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A woman's identity

By Nina Funnell - posted Monday, 29 December 2008

Of the thousands of decisions that a couple must make before a wedding, one of the more political ones is what to do about surnames. For my brother and his fiancée, the issue is more loaded than for most. The reason? His surname is "Funnell". Her surname is "Webb". I kid you not.

Already the surname situation has caused trouble. When Mr Funnell and Ms Webb turned up to a home auction, the auctioneer though it was a hoax.

On the plus side, the best man's speech is shaping up as an absolute corker. Aside from the jokes about the mating rituals of funnel-web spiders, I'm expecting to hear best wishes for the happy couple and high hopes that one day soon they will have their own little nest of Funnell-Webbs, crawling all over them.


Even more amusing is the fact that my brother works as an academic scientist under a man named Merlin meaning that if the couple chooses to hyphenate then next year the Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering Department at Sydney University will be headed up by Professor Merlin and his trusty side-kick, Dr Funnell-Webb.

It may sound like inspiration for a mad-science comic-book, but jokes aside, the decision to hyphenate, change, or retain one's surname is still politically relevant.

Last year I was seeing a young guy who, on our very first date, asked "if we were to get married would you change your last name to mine?" After baulking at him bringing up marriage before the first date entrees had even arrived (and suppressing a giggle as the words "premature ejaculation" went through my mind) I decided that if he felt entitled to use the "m" word so early on, I was well within my rights to drop the "f-bomb". "As a feminist", I began, "I'm not sure I'd even want to get married". Shockingly, the relationship did not last; the surname sure did.

While most feminists advocate an individual's right to choose whatever feels appropriate for them in such situations, some feminists oppose a woman taking a man's surname as they argue that the tradition stems from a period in which a woman was always expected to bend to a man, and in which a woman's identity was always subsumed under a man's identity; first her father's, and then her husband's.

But in this day and age, I would hazard a guess that there are many strong, assertive women who have taken their husband's surnames, who do not feel as though their identities have been compromised or subsumed in any way. I would also bet that for these women, setting up an ethical and equitable marriage has less to do with surname decisions, and more to do with how you negotiate issues such as the division of domestic labour, the allocation of child care responsibilities, and the management of finances within the marriage.

There are also many factors which women may take into consideration when making the surname decision which have little, if anything, to do with whether they identify as feminists. For example, women often ask questions like "Do I like the sound of my surname or my husband's better?", "Do I really want to keep my dad's name when I haven't seen him since I was three?", and "Am I an only child and therefore the only one who will pass on my family name?"


For my mother, the decision to switch names was made for practical reasons. After getting married, she initially retained her maiden name but in time she discovered that when you share bank accounts (not to mention children) it's often more pragmatic to have a common surname.

Others would advocate the double-barrel option, but realistically this trend can not endure beyond one generation. If we all start going the double-barrel then in just four generations time, all of our surnames will all be comprised of at least 16 hyphenated terms.

Of course for career-oriented professional women, whose names are respected and widely recognised in their fields, or for women who have already established and maintained noteworthy public profiles, it makes sound professional sense to retain one's surname.

Lisa Pryor who is a prominent opinion writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and wife to The Chaser's Julian Morrow agrees. Having already established a reputation as a respected journalist, Pryor says that she never considered taking her partner's surname. Pryor adds that in the era when it was normal to change your name upon marriage, few women were even in the workforce, and of those who were, many got married at the beginning of their careers, meaning that the last name change rarely interfered with their professional identity. Nowadays, it's a different story as women have greater representation in the workforce, and they are also getting married later on in life, having already scaled the career ladder.

However, as Pryor correctly acknowledges, public profile and career reputation isn't the only consideration. Children, marital unity, and plain old aural aesthetics are also important. But moreover it's actually highly elitist and naïve to assume that only professional, white-collar women take pride in, and so are attached to their names and reputations. Regardless of where or even if a woman works, names are intrinsically linked with a sense of identity, and this identity extends beyond professional reputation, meaning that it's reasonable to assume that while some women won’t, any woman might prefer to retain her surname.

Of course realistically, the feminist movement has much bigger fish to fry than the surname debate. Still, as a young woman, it's worth thinking through why these debates exist, where they come from, and where we might want to go to from here.

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About the Author

Nina Funnell is a freelance opinion writer and a researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. In the past she has had work published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age, The Brisbane Times and in the Sydney Star Observer. Nina often writes on gender and sexuality related issues and also sits on the management committee of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

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