Friday, October 29, 2010

Feminism and Last Names

Names are important to feminism. In many cultures when a man and a woman get married, the woman changes her last (family) name to that of her husband. This is problematic for feminists because it is indicative of the subservience of the woman to the man and an affirmation of the patriarchal structure of the family.

Thus, a whole lot of present day women have take the alternative of keeping a hyphenated last name. Some of them go as far as to not change their names at all. Till here, all is well and good.

The problem begins when it comes to kids. What last names do the kids get? They can get a hyphenated last name which sounds fair to both the mother and the father. However, it doesn’t seem very practical in the long run. Because what happens when these kids with hyphenated last names grow up and get married to others with hyphenated last names? The second generation would have to have a last name with four parts, the third with eight and so on. Very soon, it will be completely impossible to keep track of any names at all!

Given all of this, I’m really surprised that I haven’t yet come across people challenging the fundamental assumption that there need to be last names at all. The whole concept of a family and hence a family name is tied to patriarchy. Aren’t feminists who choose to keep any last name at all unknowingly giving in to patriarchy? Why aren’t we seeing people with just their first name and no last name?

Here’s a funny thing to amuse you. A while ago I was reading a lot of atheist blogs. One of the many topics discussed was what to do with last names after a marriage and/or what last names should kids get. It was really funny that people discussed it on an atheist blog. I always thought it was a feminist issue! Second, I really wonder why people didn’t come up with ‘just the first name’ solution! Here’s one such post.

PS: I’m aware that there are legal issues with having just the first name. But that’s the point. Laws are made with the tacit assumption of a patriarchal family. It’s like the gay marriage issue in the US.


  1. Ages ago, in my school days, I remember seeing this interview on DD1 in the afternoon women's section. The lady being interviewed had gone to court and got them to agree that she would neither keep a middle name or last name. She was like its not just about my husband's, why should i have my father's name or surname attached either? I felt she was being hyper but, i never forgot what she said. She had a valid point!

  2. There's an additional issue with last names in India. There are people who'd love to cast away with caste/linguistic/religious identities. But having a last name makes that immensely difficult.

  3. "Some of them go as far as to not change their names at all."

    -I wouldn't necessarily put it in terms of "going far." :-) I never changed my last name when I got married, and it wasn't such a big deal at all. If I were to change it, however, it would entail a lot of problems. All my 5 degrees are in my own name and my publications. Imagine changing all that.

    If we decide to have children, we have decided that if a boy is born, he will have my husband's last name. If a girl is born, she will get mine.

    If both people see themselves as valid human beings instead of a woman feeling as a piece of property, all this can be resolved extremely easily.

  4. @clarissa: Wrong choice of words on my part! :)

  5. How about asking the child himself or herself to select his or her surname?

    That is, whether the child would prefer to use his / her father's surname, or his / her mother's?

    Let's give them a choice too.

    At times, we simply impose our ideologies, and what-we-want-tos on them, without even realizing the fact that the surname that the new-to-the-family-individual is going to get will be a matter of his/ her identification for his / her lifetime.

    We already impose a damn-so-irrefutable "Name and a Nickname" on that child, which he / she bears with / without complaints all through his / her life.

    So, Why not, let's just give them a choice, this time ?

  6. Point 1:

    In many cultures when a man and a woman get married, the woman changes her last (family) name to that of her husband's. This is problematic for women because it is indicative of the subservience of the woman to the man and an affirmation of the patriarchal structure of the family. The usual reason given for why a woman should change her name to her husband’s is so that the “family name” can continue. (A variation is to keep the name for “ethnic” reasons.)

    My Argument:

    This reason is bogus, since there is no reason that the “family name” of the husband is any more important than the “family name” of the wife. The practice keeps the name lineage of the husband’s father, the father’s father’s, etc, going all the way back through that side of the family. But gone are the wife’s father’s name, the wife’s mother, grandmothers', great-grandmothers', etc. on both sides of the wife’s family.

    Another bogus reason for a wife changing her name is this statement by a woman who says, what to do: “I think it's important [that I change my name to my husband's]. We're married. He's my husband, and I want to show that I'm committed to him.”

    The problem with the statement, of course, is that the same reasoning should apply to the man. If it’s important to show commitment, the man has an equal obligation and, therefore, there is no reason for the wife to change her name anymore than for the husband.

    Point 2:

    How about not having a surname at all?

    My Argument:

    Why, can you imagine what would happen if we named all the twos Vinods or Sandeeps or lots of other things? You'd have to say Vinod plus Sandeep equals four, and if the four's name were Ajay, things would be hopeless.

    There have been people - Dead or Alive -

    1. Who were / are known with their last names only, for example "Shakespeare", "Mother Teressa", "Gandhi", "Nehru", "Dr. Ambedkar", "Einstein", "Newton", "Kepler", "Joule", "Ohm", "Graham Bell", "Nobel", "Bachhans", "Obama", "Tatas", "Ambanis" , "Disney" etc.

    2. Some who are / were known with their first names only for example: "Akbar", " Birbal", "Kautilya", "Ravana", "Dashrath", "Napoleon", "Alexander", "Oscar", "Saddam", "Galileo", "Archimedes", "Aristotle", "Madonna", "Akshay Kumar", "Oprah", "Osama", "Kareena", "Kajol", "Eklavya" , "Mickey" etc.

    My Point : From our ancestors come our names, but from our virtues, our honors.

    P.S. If the cutest of the babies are to be named after men, let them be the noblest and worthiest men alone.

    New Topic for you: That leaves me wondering about gay and lesbian marriages now. :D

    P.S. What say Vinod will you be adding this comment of mine to another post of yours?