Prior research on feminist last naming practices has engaged the topic in a quantitative, data-focused manner. Our research, however, performs a different task: we provide in-depth accounts of the experiences and thoughts of individuals who have chosen an alternative to patronymics. Through our ethnographic interviews, we have concluded that none of the last naming practices we encountered offers a perfect solution to preserving women’s autonomy and visibility through marriage and child-naming. At the same time, all of the strategies we heard about demonstrate how feminism has created options, and emboldened people to take them. Issues around last names can be grouped into three broad categories: Children, Unions, and Divorce.
One of the most common worries the children we interviewed expressed was concerning what they were going to do with hyphenated names when or if they got married or formed life partnerships. Many expressed frustration and annoyance with the functionality of their name in both school and social settings. Paperwork could be difficult; for instance, children with hyphenated names are often asked to redo signatures on documents. Standardized tests also presented problems.
The parents in families who did not have a single, shared family name expressed concerns they might not appear as a single family unit to the outside world. Queer couples were particularly concerned with the unifying effect of a family name, as it offered opportunities to signal to the world their chosen family-ness.
Despite such hassles, children with compound names were especially insightful as to their value and power.
While the emergence of a sustainable and systematic practice that contained fewer inconveniences might be optimal, the appreciation of these inheritors of hyphenated names speaks powerfully to the significance of having options and expressing one’s values in practice.
Even as couples found ways to prevent unions and child-naming to eclipse women’s identities, a new challenge emerged for couples with nontraditional last names: people accustomed to a single, shared family name became unsure how to address the family. For instance, in marriages where the husband and wife both kept their original surnames, people would often call the wife by her husband’s name or, less frequently, the husband by his wife’s name. Many women in our study were reconciled to being called by their husband’s name, especially when it is children who make the mistake, and using different names in different contexts; this was particularly true when retention of a natal name served professional more than personal or ideological ends. Others, however, felt very strongly about their name and said they would definitely correct people that called them by their husband’s name. One irony we saw was with created names; while it may be considered the most feminist solution to naming practices, it was often assumed to be the husband’s name, diminishing the visibility of its effect.
We found that there was a wide variation in last name decisions for queer couples. In fact, each of the six representatives of queer families that we interviewed told us about last name choices distinct from the other five. Common factors that influenced naming decisions were the desire to create a unified family unit, the desire for both mothers (in lesbian couples) to be recognized as mothers by society, extended families’ support or disapproval of the queer relationship, and consideration of these families’ desires. All couples seemed to be happy with their decisions, which shows that there is not one single effective, feminist choice for queer couples, but that it is highly dependent on the context of each situation.
Women who go through divorce often regretted changing their names at marriage, because it created complications when they wanted to revert to their natal name. These women believe that last names are associated with a person’s professional and personal identity; this made some of them choose not to go back to their maiden name after a long marriage. Some retained married names in order to carry the same name as their children. However, within our sample, women generally chose to change back to their natal name to reclaim a former identity and distance themselves from their marriage.