Dec 4, 2007

What's in a Name?

If there’s one issue I’m prone to get a bit militant about, it’s the issue of women changing their names after marriage. To me, it is an outdated and unnecessary custom, that requires significant sacrifice on the part of the woman, but is never a choice faced by men. Worse still, the fact that it is often expected, if not demanded by men points to an insidious form of sexism still present in the modern day. Just letting you know my position, straight up.

Someone who doesn’t agree with me is Rita Panahi, who’s written a charming piece on the issue for Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, which has been rejigged for Ms Panahi is described as a “social commentator”, and has an issue with our new First Lady Therese Rein, along with other wives of new Labor ministers, not taking their husband’s surname. According to Rita, they’re going against a welcome new trend of brides embracing their husband’s surname, and are therefore rather silly.

Now pieces like this can get me fairly worked up, and have me describing someone like Ms Panahi as less of a “social commentator” and more of a “barmy right-wing old biddy”. But it’s just these kind of comments that get people offside. The Wah has told me I must avoid militancy in my argument, lest I upset or alienate readers, thus losing any chance I may have of convincing them.

There's never been an argument for name-changing that I haven’t managed to shoot down. But to avoid boring you all (at least for the moment), I will present a very simple case for why this practice is sexist and unfair.

Many women say it is their choice to change their name, as a sign of love for their husband, and with the purpose of creating a family unit.

I only ask this: What does a man do OF EQUAL VALUE for the woman?

Whether or not to change a name is an issue that overwhelmingly – I would say greater than 99% - confronts only women. Mr John Smith is Mr John Smith for life. He never even has to contend with Miss, Ms or Mrs, least of all having to decide whether to make the leap to John Jones when he marries Jane Jones.

It’s EXPECTED that women change their names. But there’s no equivalent expectation of men. Think about it. Working – both partners decide. Spending habits – both decide, or keep separate accounts. Having children – both decide. Staying at home with children – both decide, and perhaps both take turns. Retirement plans - both decide.

If anyone can tell me of a decision upon or during marriage, a declaration signifying eternal undying love and devotion that is exclusively the man’s - then I will buy you a Coke.

Thinking? Let me give you some space....




That's because there just isn’t one. A tradition that requires such an expensive and complicated sacrifice on the part of only one gender is a sexist tradition. And no amount of shrugging and saying "but it's just nice" is going to change that.

At the end of the day, if I’m marrying you, I’m committing to you. I know it’s a shock, but women are smart enough to remember who their husband is without recourse to checking drivers’ licences. And just because a woman may have a different surname to her children, doesn’t make her any less their mother (and after all, it's easier for a woman to pass off another man's child as her partner's than it is for a man to do the same thing: as many as one in ten Australian children have the wrong father's surname anyway!). The more children grow up with different surnames in the house, the more tolerant and progressive they will be regarding name changes as adults.

Many people say it's their choice to change their name, and they're right, it is. But is it really a choice when you're doing it simply because "it's the done thing" or "it's easier"? My aim is to encourage deeper consideration of this issue, taking into account the centuries' worth of social constructs at play here.


  1. Oh dear! You just don't get it, do you? I can't believe I just wasted my time reading that irrational rant...girl if you think you are shooting down people's arguments with that nonsense than I want some of what you're smoking.

    Liz Hui

  2. Hmmmmmm...

    I cannot say it was an issue for me, nor the goodly other half.

    We discussed the issue, and it was her choice to adopt my surname.

    I would not have been too fussed either way. However, I can understand the angst it causes.

    If it makes you feel better, you can call me anything you like...

  3. When Kath and I married we amalgamated names. Fitzgerald (hers) and Howell mine and our new last name became FitzHywel (original welsh for Howell is Hywel)

    It was at no time an issue, I have no particular attachment to my family name, and I felt no need for her to adopt it, never mind fight over it if it had been an issue. In the end we chose a mix of our family names because we couldn't think of a new name that wasn't wank. I was also quite willing to take her name but she already had a brother called Michael and it would of been weird.

    But while running through this vein it does beg the question of engagement rings. Same kettle of fish, old sexist tradition still readily accepted and adopted by society with the additional gross caveat of money (the amount spent on the ring) equating to love... nasty.

