Feminist Last Naming Practices

Nontraditional Last Name Stories


Many may ask, as we did while discussing our findings, what do nontraditional naming choices mean for future generations and for the preservation of family histories? This is a question that was addressed in our class discussions and analysis, and also one that repeatedly came up in our interviews. For instance, what does the future hold for children who are given nontraditional names, as opposed to the more traditional practice of inheriting only their father’s name? Often, children with hyphenated last names, or names that differed from those of their parents, described experiencing certain troubles as a result, usually at school or while traveling. Sarah Smith Han, when asked if she has experienced difficulties due to her and her mother having different names, stated:

There have been a lot of things that have tripped people up, if it’s like a credit card company or booking airline flights. And it usually all works out, but we’ve definitely had difficulties a lot of the time with travel. One time I was in a hospital really sick and my mom was trying to visit me, it was in Honduras and she couldn’t get access for a while.

Charles Sjolander, who hyphenated his children’s name to include his wife’s name as well as his own, also mentions these complications:

I mean Jasperse-Sjolander [laughs] that’s–that’s cruel, you know, for a first-grader to have to write their name, and it’s oh my god, J-A-S. And it never fits on forms, government forms, school forms it never fits, something gets hacked off.

Along with these consequences, many individuals wonder what children with hyphenated names will do as they get married—potentially to other people with hyphenated names. Malcolm Perkins-Smith questions:

If the hyphenated name is cool in society, can I go with the double hyphen if I want to? That’s a pretty interesting question, because you want to think that at some point everyone wanted to keep their names.

As future couples continue to hyphenate, last names could begin to stretch on and on, which seems impractical. Many interviewees with hyphenated names commented on this. Natasha Appleweis expressed amusement, but also interest, in the possibility of generationally-building hyphenated last names:

 I like the idea of a hyphenated name because then as it goes down through the generations, you just add more and more last names and have this intense chain of last names that is reflective of all of your ancestors that decided to do that.  So I don’t know, it would be kind of a cool if that was a thing that got passed down, you keep hyphenating and hyphenating.

However, many of those interviewed explained that this sort of thing is impractical, and should be done within reason, or with consideration to who they are marrying. Isaac Rowe-Raitin stated: “I think it depends on who I’m marrying: If they want to take my last name I wouldn’t object to that. I would think they’re crazy for wanting my last name,” he added, laughing, “but I wouldn’t object to that. But, I would be more than happy to work out some other deal.”

Our class found that many of the younger people that we interviewed seemed to have the same somewhat ambivalent opinion as Isaac when discussing if they planned on maintaining their last names upon marriage. We concluded that this may be due to the fact that feminist-inspired preservation of one’s last name may be more important, and hold more significance for the previous generation, when it was the “cool” feminist thing to do.  Natasha Appleweis mentions that this was a reason why her parent’s chose a nontraditional last name for their child, in this case a combination of both their surnames:

 My parent’s just thought it was kind of silly to give me my dad’s last name because they thought it was an outdated practice, particularly in the early 90’s which was kind of a time of 3rd wave feminism, or whatever. So they thought it was silly to give me my dad’s last name. They thought it was equally silly and contrived to give me my mom’s last name, that’s the word that she used–contrived.

Many people that we interviewed proclaimed that they thought of themselves as feminists, but did not necessarily choose to take their feminist-stance through their last name choices. Sarah Smith Han explained:

I really do consider myself a feminist, but naming practices seem to be very minute of a problem and I think we’re becoming more and more of a progressive society. So you think, you think that you could differentiate between last naming practices and feminism? I definitely see the connection, but for me personally it’s not where I chose to make my stance.

Maria Mulligan-Buckmiller adds on to this, by saying:

 A name isn’t what you hold…you can be…you can understand the importance to you without the name. It doesn’t speak anything, I don’t think it has anything to do with feminism. I don’t think adopting a name has anything to do with feminism. I understand that it’s independence and everything, but I don’t think changing your name means you’re subordinate to men…I don’t need a name to tell me who I am…I know my DNA and that’s what’s important.

Like Maria, many people that we interviewed mentioned that DNA might be more significant now that it is an option for tracing family lineages, as opposed to solely using last names. Through genealogical tracing, it may be possible to create a system which does not only rely on surnames.  This could have benefits as surnames are constantly being changed and altered as women marry out of the family.

Among people we interviewed, many had profound ideas regarding new naming practices that could replace traditional, patrilineal practices in the future.  However, most of the interviewees still thought about future naming practices as existing within distinctive structures.  One interviewee even suggested, “Someone could develop a cool database to map and document family lineage,” implying a more strategic and scientific approach to retaining family lineage rather than a personal approach based on the individual’s relational attachment to his or her maternal and paternal lineage.

For example, one anthropologist, who hyphenated her name after taking a kinship course in undergraduate school, suggested an ambilineal naming system as a possible solution to retaining both the matrilineal and patrilineal names in a marriage/union.  In this system a female child would receive her mother and father’s matrilineal name and a male child would receive his mother and father’s patrilineal name.  Although this solution supports feminism because it proficiently preserves people’s matrilineal heritage, it still does not account for personal naming choices.

Additionally, several interviewees felt that giving children two last names would only make it harder for future generations to decide what part of their name they would pass on or if they would keep their name and hyphenate with their future partner.  Of course, people could not hold onto names forever because the name would become extremely long after just two generations of hyphenated names.

Instead of creating another system that leaves less room for alternate naming choices in the future, one person suggested, “Maybe couples can do a coin toss or something to see what last name or hyphenated last name their kids get.”  Of course, their response was meant to be sarcastic, but in actuality a coin toss naming system would be just as systematic and impersonal as an ambilineal system of naming or for that matter, any function that systematizes naming by privileging one name out of an entire history of an individual’s maternal and paternal family.

Therefore, while an ambilineal naming system would prevent women’s histories from being erased, most people said that it was more important for them to consider their personal connections to their family when choosing to keep their name or take their partner’s name.  Perhaps as a generation, we are moving away from people needing to maintain a strong attachment to their last name, because it no longer necessarily means anything to modern society. Or at least, it may mean less than it used to. Kinship ties may be created differently now than in previous generations, with more of an emphasis on building new connections than preserving past ones. Simultaneously, the definition of family structures has begun to expand and change. With these changes, traditional patrilineal practices may not always apply.

For this reason, many people felt that there was not a definitive answer to the future of naming practices.  Although, a couple of interviewees did say that it would make more sense to keep a better documentation of family histories in the future when more people are changing names and creating new names.

Many find the idea of creating a family name appealing, believing that building a family unit around a name that means something to you and your family may hold more significance than building it around your great-grandfather’s name.







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