Tuesday, May 22, 2012

[Katelyn] The Last Name Project

In this new series co-hosted by from two to one and The Feminist Mystique, we will be profiling an array of individuals and couples about their last name decisions upon marriage or what they expect to choose if they marry. The goal is to explore how individuals make decisions about their last name, and to highlight the many possibilities. We will be posting profiles periodically and encourage you to stay connected via Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.  If you would like to participate in this series, email Danielle at danielle [at] fromtwotoone [dot] com or Shannon at hill [dot] shannonp [at] gmail [dot] com.   

The following post is from Katelyn, a theologian, ethicist, writer, and FEMINIST. She blogs about theology, gender, sexuality, and women's issues over at Celestial Fig Trees (and sometimes writes about cooking, too). 

Although I am not married, I have spent years thinking about whether I am going to keep my name when I do get married. For most of my life, aesthetic has been the primary deciding point for me; does the name flow off the tongue appropriately? I remember that when I was about five years old, I just knew that I was going to marry my best friend Joshua one day. I also remember deciding that—since he was of Polish descent, and his name was much too difficult to spell—he was going to have to take my name if I would agree to the marriage at all. A practical decision, perhaps, had I not eventually learned how to spell his name (really, Polish spelling isn't that hard!).

Of course, my friendship with Joshua didn't last after my family moved away, but the notion of keeping a practical name stuck with me. Ease of spelling grew less important, since I have the privilege of a mother with two difficult to spell names (Ouida Juanette), and an aunt whose name features a letter not in the English character set (Aïda). It was not until I got together with my current boyfriend, Marc, that I really started considering the possibility of keeping my name. I was not looking forward to having an alliterative name (since his last name is Kashiwagi), but that wasn't what decided things for me. Instead, it was meeting his mother, an early-second-wave feminist who kept her last name when she got married. Her reasoning behind keeping her own name was that since she had been published and received several degrees in her name, it made no sense to change it because of custom. She also handles having a different name from her husband and son with grace. I admire her strength of character; after marrying Marc's father the two of them immediately moved to Saudi Arabia where she faced the difficulties of being a feminist in a country with a history of oppression of women.

The practical points she made about keeping a name that had been linked to her in published work (an important consideration for me as a sometime-published writer) resonated with me, and reminded me about my own beliefs about names. I believe that my family names are a part of who I am, and changing my name would remove a certain part of my identity. I want to preserve my family heritage, and I claim my grandmothers' family names with as much pride as my grandfathers'.

Around the same time that I first met Marc's mother, I took a class in Spanish culture, and learned that the Spanish have an interesting approach to naming, and one that I wish the United States legal system would honor. In Spanish culture, each person has two last names: their father's family name and their mother's family name. Upon marriage, a woman does not change her name, and she does not take on a part of her husband's name. Instead, their marriage is recognized in the names of their children, who take their father's family name and their mother's family name. If my family used this system, my name would not be Katelyn Celeste Willis, but it would be Katelyn Celeste Willis Bales, and my mother's name would be Ouida Juanette Bales Riddick, and my father's name Gerald Kenneth Willis Barden. My children, were I to have any with my current boyfriend, would take the last names Kashiwagi Willis, not hyphenated.

What I like about the Spanish system is its elegance; it preserves the matrilineal heritage while allowing women to keep their own names. It solves the problem of trying to decide which name the children should take. And it would make researching family trees so much easier! In an ideal world, my family would use this system of naming. Feminism, to me, is about cherishing one's identity and having the right to be who you are. How can you do that without honoring and acknowledging all of your names?


  1. When I married my wife, I told her she could do whatever she wanted with her name, but I wasn't crazy about hyphenation. She chose to take mine and legally replace her middle name with her maiden name.

    I like the Spanish way for the reasons you mentioned, but I'm a little confused about how you pick which family name to give to your children, i.e. what prevents all the family names from becoming concatenated? Why would your name not have been "Katelyn Celeste Willis Barden Bales Riddick?"

  2. Jon, in the Spanish system it still ends up being patriarchal in the end, in that you pass down your father's name to your children. In some Hispanic cultures a woman does end up changing her name at marriage by keeping her father's name and dropping her mother's name for "de [husband's name]". I'm sure a family could update the tradition a little by allowing parents to choose which name they want to pass on, but that's how it traditionally works.

  3. I kept my name, and wanted desperately to do the Colombian practice of giving the children both last names. My husband didn't want my last name to be after his, however, so we put it first. He is still very unhappy about this and I have agreed to remove my last name from the children's names. We didn't give our last born both last names.
    While it makes me sad that he can't respect my wishes, having one less thing to fight about is more important to me than keeping their names. One day they can choose them back if they like.
    I, however, refuse to give up my name.

  4. My children have hyphenated last names, and the system that I've proposed is similar to the one described here but solves the problem mentioned in Brigid's comment. Here's how it works: Say male Jones and female Smith marry. They each retain their own name (or they can both take on a hyphenated name), and their children are all Smith-Joneses (or Jones-Smiths, if that is preferred). If a Smith-Jones child then marries a person from another hyphenated family,say Doe-Brown (assuming that Doe is that family's mother's name and Brown the father's name) here's what happens: a male Smith-Jones who marries a female Doe-Brown will have children names Doe-Jones, and a female Smith-Jones who marries a male Doe-Brown will have children names Smith-Brown. In this way, the maternal line is kept as long as there is a female in the family, and the male name is kept as long as there is a male in the family. It sounds complicated, but it's pretty simple once you think about it. It has the advantage of preventing exponential growth of names, it retains names that are currently retained (ie, the father's name as long as there are male children and grandchildren, which is the only case in which they are retained in the current system), and it additionally preserves the mother's name in an equal number of cases (ie, as long as there are daughters and granddaughters).