    Again hear Kath and I parted with tradition and exchanged engagement rings, she bought for me a fantastic, hand made, white and yellow gold, Celtic knotted ring. That way we got to exchange tokens of affection and Kath didn't have to feel like she was being bought.


  4. I think she makes some good points.
    All traditions concerning both sexes should be looked at. Of course, You can make your own decisions. I really don't think she is 'on' anything. She is pointing out the inequity between the sexes, which still exists today. If that offends you, if it bites deep, then maybe it is baggage your have brought to the discussion. Maybe 'Liz' it is you that needs to look at where your rage comes from?
    Informed decisions based on a rational arguements.. that's how i choose to live.. try it.

  5. my partner and I have no desire to marry, we are 'engaged' if you can call it that, but no plans to marry, as we dont see any significance in a 'wedding', I guess our connection to each other is eveident in the every day stuff and aren't sure that a public gathering would somehow enhance that ... however we have often spoken of the name issue and as we are currently planning to have children we have thought it would be kinda cool to have the same name, so he is currently looking into taking mine.

    It's interesting when we share these plans with people we know, most can't seem to get their head around it, 'the man taking the woman's name' !!! *gasp* People seem to be either insulted on behalf of my partner (ha ha) or are pleasantly surprised as if we are starting some new radical trend... both reactions I find a little odd. And when you throw in the 'no plans for marriage' people seem to get a little stresed haha.

    It's an intersting discussion, Im a big fan of doing what u feel and what's important to you and never do anything simply coz its 'what ya do'

  6. 'Rachel' you see to be on the same substance as Girl Clumsy! Rational arguments and informed decisions, unfortunately these were the very things missing from the long, whiny rant that I read. As for my rage? Again that's your irrational side shining through...there's no rage here sister, just love! Even if I don't agree with you.

  7. G'day Nat ;)

    I know how much crap I've had to go through when I lost my wallet once and I had to cancel my cards and get new ones. That was bad enough and I wasn't doing something like changing my name but merely replacing cards.

    So I can only imagine the process involved for someone who changes their name (for whatever reason) would be much worse.

    I can understand for professional reasons how some women would like to keep their maiden name.

    I wonder about the hyphenated name that some people like to do when they get married. Eventually, someone called Jones-Smith is going to marry someone called Brown-White. So does that mean that someone would be Jones-Smith-Brown-White or something as stupid??

    Of course, this assumes that the marriage that you change your name for works in the first place and the woman has her maiden name and then might change 2 or 3 times if she re-marries. I know of a person who did this and after each divorce, she went back to her maiden name until she got re-married.

    Personally *IF* I got married, I would like it up to Mrs Erk if she decided to change her name. Who knows, I might even change to her name!

  8. Hey Liz,

    So much love you have to imply drug taking and resort to name calling instead of actually explaining your point? What aren't we getting? Please explain your position or at the very least put forward an argument, any argunebt and not just say "Your argument sucks, you are whiny, you must be on drugs".

  9. >>If anyone can tell me of a decision upon or during marriage, a declaration signifying eternal undying love and devotion that is exclusively the man’s - then I will buy you a Coke.
    >> A tradition that requires such an expensive and complicated sacrifice on the part of only one gender is a sexist tradition.

    An engagement ring? I think you owe pantmonger a Coke, Nat.


  10. Wowee, watch the comments roll!

    We negotiated and changed our names to the hyphenated version, but then have never really gone the full hog and changed over every single one of our cards, accounts, etc. And nowadays we pretty much stick with our original names anyway. I like my name, it was my mother's maiden name and given that she passed away when I was young, I definitely felt a deep desire to keep the name going!

    Our kids are hyphenated too, which seemed cool at the time, but in hindsight, their names are so long and difficult to spell (people misspell my last name AND my hubby's last name all the time, so the kids' chances of getting it right are pretty much zilch!) that they seem a little impractical. I figure once they're old enough to voice an opinion on the matter, we can look at changing it legally if they want.

    I have always felt though - and let's face it, all the logic in the world won't change the fact that such personal decision usually do come down to feeling, even if that's just how you FEEL about these old-time traditions - that in committing to each other for life, we were creating a new family. Not me joining his, not him joining mine (though of course that is part of it) but of us making a new one together. And I feel that our choice of surname is just one reflection of that.

