Living Surnames: A Manifesto
This week in the Huffington Post, a biopsychologist named Nigel Barber took on a question that puzzled him: "Can Women Justify Giving Up Their Names When They Marry?" After running through some possible pragmatic and sociobiological explanations for adopting a marital surname, he ultimately proclaims himself baffled:
"Personally, I cannot understand why any person would voluntarily surrender his, or her, name at marriage. What is wrong with being yourself?!"
As I read Mr. Barber's commentary, I had a little epiphany. (It took the form of Professor Henry Higgins, singing "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?")
What if Mr. Barber has it all backwards? What if, instead of puzzling over why women don't conform to the male standard, we should be asking why men so meekly accept whatever family name they're given? And how did we, as egalitarian Americans, buy into the notion that a surname inherited from one of our countless ancestors is the core of "being ourselves," truer than identities that we choose and make?
In other words, what if the real problem of the old surname regime wasn't that women DID change their surnames on marriage, but that men DIDN'T? Or, more properly, that nobody chose and changed enough. Are two rigid paths -- your father's surname or your husband's -- really the best our 21st-century imaginations can do?
The origins of surnames
Historically in Europe, the appellations we now think of as surnames were about your individual life, in all its many aspects. Some names reflected occupations. Mr. Barber, for instance, is presumably the descendent of a long-ago barber. (Back then, a barber was likely to offer many nifty health and beauty services like bloodletting and tooth extraction.) Other names might indicate where you lived (e.g an Atwater lived at the water). Or perhaps they'd reflect something notable in your personal appearance or character. A Fox, for instance, might have had red hair, or been known for his cunning. Still other surnames indicated relationships personal or professional, like Williamson (William's son) and Harriman (Harry's man, a servant).
Originally, these names were no more heritable than a nickname like "Lefty" or "Tank" would be today. The nobility first started adopting hereditary surnames in the Middle Ages. Gradually, the convention spread to the common folk. Then governments started mandating hereditary surnames to help maintain orderly, taxable, conscriptable populations. Whichever Fox or Barber happened to be around when surnames were standardized found his personal tagline frozen in place for centuries of descendents, its descriptive essence lost.
In some areas with strong patronymic traditions, like Scandinavia and the Netherlands, this freeze didn't happen until the 19th Century. In Iceland, it never happened at all. (Iceland still uses patronymics, changing with each generation based on your own father's given name.) In other words, the immutable surname isn't as obvious a choice as it may seem.
"Maiden vs. Married"
The custom of women changing names at marriage has often been portrayed as a form of subjugation, and reasonably so. Women traditionally ceded many rights to their husbands, and taking the man's surname was both a symbol of that submission and a legal requirement. The marriage itself was essentially a transfer of property from father to husband.
Today, though, most women enter into marriage in a very different spirit, so a surname change can take on new and different meanings. For some modern women, adopting a marital surname has become an active choice, an elective right of passage to mark the creation of a new family. When approached in this way, a marital surname-of-choice can be seen as a link back to surnames that reflected the individual, rather than his or her parents. It makes a person's surname history something of a life history.
Of course, the history of marital surnames has also made keeping your birth surname an active, expressive choice for women. It's often a statement of individuality, because there's still a lingering norm (and sometimes expectation) to do otherwise, and a memory of the requirement to do otherwise. Women fought for the right to retain their birth surnames, so retaining one is exercising a freedom.
But to suggest as Mr. Barber does that EVERYBODY should refuse to "surrender" their name renders this action meaningless. If all women followed his advice, you'd simply have a new societal norm...a male norm of surnames as received totemic objects. Objects that say nothing about you as an individual. Objects that once represented the shared, created identity of a family or community, but are now wholly individual. Objects that are belongings to possess or "give up" rather than signifiers to choose, adopt and mold.
Personally, I was free to opt for whichever surname I wanted when I got married, and I chose my husband's. Mr. Barber sees this as me "surrendering" my name, which is an act of weakness, whereas he presumably "maintained" his name, which is an act of strength. But couldn't you just as naturally say that I "chose" my name, which is active, while he "accepted" his name, which is passive?
Granted, he might have put himself through the soul-searching, the philosophical and practical debate that so many women go through when they choose a name to use after marriage. But how many men really do that? Our society doesn't encourage men to think at all about what their own surnames should be. Usually, they just keep wearing whatever names their parents dressed them in when they were born.
A clash once took place between two old friends of mine. Friend A was married and had kept her birth surname. But now Friend B, a strong-minded and unconventional woman, was engaged and planning to take her husband's name. Friend A was initially aghast at this decision, asking "How could you?" "I worked so hard," A said, "with so much holding me back, to have a strong identity and sense of self. How could you just give that up?" B replied, "I'm creating a new family. And I worked so hard, with so much holding me back, to have that family." The mutual understanding was immediate. They had each made an affirmative choice, reflecting their own lives. They were both right. Or at least, each had made the right decision for herself, within the traditional bounds of dichotomous choice.
It's easy to take sides in the "married vs. maiden debate," but I think the debate itself is leading us astray, or maybe even faking us out. Not only can both choices be right, but the "maiden vs. married" name choice is a false dichotomy. There are many more name options under the sun.
In my case, I've never regretted letting go of my birth surname, but I've wondered about the paths not taken. Was Wattenberg really the best possible choice to represent my family? Why did we only consider the surnames of our two fathers? Could my husband and I have found another name -- a mashup, perhaps, or a reference to a shared experience or value -- that would have been better for us? Is there another name in our family trees with a rich tradition that might otherwise be forgotten? Maybe we would have ended up choosing Wattenberg regardless, but that mental journey would still have been worth taking.
It seems to me that it's time for family names to become living things again. Take a look at Denmark, where they've decided to re-allow Viking-style patronymics after generations of hereditary surnames. (The modern world allows us that freedom because our real unique identifiers are now numbers.) In a culture of living surnames, whether you end up with the most traditional choice or something radical, it would be a choice, and thus more meaningful than any default.
Sure, a nation of shifting surnames could be confusing. But remember, fixed, immutable family names never really were the societal norm they're made out to be. In reality, half of the population has been changing surnames to reflect life status changes all along. So anybody who's nervous about changing can just do what millions and millions of women have done through the centuries: keep your birth surname as a middle name to help people identify you.
Why the heck not?
Laura Babynamer, The One With The Purple Glasses, Who Married That Awesome Guy Named Wattenberg And Had Two Daughters