The Name Game Leaves Many Men to Blame

Why do women take their partner’s surnames when they marry? Why, even where a woman keeps her own name, does she follow tradition and give her offspring his surname instead of hers?

Of course, all women have a right – when they marry and bear children – to decide as they like on such momentous matters. My interest is in why most women make this choice, with few even seeking to discuss it, little less cause a fight.

It’s tradition for a bride to take her groom’s surname and to give it to her kids. But given most of us know this tradition is grounded in sexist ideas about the property status of women, with marriage constituting a transfer of ownership from one male to another, I wonder why it’s pervasive.

My observation as a woman who has kept her own name and given it to our children, is that men are more than aware of the privilege our naming traditions afford them. This is the case even for those who recognise that the tradition isn’t fair.

In an admirably honest piece on the issue, married ‘'new-age’‘ father Clint Greagan says: ’‘[When] I think back to how we decided what name our children would adopt, [t]here really was no discussion about it. I was very adamant they’d be named after me and [my wife] was very quick to be OK with it … The main reason women take on their husband’s surname … – tradition – is as warming in its origins as the tradition of slavery … I’d like to think that I’d be more open about our children’s surnames [if we had our time again] but to be honest I would still struggle with it. I don’t like that about myself.’'

Greagan’s experience is that many men approach the child’s surname issue in a way that suggests – and here I quote him again – ‘'there is no choice in the matter. Their wives and children will take their name – no hyphen, no name combinations, no discussion’‘. He thinks the problem is female and male socialisation, and I agree.

Women may roll over on the question of surnames to ensure their first decision in their new role of ‘'wife’‘ marks them as properly female. Indeed, the more publicly feminist a woman is, the more she may feel compelled to prove she is submissive in her private life.

In the same way, men need to prevail on this issue for fear of being viewed by others – particularly men – as ‘'Beta’‘. Ironically, it takes a secure male to disregard such peer pressure and decide the vexed question with his partner on the basis of negotiation between equals. In our case, such negotiation led to my surname being chosen, for reasons as diverse as its uniqueness and my Jewish ancestry.

Sometimes people express surprise when they realise my partner is not a Cannold, and yes the kids are his, but nothing that makes me feel they’re checking to see if I own a pair.

Instead, women seem to view our arrangement as confirmation of the authentic nature of my husband’s feminism. Their partners' responses are even more telling. By lavishly praising my man’s decision, they tacitly acknowledge a truth few care to admit openly.

That passing on one’s name to a child is an enormous privilege that no one deserves to assume by right.

Publication history

The Name game is really a problem of socialisation  Moral Maze: The Sunday Sun-Herald