  11. Hi guys!

    Thanks for your comment.

    Ashley as far as engagement rings go - I do believe these days that's a decision that couples tend to make together.

    I for one, would NOT like an expensive engagement ring. For starters, I don't really like rings, and it would be a struggle just to not lose a wedding band.

    I also have big issues with the way diamonds are produced and mass-marketed. Conflict diamonds have yet to be fully stamped out, despite the Kimberly Process being signed. The stones are also marketed as being "rare" and exclusive, when in fact they're not.

    I also think there are far better ways to spend those thousands of dollars. A holiday, a car, a deposit on a house, shares, savings etc. I think like much of the guff surrounding weddings that it's a waste of money, and that hanging out for a "big rock" is shallow, and isn't a true measure of love.

    Engagement rings are all about status and bling. To me, marriage is not about showing off to other people.

    As far as Liz goes - welcome to my blog. You're right when you say I don't get "it". I don't. But you've yet to explain "it" to me, or explain why I haven't yet grasped "it".

    But thank you very much for not only as you say "wasting your time" reading my post, but wasting even more time posting not one, but two comments!

    Jenny - yes it is all about those "feelings" towards old traditions. That's exactly what I'm trying to challenge, trying to show people the deeper forces at work.

    After all, Australians used to feel that only white people should move here. I'm not trying to compare the two in terms of scope of human rights, just trying to make the point that just because something is a long-held view and feels "right" or "proper", doesn't make it the Truth.

    Cheers, Natalie

  12. Caveat: text is quite unsubtle and nuance free. I don't mean to sound as inflammatory as it might look in text. I contemplated trying to change it, but I will leave it as is, in the hope that others might be able to see the strong feeling, but lack of animosity towards Nat, I like Nat, she is a friend.

    I got a ring. It's a pretty ring that BabyCakes wanted to buy me. It was expensive. I didn't buy him anything of equal value when we got engaged.

    He didn't buy my name change with it.

    I didn't expect a huge ring, I didn't expect anything at all. The engagement is more than the ring.

    It was a significant gift to me, from the man I love, who wants to marry me. He bought it, he paid for it. He could have bought me a car/Nintendo/pair of shoes, but that would be worthless in 5 years time.

    You may not believe that it is of an equivalent "value", and that's alright. Just because you don't see value in something does not mean that it is worthless to others.

    I respect that you see lots of people who want stuff for the wrong reasons, that want status symbols for the sake of them but I'm not one of them.

    I wear no other jewelery than my engagement ring on a daily basis. The next most often worn piece is a necklace he bought me for our first Christmas - is that all about showing off too? The next most often worn piece is a watch, from a high school friend - maybe her intention was all about the non-existent bling too?

    It's a gift. I'm sure if I kept my name, he wouldn't expect it back... it was given at a specific time, to mark a specific occasion.

    Judge me if you must, but I know why I'm doing what I'm doing.

    You live with your choices, and I'll live with mine.

    Before you say it wasn't aimed at me.... think about it. It was - not specifically, but it was.

    I didn't agree with the inflammatory language or justification of the original article you referenced, I understood her point of view.

    I support everyone THINKING about the process, what it is, why it is, and making the decision that works for them. To assume that women ALWAYS change their name blindly, is as offensive as doing it blindly.

    It is a choice, I support people actively making their choices, not just doing things by rote.

    I support you in choosing to keep your father's name (If I remember correctly, you literally have your father's name when cultural custom was that you took a feminine form - but it was EASIER to keep the masculine form). I am however, allowed to change mine if I choose.

    Realistically, stopping the practice of name-changing, or ring swapping, or marriage is not going to stop idiots being idiots, people not thinking things through, and making bad choices. It won't specifically encourage people to make better choices.

    I'm keen for people to make their own choices, that work for them, even when I don't understand them, and even when I don't like them. We must take responsibility for our our own lives and how we live them.

  13. bergI should probably just avoid commenting anymore, lest I encourage the wrath of the entire universe on this issue. ;)

    But to put another spin on the engagement ring thing:

    Yes, jewellery is basically status. In days gone by, only the rich could afford to adorn themselves in precious stones and metals. The poor wore dirt. Nice dirt, but still dirt.

