Should feminists drop our surnames?

Today’s Guardian carries a very interesting column by Margaret Sandra, who ditched her surname in 1979 as a feminist statement.

Of course, the naming conundrum is not new to feminists – if we decide to get married, do we take on the name of the person we are marrying? If we are male feminists, do we buck tradition and take on our wives’ names? Or stick with two names. Or a double-barrelled name.

When Margaret Sandra got a divorce, she no longer wanted to be known by her married name – but going back to her father’s name, or even her mother’s name, which came from her grandfather of course, seemed little different. So she is legally known solely by her two first names – the ones, she points out, chosen for her by her parents:

Family and friends have been no problem, though I still get a few Christmas cards addressed to M Sandra. But banks, utility companies and the like have responded variously, particularly as their levels of computerisation increase. Getting my name under “M” in the phone book was no problem, though I know of friends who search for me under “S”. I treasure my passport that recorded my “prenom” as “XXXX” and family names as Margaret Sandra.

Apparently the problems with this route have become worse over the years, as companies digitalise their records and install programmes which require a first and last name. Or, as one company put it to her, a Christian and family name.

Naively, I thought my logic would gently spread and a new generation would be born, named temporarily as in Marge Piercy’s novel Woman on the Edge of Time, until they were able to choose a name for themselves. A glorious fantasy thoroughly punctured by the progress of technology and its programmers.

In some ways, I think Margaret Sandra is underselling herself. I’m sure that Sheila Michaels would have seemed naive in 1961, if she had predicted that Ms, which began life as a typographical error would become standard across the English-speaking world – at least as an option.

Yet, practical difficulties aside, I can’t say the idea of losing my own last name appeals at all. Nor, indeed, does the idea lumping around my given names – Jessica Harriet – which I only use in abbreviated form. While I respect Margaret Sandra’s views, and her courage in carrying on with it in the face of truculent gas companies, etc, I wouldn’t want to follow in her footsteps.

Although I can’t get as enthusiastic about it as these McCabes – who even have a “McCabe bridge” and display the coat of arms (family motto: conquer or die!), my surname connects me to my family and my family history. Equally, I love that my maternal grandmother’s family history has been extensively mapped through pogroms and Holocaust, back to a small village in Lithuania.

Not only would it erase each of our individual rich histories to get rid of our last names, which are already substantially eroded because of the practice of taking on the male name, but it’s also raises the question: is getting rid of the evidence of the past going to do anything to fix current problems or change the way we see ourselves in 2007? Isn’t it much more to the point to change current practice? We already have a tough time of it, arguing to keep the names we were born with, let alone completely getting rid of the surname.

In a similar vein, and via Feministing, The New York Times reports that names are becoming less gendered. Sort of.

Linguists know the pattern well: not long after a boy’s name catches on with girls, parents shy away from christening sons with it. “We crowd them out,” Nilsen says. Consider some examples from the Social Security Administration’s baby-name database. Through 1955, “Leslie” consistently appeared among the 150 most popular boys’ names. About a decade earlier, it began to catch on among girls. And the “crowding out” Nilsen mentioned took place. “Leslie” fell out of favor, dropping from a peak of 81 in male popularity rankings in 1895 to 874 a century later, and will most likely never gain traction with men again. Dana, Carol and Shannon met similar ends.

Crowd out is not quite the term I’d use for it – more like ‘put off with association to girls/women’. Luckily, this reaction is dying out as fast as the male Shirleys once did:

Albert Mehrabian, a psychology professor at U.C.L.A., has studied people’s blink reactions to unisex names. Take Casey. People classify male Caseys as more feminine than Johns or Jacobs and female Caseys as more masculine than Sarahs or Susans. That’s not all bad: masculine names are often associated with success, for instance, which might explain why parents historically chose androgynous names for girls. As for boys, Mehrabian says that today “some traditionally feminine characteristics may be seen as desirable in men, like caring and giving.” Given the desirability of those traits, at least for some, parents may be less shy about naming a boy Brooke, Taylor or Morgan than in previous decades, when the “feminine” connotations of those names might have come at a social cost — the potential loss of status, jobs or friends.

Or as Nilsen, the Names Society co-president, puts it, “It’s not a disgrace to be a girl anymore.” Still, she notes traditions haven’t died. In third-world countries strict gender hierarchies still predominate. Even in the liberalized West, the pull of gender-specific names can be strong for governments wishing to keep traditions alive. Finland, for instance, maintains strict, nonoverlapping rolls of official boys’ and girls’ names and will not recognize births unless parents select a name from the appropriate list.

Photo by ClavonClavito, shared under a Creative Commons license