Thursday, 25 September 2014

Why family names matter

It’s simple really, how can a woman ever be(come) her own person if she continues to be owned linguistically? A common response is: but she is always already owned, she never has her own family name to begin with. So why should it matter if she substitutes her father’s name for her husband’s? At least she can choose the new family name.

Men are also owned linguistically, they also carry their father’s names. However, they (almost) never ‘choose’ to change them. As the UK Deed Poll website comments: ‘[t]he option of a husband taking his wife’s maiden name is also available to couples, although rather uncommon’ (n. pag.). And why is it ‘rather uncommon’ for a man to change his family name? Because changing one’s name essentially erases one’s identity.

For example, I have always been called ‘Christiane’. When I was small, my parents called ‘Christiane’ whenever they wanted my attention. When I meet someone new I introduce myself as ‘Christiane’ and people who know me will refer to me as ‘Christiane’ when they talk to or about me. And people who don’t might ask ‘Who’s that?’ and someone who does might say ‘Christiane’. In short that’s who I am, and always was. Why would I change that?

Some might argue that a first name is a different case entirely and nothing to do with family names. But first names are as key to our identity. ‘John Smith’ is just that, ‘John Smith’, and not ‘Mark Smith’. Equally, ‘Mary Smith’ is an entirely different person to ‘Mary Baker’. So changing any part of one’s name effectively changes who one is.

Many women argue that their family names are ‘common’, ‘boring’ or ‘embarrassing’, and happy to change them whatever the implications. However, how many men argue the same? For example, Yvette Cooper might have chosen not to take her husband’s name. However, why did Ed Balls not choose ‘Cooper’ as a more ‘neutral’ alternative to his family name?

I can only guess of course, but one reason might be that ‘Ed Cooper’ has no history. And another, that ‘Ed Cooper’ is no longer his own person (linguistically). No wonder he said ‘balls’ to that.

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