    That has diluted somewhat, but essentially, if you buy a nice piece of jewellery for yourself, (or if someone buys one for you) it's showing a certain degree of wealth. People in Third World countries starving and in need of food don't spend their income on jewellery.

    I ask this question - your fiance bought you a lovely ring. It's a gift, and you are both happy with it. But why is it a ring that is the engagement gift?

    Because of tradition.

    "Engagements" are marked by rings. Had history gone another way, they could have been marked by bangles, or a nose-stud, or who knows, a tattoo. (In fact, Berber women in Morocco were traditionally tattooed to show their family of birth and marriage and how many children they had).

    Your name is a great gift to give. I only hope that your fiance, and other men out in the world, realise what a gift it is. My point is I don't know that they do because

    a) they often expect it, because it's the "done thing", or

    b) they don't have to do it themselves.

    Me, I seem to be resembling whats-his-face from "The Crucible" who won't sign a false statement saying he committed witchcraft because "it's my name! Leave me my name!".

    And seriously CCL, the article I wrote was NOT aimed at you. I did consider not posting it in fact, because I knew it would probably offend you. But I went ahead, but I don't like feeling I have to censor myself for fear of inspiring some heated banter. You may not believe me, but I have no reason to lie.

    As for your tone in your comments - be as strong as you like! That's democracy. Feel free to completely slag me off if you like. ;)

  14. I'm not offended by your opinions. I only get heated when it seems my opinion is invalid.

    I never thought I'd even change my name, until it became time to contemplate it.

    I personally feel that people want me to justify my decision to take his name, and that the norm for women of my generation is to keep their names. I certainly don't see that it is an automatic assumption that the woman will take his name, or even that people will be married. (but then again, I also don't understand why why gay people can't get married should they want to either)

    We have a mortgage and one car loan. We have no designer clothes, no wide screen TVs, our mobile phones don't have blue tooth, and we have no credit card debt.

    The ring is paid for, we had a 20% deposit for our house, the money is literally in the bank to pay not only for the wedding we want, but the 3 week honeymoon including a week long glacier cruise as well.

    At the very least, it is our money to spend, we're not spending money we don't have, and we won't have to pay off a party or travel for years afterwards.

    I know they are not necessities, but I want them, I want a party where I can be a bit generous for all my friends and family, and I want to see Alaska, and I want to see my friend in Canada, and I want to use my passport.
    Yes, the money could pay for a new bathroom/pay out the car, but as my step-Mum pointed out, on my deathbed, I hope I won't be thinking about "that" bathroom/car, but I do hope I can think about dancing with my Dad, having ALL my siblings in the one place at the same time (or all my parents in the same room), what the Aurora Borealis looks like (if we get to see it), how beautiful the Rockies are and how wonderful it was that I met a man who WANTED to get down on one knee and ask me to spend the rest of my life with him, and give me something significant, to have with me always, to remember that moment.

  15. CCL,

    You must live in a different world to me as many people I know are all about changing their names and think it's weird that I want to hang onto mine. Perhaps we should swap friends, and this whole argument would be null and void... ;)

    I don't think you've heard me here properly - I certainly wouldn't slag off a holiday anywhere at anytime. I actually said that is one of the best ways to use money.

    If anything your wedding/marriage plans are some of the most sensible I've come across. And that's a terrific thing! If you've budgeted to do everything and you can, congrats- you've proved yourself as responsible, mature adults who achieve their goals (which is certainly my ideal).

    I also wouldn't begrudge anyone from having a wedding, or a party. I just see a lot of the stuff that surrounds it as a waste. I've read your blog - you've had troubles with expensive bridal shops that charge heaps just because it's a wedding dress, and florists and cake bakers who triple their prices simply because of the word "wedding". THAT is what I don't like - the overpricing, the marketing, and the making people feel like special, expensive wedding venues, outfits, meals etc etc are NECESSARY because it's that one special day and everything has to be perfect (read: expensive). You're doing what YOU want for the price YOU want - and more power to you.

    But that WASN'T what I was talking about with the ring. It's great you're both happy with it. You probably won't believe me, but I am HAPPY you're in a great committed relationship.

    My point was just about the ring as a symbol in itself, without any reference to you, or any particular couple.

