, literally.
  2. Keep maiden name - defiant, feminist? Might be perceived as individualistic?
  3. Go double-barrelled - adding your father's name to your spouse's name is actually not that revolutionary when you think about it. And it is massively cumbersome. After much inner angst I went for this option and now my first name and surname add up to 7 syllables, 11 syllables if you throw in my middle name. I tend to run out of space on forms and it's not great repeating myself on a phone call with a dodgy line! However, it is quite a nice merging of two strands of your life. Can you tell I'm a Gemini??
  4. Keep maiden name for your professional life and take spouse's name for family life where it's easier if you have the same surname as your children. This could be good but also leads to confusion. My mum chose this (Feminist Mum OBE) and I could never remember who to ask for when I phoned her up at work. More amusingly, when we turned up at Buckingham Palace to collect her honour, her OBE is in a different name to her passport causing much drama at palace security!
  5. Spouse takes your name - just trying to think of a single man I know who has done this. Men seem pretty determined to hang on to their surnames, unless their new wife has something particularly appealing like Greenwood or Ducasse which might be preferable to their own.
  6. You both go double-barrelled - I think this is becoming a more popular option and is definitely fairer in the double-barrelled stakes than just one partner doing it.
  7. You blend both your surnames together in a new name - I know one couple who did this and coincidentally their surnames were quite similar anyway so it totally worked. This will potentially lead to confusion in the family tree though as neither of you now share a surname with any of your ancestors but hey, who cares?
Of course, there are more configurations using your mother's maiden name, your middle name or whatever. I mean the world's your oyster name-wise if you just want to change it by deed poll. I just found a website that offers an adult name change for £8.99! If you think about it, naming yourself is a pretty big deal. And let's go a step further, what about if you have children?

What to call the kids:
  1. Father's name - again, simple, expected. Mother's input is obvious through birth so way of confirming patriarchal lineage.
  2. Mother's maiden name - just asserting the maternal grandfather's name over the father's name. Seems to happen more often if mother has beautiful surname she wants to preserve. 
  3. Double-barrelled - again cumbersome and simply asserting two patriarchal lineages. Could also lead to generation of epic names. One friend suggested that if her daughter, already wielding a hefty double-barrelled name, decides she wants to add on a future spouse's name, then she will be dragging along a triple-barrelled surname, clearly needing "stabilisers" to remain upright!
  4. The blended name - creating a whole new family lineage! Or would a new name be created with each new generation? Surely this would cause panic and horror amongst genealogists? But then it is very creative and gives each new generation the opportunity for self-expression.
  5. Using a female name as a way of linking women. Lots of people do this. My mother's first name, Elizabeth, is my, my sister's and my daughter's middle name. Similarly grandmother's names seem to feature heavily as first or middle names. I think this is an important way of honouring women within the patriarchal system - I wonder how many generations can keep the name "Elizabeth" going in my family?
  6. Giving one child the mother's maiden name and one child the father's surname. This does totally flout the traditional idea of creating belonging through naming. Personally I find it a step too far as I am eternally trying to create a sense of unity between my children and I think a shared name helps that. In practical terms it could also be a real headache in school or whatever. But then, why let the confines of society limit you?  You have the right to give your child the name you feel is right. And it challenges the automatic patriarchal naming system.
So there are a myriad of options here. Personally I think it is worth a bit of thought. We spend weeks and months trawling through baby name books and writing lists for our children's first names. Why not think a little deeper about what our middle names and surnames mean to us? Who do they represent? What do they signify about our identity, our political views, our family ties?

Even now, I wonder if I made the right decision with my naming choices for myself and my kids. But I'm really glad I thought about it. Both my children have a name from my side of the family and I like that. Lauren Apfel talks about "excuses" women make - one side of the family cared more, you didn't want to upset anyone or rock the boat, it was easier to go with tradition. Well that's up to you, but if you stand up for yourself in naming, be it naming yourself or your offspring, it may well make it easier to stand up for yourself in other areas of your life which continue to be dominated by patriarchal tradition. After all, your name tells the world who you are.

What would you go for? Traditional or alternative?  Would be great to hear if there are some more options out there I haven't covered. Let's thinkn outside the box, people!


  1. I loved the article as I agree with you that names are crucial aspects of our identity. They reflect equality issues and too many people fall into complacency about this and perpetuate, even if unwittingly, patriarchal tradition. I have a different perspective from you on the use of my family name. I see it very much as MY name, it's who I am, and MY name to hand on i.e. I believe the female lineage comes through me. It may have been my father's name, but it became mine and you have to start somewhere with these things! I didn't change it when I got married nor did my husband (why would we) and we chose to give the children both the family names, one from their mother and one from their father.

    The double-barrelled thing isn't perfect, indeed v clunky and I dread to think how all these double-barrelled children meeting others with same will resolve that conundrum. You explored very neatly all the options and none is problem-free. I felt strongly that I wanted my children to reflect the female lineage and for them to get that point, regardless of the patriarchal system that gave me that name. They know that they have my name as well as their dad's, so I feel I have achieved some small but important point for equality with that! Not so easy for football shirt printing as too many letters but small price to pay! We also gave them as middle names one each of their grandmothers' maiden names, but these are far less visible aspects of female lineage compared with the use of surnames.

  2. I considered two things as well, that my family name would die out (being one of 3 sisters, and my dad was the only one with that family name) and what would happen should we divorce (change back to my own name? Keep using ex's name?).