Feminist Last Naming Practices

Nontraditional Last Name Stories

Influence of Attachment to a Name and its Meaning in Last-Naming Practices

By Daphnee Chabal

The focus of this essay  is  on the attachment to one’s name and  the name’s personal meaning.  Personal  attachment  to  family  names  can  be  a  factor  that  influences  last-naming practice in society. As a diverse range of people have been interviewed, this essay will allow us  to  see  patterns  in  one’s  decision  concerning  last-naming  practices,  when  it  involves  the theme  of  attachment.  Many  individuals  often  feel  a  deep,  personal  attachment  to  their  last name.

Lilly  Martin,  one  of  our  contacts,  feels  so:

“I  liked  my  last  name  and  it  was  my identity…”

     Often, this connection between last-name and identity is the main reason to keep one’s name when getting married. Mary Pechauer stated:  “I can’t be Mary Undland. That’s just not who I am. I’m still trying to figure out who Mary Pechauer is. And  so I needed to stay with that…”

Keeping one’s name can be  one of the main  indicators  of one’s attachment to it even if,  as  we will see  later on in  this essay,  there are other motives. One of our contacts, a  Mialves-Flores,  when  talking  about  her  mother,  makes  a  strong  case  about  the  need  to  keep  a distinct identity:  “She’s not adopting her husband’s identity just because they’re married, you know, she’s her own person and my father’s his own person.”

Renee Yoelin-Allen’s husband wanted to  give her his name, so did his family.  The way she described was that it was more of a necessity to hold on to her name than a choice: “I knew I couldn’t be Allen, that this was not me, I couldn’t be Renee Allen. […] My husband wanted me to take Allen but he understood that was not going to happen.

When a surname  is your parent’s,  it  often  has  a heavy connotation to them: They are an  inheritance,  they  carry  history.  Joyce  Norton-McCornick  expressed  clearly  this  side  of one’s  attachment  to  their  last  name:  “…it  really  keeps  me  in  touch  with  my  past  and  my family.”

Luke  Terra,  who  created  a  new  last  name  with  his  wife,  acknowledges  the significance of last names in terms of family history: “…the generations that I came from are important, and last names are the primary way that that’s signified.”

The family history may trace back to ethnic origins like Renee Yoelin-Allen’s maiden name, Yoelin. She has  the name of her ancestors, who came  from Russia three generations ago. Similarly Monica Spoch Spana confessed:“… I like being able to tell people that Schoch is a German name and Spana is originally a Polish name and when that family came through Ellis Island they shortened the name at the recommendation of the clerk.”

When  the  family  name  is  an  old  one,  and  is  part  of  history  in  the  broader  sense,  it contributes to one’s attachment to this name. For example, both our contacts  Marcia Dobson and  Malcolm  Perkins-Smith  retraced  their  family  history  and  discovered  that  both  Dobson and Perkins  were names of people who travelled on the  Mayflower. This motivated them to keep their family names.

Because  a  family  name  is  carried  on  through  generations,  continents,  and  history, people are attached to it. They feel it is more than  just part of one’s identity. Indeed, it is part of  one’s  cultural  heritage.  As  Jesse  Yancey-Siegel  states  it:  “I  am  happy  to  represent  both sides of my family…. I feel like my last name carries a lot of history.”

However,  the fact that the last-name and the identity  are  connected to one’s family can alternatively sometimes lead people to reject their last-name. Gail Murphy-Geiss explains:

So for me I didn’t think of it as my father’s name, I thought of it as my name. So by the time I would have kept it, it would have been maintaining a piece of my self. I know though that, you know, people whose fathers are abusive or neglectful or leave the family  and sometimes they’ll change their name to their mother’s name because that parent has stayed with them and that’s become a more  meaningful  relationships.  Because  they  want  to  change  their  identity, they want to distance themselves from that guy.

     We have several contacts who fit this description and have, or had  a desire to change their identity in order  to distance themselves from their family and  thus  redefine themselves. Monica  Spoch  Spana  said  that  her  partner:  “…had  no  attachment  other  than  that  it  was signalling to other people that we were all part of the same family.”

Catherine Smith, in a relationship with a woman,  shares  Gail Murphy-Geiss’ claim.

