Archive | April, 2011

To have and to hold: The hidden meaning of last names

11 Apr
Cool surname map courtesy of National Geographic.

“Because I love him.”

This is the main reason most straight women give when they agree to take their husband’s or fiance’s last names. By that logic, the following must also be true:

  • Women who don’t take their husband’s last names don’t love their husbands; and
  • Since men don’t take their wives’ last names, men don’t love their wives.

Of course, some men DO love their wives (although one would never guess from The Lockhorns,) so clearly, that reason is a load of horsepoop. So what other possible reasons could there be for women trading in their names in exchange for a “Mrs.”?

“I want to have the same last name as my children.”

Image courtesy some lame stock image service. Please
note the wedding ring. If you spend any amount of time
working with stock art, you’ll soon notice the only
time women’s hands are pictured with wedding rings are
when the image clearly has something to do with weddings
or motherhood. Interesting, no?

This is quite easily solved by just giving your children your last name. Easy, peasy. Did you know that you can, in fact, give your children whatever last name you damn well please? There’s no law stating that one or both parents must share a last name with a child. You could name your kid “Steve Lil’Hokomoke” if you so chose, or “Belinda Cheesedoodleface,” even if your last name is Jones and your husband’s last name is Johnson. Not particularly kind, but completely legal. Say your or your husband’s last name was “Cheesedoodleface” — is a name so ripe for schoolyard-teasing really one you want to pass on?

So if last names have nothing to do with love or the law, then what gives? Power and patriarchy. Don’t believe me? Spend some time reading about family structure and patrilineality. The easiest way to explain patrilineage is that any society has to figure out a system for passing on property, how its children will be socialized, etc. Most societies have chosen patrilineality – this means that the property is passed from father to son, women and their children take on their husband’s last names, leave their families of origin to join their husband’s families and raise their kids according to the customs and traditions of the father’s family of origin.

In societies where patrilineality includes women (and often, young girls) leaving their family of origin to live with and care for their husband’s family of origin, this leads to yet-further devaluation of women and girl children – the most well-known example is probably female filicide in China and India.

Patrilineality is a big part of patriarchy – which basically means “a system run by males, not females,” wherein males are the heads of the household, have authority over women and children, and dominate the government and social and cultural systems. The United States and most countries/societies existing today are patriarchal systems, and this is the primary reason — not love, not money, not law — why women are born with their father’s last names,  trade them for their husbands’ names when they get married, and give their children the husband’s last name instead of theirs.

But before you get all panicky, readers: Just because you have your hubbie’s last name doesn’t mean you’re a Bad Person perpetrating an Evil Conspiracy. The last name gambit is just one of many manifestations of the patriarchal superstructure undergirding our everyday lives – from seemingly innocuous activities like wearing makeup and heels to more insidious things like eating disorders, rape, wage discrimination and domestic violence. We all participate in patriarchy, whether we know it, or like it, or not. The best we can do is become aware of, and make conscious choices about, our participation. We should be able to assert a modicum of control over how – and how much – we kowtow to convention, although in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to at all.

Those of you with your hubbie’s last names, how do you feel about it, and were you aware of the history of patrilineage before you got hitched? Lady readers without husbands – do you plan to change your name when you marry? What’s driving that decision? Those of you who aren’t planning to marry, or aren’t legally allowed to marry in your country, how do you approach the last name conundrum? Do you think society’s expectations are different for you, or the same? Boy readers – how do you feel about your wife, or future wife, taking your last name? Please post a comment and tell me your story!

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