What’s in a (Sur)name?

By Kitty

Predictable blog titles aside, when was the last time you thought about your name and what it signifies to your identity? I suspect a lot of people in the UK go through their lives not giving much thought to their surname – after all, it’s pretty much a given. Until it comes to getting married, that is.

It is estimated that up to three-quarters of British women change their birth surname to that of their husband after tying the knot. Same-sex couples face an even more complicated question, not only “should we have the same surname?” but also – in the absence of the heterosexual dynamic on which this tradition is based – “which one of us will make the change?”

The custom of a wife taking on her husband’s surname is uniquely British and spread to other countries through our imperial or otherwise cultural ties. According to the BBC, the Norman’s invasion first imported the rule that upon marriage a woman loses her surname, becoming a possession of her husband, referred to only as “wife of X”. The English in particular put their own spin on this by allowing married women a surname: that of their husband as a show of sacred unity.

Feminists looking on the matter now might argue that the tradition should be scrapped as it has historical roots in the subordination of women. One example is that of nineteenth century suffragette Lucy Stone, who had to fight legal officials who refused to let her vote using her maiden name which she had kept after marriage.

For some women, it’s a matter of future practicality; one colleague assured me that things can get complicated if, as a mother, you try to travel abroad with your children who have a different surname. Of course, this assumes that subsequent offspring of the marriage will take their father’s surname, which brings forth another gender issue.

Give a child a double barreled surname and people might (wrongly) assume it’s a child out of wedlock, divorce, or terribly posh. In my case, it was neither. In much of Spain and Latin America, women keep their surname and children take both parents’ first surnames, which are paternal. But, alas, I had a particularly long cumbersome name that involved switching languages (e.g. Carlota Miller-Gutierrez) so I decided at the age of 19 to officially axe one of them and be like my fellow single-surname Brits.

After a long, hard think I opted to keep my mother’s surname. It wasn’t originally as a feminist statement but rather because it was unique and more in-keeping with my “ethnic” first name. Five years on, I’ve invested physically and emotionally into this semi-new identity against which all my contributions to the world will be remembered, even if it is a hassle for others to spell and pronounce. My name is part of my legacy and no one is ever going to make me change that.

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

2 thoughts on “What’s in a (Sur)name?”

  1. Yep it’s true travelling with kids with a different surname is a hassle

    I have a double barrelled surname already, so when my kids were born we decided to just let them have their fathers last name rather than a triple-barelled monstrosity. But I kept my last name because it’s mine and I love it.

    I flew alone with my daughter when she was 11months and was told I needed A SIGNED LETTER OF PERMISSION from the baby’s father.


    (I mean, we’re happily married, he’s more to me than just SPERM, but the airport people don’t know that)

    Naturally, I made a bit of a fuss.

  2. Women don’t only change their surnames because they marry. In the 1980s some feminists (incl. me) took our mother’s first name as our surname to disrupt the pattern of patriarchal inheritance and honour our mothers at the same time

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