    An engagement ring is a tradition. Why is it a ring? Why not an engagement Nintendo? An engagement pair of earrings? An engagement set of tyres?

    To compare it with my original theory about names - it's just because it's the 'done thing'.

    I'm not criticising YOU, CCL. I'm criticising TRADITIONS.

    Cheers, Nat.

  16. My mum didn't change her name when she married my dad, so I grew up thinking that was the norm. When I got older and discovered that many women are expected to change their last names, it just seemed so weird to me.

    It's like if you moved to a new country and were expected to dye your hair to match your husband's, so you would look more like 'a family'. For the record, I never had any confusion in regards to who my mother was, and I wouldn't think of taking on another person's name.

    But me protecting my last name is still defense of another sexist tradition - children inheriting their father's surnames. So there's really no escape from it. You could pick an entirely new last name and both change to that, if you were really interested in disengaging from sexist traditions, but it's always going to be a work-around.

  17. A slip of the pen no doubt, but
    do you actually mean that you are critisizing the particular tradition of women taking their husband's names or all traditions entrenched in Australian culture?

    Participating in traditions, gives individuals a sense of belonging. I am not referring only to what can be considered traditions which Australians participate in, but also to those which are alien to our culture such as cicatration.

    Every culture, every individual has an inaliable right to participate, for right or wrong, in their chosen tradition.

    You seem to have high feminist ideals and rather than let your blood boil when a women chooses to take on her husband's name upon marriage, (remember, you cannot change this), use that energy to volunteer at a
    Women's Shelter. You can change destructive patterns and traditions most effectively when you apply your knowledge and passion in a practical way.


  18. Okay, I have been giving your quandry some thought ( and as I am employed in a position where use of my mind is not only unnessecary, but actively discouraged I have a lot of time for my mind to ponder whilst my body earns my share of rent and beer money) and my conclusion is : Abolish hereditary surnames!
    Yep, kiss those suckers goodbye, they are only a relatively modern contrivance anyway.
    Before that we had a constantly evolving succession of Mc’s, Mac’s, O’s, Vans, Vons, Of’s, Sons, and Dottirs.
    What would your name be under such a system today? Interesting thought exercise, wouls I be Shaun Johns son? A few of my friends have taken to calling me ‘The Thespian’ would that be my name? With todays occupations we could wind up with sopme intersing iterations, ‘Natalie 4BC’ in place of say, ‘John Smith’?
    Ahh, now I hear you ask “but what about identity?” well in this day and age names mean little anyway, its all about the numbers baby, licence number? Bank account number, identity number, Australia card number, take it a half step further, and assign an identity number at birth. Now I’m not suggesting we have a barcode tattooed on the back of our necks ( ooooo scary, end times, book of revelations), but a retinal scan, or a DNA scan, or both, and there we are neatly filed away, we can now replace the mandatory 100 points of identification, with a quick retinal scan, or cheek scrape. With the click of a button Shaun Johns son, or Margarets son, or maybe a more modernized, Shaun Johnanmargskid, is also Australian citizen number THX-1138.
    Here endeth the crap.

  19. Ah, well, I don't know about the rest of you but I'm exhausted.

    The topic's expanded from a single issue ("I dislike the fact it is always women expected to change their names upon marriage") to all matters of tradition and identity.

    Perhaps that's a good thing. Perhaps this is the kind of dialogue we should be having. I certainly wasn't expecting it.

    While I wasn't trying to beat anyone into submission with my argument (though I get the sense some people would like to beat me - figuratively AND literally), I

    Mr Argus, I understand people have a right to tradition. The world probably wouldn't exist as it is without traditions. I enjoy many traditions. I also think it's important to realise the history of those traditions, and the social constructs they've created.

    It's "tradition" to cut the labia and clitoris off young girls in some African cultures. Can you honestly say they have the "right" to do that to 10 year old girls? With a rusty razor blade? Is that honestly a tradition you think should continue? That's a very extreme example, I know, but I do believe some traditions are BULLSHIT, and I don't care about respecting cultural differences.

    (As a side note, I'm also against male circumcision for the same reason, but it is far more ingrained and less "shocking" than female genital mutilation, and therefore less of an "issue").

