Opinion //

Because it is my name!

Our surnames give us recognition within a community, similarity with our siblings, and a connection to our sense of self.

I recently found myself at a reunion of my Catholic girl’s high school. It is a long story as to how I ended up there but suffice to say, it was a fun afternoon. There in the hall of my old high school sat women from the class of ’64 laughing about their geography teacher; young mums cradling their two-year-olds as the latter cried through speeches; and myself, biting into a delicious homemade scone. Amongst the laughter of recollections and cries of infants, not to mention the taste of raspberry jam, I couldn’t help but notice my fellow alumnus’ name tags. 

Daly (née Hall).

Chan (née Doyle).

Joseph (née Allan).

The prevailing presence of ‘née’ stood out. As a young, inner west woman of the 21st century, the term ‘née’ is not a common occurrence for me to see when reading a name tag. Sure, some of my friends’ mums had the same surname as their husbands and both of my grandmas and many of my aunties changed their surnames after marriage. So, it was not new for me. Nevertheless, the dominance of ‘née’ started to bug me. And I realised why when a fellow ex-student started to make a speech. It was a speech about recollections from her time at the school, how things had changed yet stayed the same. We all listened with interest. 

Yet, it wasn’t until this speaker revealed her maiden name – her ‘née’ name – that the other ex-students in that school hall remembered exactly who she was, who her sisters were, and who her parents were, the latter being a familiar presence in the school’s P&C during the 1980s. It became crystal clear to me then, like never before, that a woman’s surname – indeed, anyone’s surname – forms our identity. Our surnames give us recognition within a community, similarity with our siblings, and a connection to our sense of self. John Proctor’s famous proclamation in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible epitomises this: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!” Yet, many women do have ‘another’ surname in their lives. 

Changing one’s name after marriage has only been a custom for women of Anglo cultures since the Enlightenment. Contrary to popular belief, before the mid 18th-century, many women held independent surnames from their husbands. Women’s surnames could have epitomised a key personal characteristic or trait, an occupation, or status in the community. However, the onset of the Enlightenment saw the definition of ‘citizenship’ change remarkably, particularly in England. As scholar Deborah Anthony notes, a woman changing her name after marriage in the English context was “employed to reinforce a patriarchal regime which deceptively claimed that the natural order… [and] supported the current male-oriented surname system in its creation of new systems of rights and identity”. 

Indeed, ideas of citizenship became strongly tied around imperialism, industrialisation, and property. Married women in Anglo cultures now became “Mrs. Their-Husband’s-Surname” while their children “Child Husband’s-Surname.” Moreover, most young girls grew up with their father’s surname before being expected to take their husband’s surname once they were married; marriage was the expectation for young women of the Victorian era. Combined, these name changes reflected the property laws of this time. Indeed, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th-century until women in England, for example, did not have to relinquish their property and rights over their children after marriage. 

Until the 1970s in Anglo cultures and some Asian cultures, it was bizarre if women did not change their name after marriage. Catalysed by the onset of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s, many women started to question the patriarchal nature of name changing, starting a trend in keeping one’s original name even if they married. This mirrored the naming customs in several other cultures and religions globally. For example, it is custom for Muslim women and women from South Korea to keep their surnames after marriage; in Greece, France, Italy, and The Netherlands, laws were put in place in the 1970s that forbid women from changing their surname after marriage; and in Spanish-speaking countries, as my Argentinian friend explained to me, it is custom for women to keep their surname after marriage. This consists of two surnames — one name from their mother and one from their father. 

Yet, name changing upon marriage remains popular even in the 21st-century, particularly in the Anglosphere. A national survey carried out in Britain in 2016 found that 89% of women who participated had changed their surnames after marriage. What is even more striking is that 75% of the youngest age group who participated in this survey – 18-34-year-olds – changed their surnames after marriage. In a similar survey conducted in the United States, it was found that 70% of female participants took their husband’s name after marriage. 

I am not saying that women shouldn’t change their surnames when married; it is important that women have agency to make their own decisions. Many women interviewed in the above surveys discussed that sharing a name with their husband meant that they felt more connected to their children; in many Anglo families, it is assumed that children will take their father’s surname, and while double-barrelled names are not uncommon, they are still not the norm in many communities. Moreover, women might want to change their surname to distance themselves from abusive relatives or purely to enjoy the freedom of having a name change. Cultural traditions – and expectations – also play a role. However, it is important to discuss that if women change their surnames, we risk the chance of being erased, of being lost to history. 

Indeed, changing one’s name becomes particularly important in the study of women’s history. When researching this idea, I came across an article in The Guardian about the female artist, Isabel Rawsthorne. A promising creative in London’s visual art scene of the 1940s and 50s, Rawsthorne held three different surnames in her lifetime because of marriage. Rawsthorne made art using her three different surnames at different stages of her career, meaning that much of her work remains unaccounted for. As Carol Jacobi noted: “When Rawsthorne died no one connected her to the artist known as Isabel Lambert, who had created so many designs during the Festival of Britain, nor to the bohemian muse Isabel Delmer, and certainly not to the promising artist Isabel Nicholas, who had exhibited in London in the 1930s.” 

While scholars are beginning to put Rawsthorne’s artwork together under one classification, this case study nevertheless highlights how changing a surname after marriage makes it difficult to trace the history of women. 

Ultimately, I do appreciate that today, many women still want to change their surnames after marriage and that is okay. It is vital to acknowledge that in Australia today, many women have the freedom of choice to change our surnames – and keep our surnames – if we so desire.  After all, what’s in a name? Well, perhaps more than we think. In my socialist-feminist mind, name changing remains a symbol of the patriarchal system that we still live under; keeping your original surname is a form of resistance. If people ever question this, I will just quote John Proctor: “Because it is my name! Because I can never have another in my life!” 

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