Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What's in a Name?

Trumwill has a post in which he discusses societal norms with respect to the conduct of weddings. The particular norm he examines -- that a father walks his daughter down the aisle to "give her away" -- wasn't one I had been required to think about during my own wedding. The future Mrs. Φ was very attached to the symbolism of this tradition, and as you might expect, I had no objections.

But one of the commenters brought up an issue that had rather more resonance: the last name. I have a vague sense that a fair percentage of women, even ones with no socio-political axe to grind, go through some "separation anxiety" with respect to their maiden names, and Mrs. Φ fell into this percentage. At some point, she made noises about keeping her maiden name, and this became one of the issues we discussed.

Supposedly, there are some cultures that are matrilineal, by which I mean women keep their last names and pass them to their children. (I don't have any specific examples of this, but I am assured that it is so.) Hypothetically, were I the product of such a culture, I would not have any objection to following its rules. I can't think of any theoretical reason why matrilinealism is superior to patrilinealism, or vice-versa.

But . . . in our culture, a man with a wife that keeps her maiden name is saying something very specific. He is aligning himself with . . . those people. And I had no desire to align myself with those people. I had no occasion to keep company with those people, nor did I aspire to. And it didn't matter to me that Mrs. Φ wasn't trying to make any kind of social statement about "equality" or anything. So this was, potentially, a deal-breaker.

Ultimately, the compromise, such as it was, was that she would keep her maiden name "for work". Ultimately, the work never materialized, Mrs. Φ got on the mommy track, and I'm pretty sure we haven't discussed the matter in nine years.


Trumwill said...

I have a big post coming up on the subject, but I'll say for now that we're in unusual agreement. If I were king, I would devise a system where names are kept separate, hyphenated for collective references, and sons are given the father's name and daughters the mother's. But I'm not king, that's not the way it's generally done, deviating from social norms is making a statement, and given that I am differ from social norms in so many ways that I can't help I try to be normal when I can.

That being said, Clancy kept her last name and it has really proven not to be an issue at all. Until I got married, I kept hearing complaints from women who kept their name and how so many people refused to acknowledge that and I could just see future headaches over being put in the position of making a statement that I would rather not make.

Instead, half the time people actually ask me if she has my name or not. If no one asks and she is referred to as Mrs. or Dr. Truman, she doesn't make a big deal out of it (and likewise I won't if referred to as Will Himmelreich). So we sort of informally acccepted one another's last names while having separate legal ones.

knightblaster said...

I don't see it as a huge issue, probably because in the legal profession it's very rare for women to take their husbands' surnames. Sometimes there are the awkward sounding hyphenated ones, with both husband and wife changing to hyphenated surnames, but that went out of style a decade or more ago. More common now is either she sticks with her maiden name or she inserts either her maiden name as her new non-hyphenated second name (before her last name) or vice versa as in "Kathleen Jones Collins".

It's a bit of hoo-hah if you ask me because either way it's patrilineal -- a woman's "maiden name" is generally her father's name, still. The issue becomes what to do with the kids --> do the kids have their father's last name, the mother's maiden name (i.e., generally their grandfather's last name) or the new hyphenated or non-hyphenated double last name of mom? Most commonly I have seen it as Dad's last name, still.

Elusive Wapiti said...

Actually, I'm one of those guys who would rather see the father-give-away-the-daughter tradition go away. If the symbolism behind the tradition (father transfers guardianship/ownership of the daughter's sexuality to the husband) no longer exists, then the tradition ought to go away too.

Also, I'd just as soon a woman keep her family name rather than be a "miss hyphenated" or even take her husband's last name. Again, if the symbolism represented by the tradition no longer applies (wife joining the husband's family and moving under his authority), then the tradition has no purpose.

Anonymous said...

I've heard of a (very) few cases, IIRC in Europe more than America, in which a man takes his new wife's maiden name as his new surname. It's generally done when the man has brothers, the new wife does not, and the man's father is dead. It's basically a sign of respect toward the new father-in-law.


trumwill said...

In Japanese animation (a paragon of cultural accuracy, most assuredly) if the woman is of a higher social class the man will sometimes take her name contrary to the norm.

Burke said...

It's generally done when the man has brothers, the new wife does not, and the man's father is dead.

To the extent that social traditions are governed by reason, this one makes a lot of sense (saith the blogger with no sons . . . ).

Justin said...

I like to point out the stupidity of hyphenated names given to children: what if two hyphenated people marry, will their children then have a four-hyphenated last name? Duh!

Love is a battlefield, and if she doesn't take your name, you have lost the first major engagement and will be fighting uphill from then on. Alpha up, lads.

Kirt33 said...

Is this thread still active? As a newly married (two months ago) man, I've got some thoughts.

I agree with you that traditions surrounding name-changing - matrineal vs. patrilineal vs. whatever - might not matter in a vaccuum, but I also agree that within the context of our culture it sends a definite message when a woman does not change her name: it communicates, as you say, that the couple, or at least the woman, is aligning itself with 'those people'.

I think there's more, though: I think when a woman does change her name, it helps convey a message about what you believe marriage is. One of the reasons both my wife and I very much agreed that she would take my name is that we want to send the message that our marriage is of the 'traditional', male-led sort; we want to make it clear that we don't buy into (at least some of) the tenets of modern feminism.

Plus, I might mention that yes, even in this day and age, a man whose wife does not change her name is thought less of behind his back. I believe this is so (to an extent, anyway) even in professional circles. ('Oh, hard luck, Bill - you've married one of those broads.')

Burke said...

Kirt: Congratulations on your marriage! Here's wishing you a lifetime of domestic bliss.

You are absolutely correct: men whose wives keep their names are often snickered at. Not maliciously, perhaps, but in a way that says, yeah, poor guy, he's p-whipped.

Another domestic issue that intersected with tribal alignment was our (okay, her) desire not to have children. The future Mrs. Φ was pretty up front about this when we were courting, and as I didn't have any strong feelings one way or the other, this wasn't a problem. What was a problem was her announcing this to everyone. Again, I didn't want to publicly align myself with the kind of people that decided not to have children. I wanted to align myself with the kind of people with whom we actually associated: conservative Christians that had children by the half-dozen.

As it happened, nature took its course anyway. Twice. :-)