    There's a very long spectrum of tradition, from the extreme of something like FGM, to the harmless, like drinking green beer on St Patrick's Day.

    No, changing your name upon marriage if you are a woman is NOT a human rights violation. But for any man to

    As for your summary argument that I should enact change by working for a women's shelter - well yes, you're probably right. But does that mean that for something to be able to express an opinion on politics, for example, they must have first put in the hard yards for a political party? I believe I can still use my mind and my research skills to arrive at an opinion, that I can then express via the great equaliser, the internet.

    (And yes, you're right. The internet has allowed crazies like to me to reach plague proportions!)

    Arian poses an interesting question about the nature of names/identity.

    In America, one's life is defined by one's social security number - which remains constant no matter how many marriages/name changes you undergo. It's a thought.

    I can't say names aren't important - of course it's in part a fondness for mine (bizarre and clunky as it is) that makes me determined to retain it.

    At the end of the day I just feel - if a man can be born with one name, and retain it through thick and thin - then why is it a different story for women?

    There are many things that are far more important that bond couples and families together. I would suggest love, respect and tolerance to begin with.

  20. You CAN keep the name you're born with, everyone can. You can also choose to change it if you wish.

    I support you in your fight to abolish the tradition of BEING FORCED into changing one's name, be them male or female.

    I find it interesting that in the comments, as spirited as they have been, there hasn't been much of the "women just should change their name" or the "I need my wife to have my name" side of the fence.

    Most people have talked about their own experiences of making their decisions, how they came about them, and what they chose to do.

    I, personally, like my name. My parents thought about my name and gave it to me with love. With the love, respect and tolerance I have for my fiancé, and our new family moving forward, I am happy to take the gift of his name (which he's quite proud of), and make it my own. He also understands (as much as anyone can who is not faced with the impending decision), what the significance of it is.

    Ultimately, it will make little difference as to how I live my life on a day to day basis - he'll always take my maiden name when we're at a pizza shop - it's easier to spell, and my identity will become harder to steal because my name will be more unique... (which reminds me of the time the doctor came out with the wrong file - the girl with the matching name was much younger, in a family file, which was much fatter than my newly moved file!)

  21. "I find it interesting that in the comments, as spirited as they have been, there hasn't been much of the "women just should change their name" or the "I need my wife to have my name" side of the fence."

    That's because men aren't stupid enough to step into this live firing range.. even the stupid ones.

    When women go to war men go to he pub ;)

  22. Jeez, Wah, get out of the frickin' pub already...

    Honestly, his Scottish brother-in-law gets him hooked on high quality imported beer, and the next thing he's anybody's...

  23. I've met a white woman with the last name Wong, due to marriage, and it always cracked me up. I've met a black woman with the name White, and that too made me laugh.

    But as for what is expected in a marriage, the anomaly of stay-at-home fathers is as curious as wives-who-don't-take-their-husband's-names. But there are a lot of customs surrounding marriage that are still heavily out-dated. "I will love you till death due us part, or until you cheat on me and then I'll take you to the cleaners." And why are wedding dresses white? And do men still carry their wives over the threshold?

    I've also heard partners (privately) talking about the name-change, and they threw the pre-nup into the same sentence, as if one needed the other.

    - Oisin

  24. It has always been my guilty pleasure at a wedding to lean over to the person next to me and whisper "The bride sure has cheek wearing white!"... and then i wink lasciviously

    ah good times!

  25. I encouraged my bride to keep her last name. Being French I thought it was beautiful. She had the option to choose and chose the one she liked the best. So maybe these days it's not a curse, it's a blessing that people get the opportunity to change their name if they want to.

    So far as why it's a ring and not a Nintendo,.. (man that sounds awesome) I imagine it has to do with the fact that rings can be worn pretty much all the time and rarely get superceded by new tech.

    It's a constant reminder. You may think that you wouldn't need a reminder of the person you've committed to but you might also be surprised at how comforting it is to have that prevalent physical link to your partner.

  26. Go Nat, Does your MOTHER read these blogs???

  27. a certain labor regional organiser in the South East of England has it that australian women-particularlry those in politics-change their names in order to expunge any connection they might have to their criminal ancestors who were transported fron Albions fair shores all those yearsago..see Janesthe one..