She said:

It’s important to know that I also feel slightly disconnected from my last name because my father’s parents and his side of the family are not supportive of my relationship with Mandy. […]we both are a little bit hesitant to support a last name that doesn’t necessarily support us…

Personal and familial  reasons may lead someone to be  attached and proud of his/her last name. On the contrary,  these same reasons  may lead someone to feel detached from it and be more willing to give it up. Other different aspects play an important role attachment to last  names,  including  aesthetic  reasons.  For  instance,  Catherine  Smith  explains  why  she prefers the name of her  partner to her own as partially a matter of uniqueness:  “…my last name is Smith, obviously, and it’s very common, very generic, and I hold no attachment to it.”

     Similarly,  Lilly Martin’s used the example of  “Smith” as a  relatively  undistinguished last name: “It’s not like a name like Smith, where there are just so many of them.”

And Renee Yoelin’s: … definitely, I like how unique the Yoelin is and Allen is not unique and I didn’t like that at all.

And  in  Catherine  Smith’s  humorous  words  when  she  expressed  the  implicit attractiveness of having a unique last name:

I  joke  and  say  I  have  last  name  envy,  her  last  name  is  Steponowski,  it’s definitely  a  mouthful  but  she  has  strong  relationship  to  her  heritage,  to  her background, and to her last name.

     One  of  our  contacts,  Malcolm  Perkins  Smith,  explains  another  way  to  achieve  the practice of a unique last-name by having a hyphenated last name. He says about his parents:

Hey just maybe wanted to get rid of a normal name–a common name–and make it a little more uncommon, which is kind of what they were trying to do with both of our first names. You know, Smith and Perkins, like I said before are  pretty  generic  names.  But  anything  with  a  hyphen  is  all  of  a  sudden  the other side of the spectrum.

     This practice can increase the attachment to one’s last name by making it unique. Thishas been done by some of our other contacts. Renee Yoelin-Allen proudly  admitted:  “It is a mouthful to say that I created Yoelin-Allen because it’s one of a kindI; I know there is no one else on the planet who is named Renee Yoelin-Allen.”

Amanda Udis-Kessler shared the  story of  both her mother and herself, and explained how this solution was appealing to them:

“I hyphenated my name, my mother hyphenated her name also, which I’m not sure why because my parents were separated. I was her role model!  Only two people in the world … share this particular last name.”

     Obviously, the aesthetic of a last name may more or less affect one’s attachment to it and one’s willingness to keep it.

Jo-Anna McCort  said:  “It’s a much nicer sounding name than Fischman in my ears. And…I think it…flows. I think it’s pretty with Jo-Anna.”

This  is  actually  influenced  by  the  condition  of  her  name,  which  Marley  Ferguson Hautzinger said she was  “unfortunate enough” to have, leading her to become more practical than sentimental when talking about this practice:

Ferguson Hautzinger was my name […] That’s I learned to spell as a little kid. Eighteen letters. You counted. My full name is 28 letters…. you’re not carrying around your entire lineage because you have an infinite number of last  names, so you’re dropping part of your lineage no matter what.

     It  is  interesting  to  include  Kayla  Hunt,  whose  nickname  and  not  last-name  is  an inconvenience, which induced to consider giving up on her last name:

…things  would  have  been  a  little  better  if  I  had  changed  it  because  my  last name isn’t all that great, it’s Hunt, and my nickname is Kiki, so really stupid name, Kiki Hunt.”

     However she did not. There are some emotionally charged reasons to be attached to a name you very want to hold on to. Pride is one of them. Jesse Yancey-Siegel explains:“…my dad comes from a Jewish family and my mom comes from a southern family, and both have very strong traditions of pride and passing names down.”

Jo-Anna McCort was also influenced by her family as: “I was born with the last name McCort [provides spelling], of which my family was very proud.”

To Renee Yoelin Allen, keeping her name was a chance:

“I wanted to keep Yoelin because I had a difficult childhood […] My brother, sister and  I had this thing, we were going to be this whole new Yoelins, we were not going to be the people who came before us but we were going to be healthy and that is why I kept it.”

     Freda Hawyer Pachter did not  “get rid of part of my identity […] just for the sake of my mother’s feelings.”

A patriarchal attachment to lineage is a cause of regret, and influences the last-naming practices. Tomi-Ann Roberts remembers a reason why she kept her name:

…my American grandfather took me on his knee, and he literally said to me, “the Roberts name ends with you.” […]So that story always stuck with me, and it’s still true that the Roberts name ends with my  sister and me, because our children don’t have our last name.

     Joseph  Loyaconobustos’  family  on  his  father’s  side  did  not  approve  of  his  feminist mother and of the fact that his sister and he  would have combination of his mother’s and his father’s last name as a last name. However:

“…they  sort  of  jumped  on  board  as  they  saw  that  their  last  name  was  still somewhat incorporated in our last name”.

     Patriarchal lineage is, in Lisa Mueller’s views, tradition. She states:

“For generations, women had taken the names of their husbands without really considering it just as a matter of…Yeah, just as a matter of tradition. Tradition. And it never, it wasn’t an issue. And it appealed to my sense of individualism, I think at that time to, you know, to maintain my individual identity.”

     As people feel more and more attached to their last-name, and as they have the choice to keep it or to change it, create a new one or to take their spouse’s, feminism contributes to the rejection of imposition and confirms individuality.

Mary Pechauer confessed:

“I think the pattern of my behavior is that I do like to challenge assumptions and so he was making  an assumption and so my initial natural reaction was to challenge  that  assumption.  And  he  said,  “Why  wouldn’t  it  be  if  we  got married?” and I said, “Well, would you change your name to Tom Pechauer?” and  he  said  no  and  I  said,  “Well,  there  you  go.”  And  he  was  “so…well  that makes  perfect  sense  to  me!”  He  didn’t  challenge  me  at  all,  had  never understood it as an assumption.

Sarah Smith-Han recalls the point of view of her mother:

“…my mom has a pretty common last name, her maiden name is Smith, so it’s not  like she was trying to preserve the family name. There are lots of Smiths out there. Rather she did not want to give up her own name for my dad’s name which is a unique name, Han. So for her  I definitely think it was a feminist choice.”

Lastly, Carrie Ruiz defines tradition in her own way:

“I would have a huge problem switching to my husband’s last name. That’s a form of possession.”

The last point of this essay is that attachment to one’s last name can be shown through the creation of a new last name. It is not a traditional attachment as we have seen in this essay: it is the importance given to  people  by  the notion of family and unity.  As a hyphenated lastname  is  long,  impractical  and  often  ignored  in  America  (the  second  component  of  a hyphenated  last-name  is  often  the  one  which  is  acknowledged).  The  second  generation  is facing  the  problem  of  potentially  having  three,  maybe  even  four  last-names.  By  creating  a new  last-name,  a  family  can  be  united  and  bound  together  with  one  name,  which  they  are attached to as it is their own and their own only.

Andrea Lucard says:

“I think, actually, it’s a funny sort of satisfaction that we have, which is that nobody else has [can’t hear] last name. And we have a family identity that is the Lucard family. Mostly we talk  about it in derogatory ways, I mean we’ll say “You know, we’re late because we’re the Lucards,” or “The house is messy because we’re the Lucards.”

Luke Terra nostalgically recalls:

“I think it was my wife who suggested Terra, and as soon as that came into the picture, it was done. It was exactly what we wanted. For us, the meaning of the word felt perfect, it means ‘earth’ ‘soil’ and all of that, it seemed like a really appropriate way to ground a family. It didn’t feel like it held any overt cultural implications  that  we  would  feel  false  adopting,  and  it’s  not  a  very  common name, so it seemed like the perfect name for us.”

In  conclusion,  as  we  take  a  close  look  to  the  role  of  attachment  in  the  last-naming practices,  we  can  find  a  diverse  range  of  motivators.  Attachment  can  be  motivated  by personal  reasons,  history,  uniqueness,  feminism,  and  induces  people  to  try  to  preserve  this last name and hold on to it. Attachment allows  people to move away from tradition and have the possibility to choose what their  name would be, acknowledging it as part of their identity, which is an omnipresent theme in this research.


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