What’s in a Name?

4 April 2018
What's in a Name? by Sophie Sun

Every wedding planner in Australia ought to be celebrating—business is now flourishing thanks to a little postal survey; decades of protesting and love being celebrated all over Australia. Rainbow street art decorates Melbourne’s coolest streets and many houses retain the pride flags that started popping up last year. However, marriage’s history is oppressive, a far cry from these recent weddings.

Marriage originated as an alliance between families. When hereditary surnames became normal, the spouse marrying into the larger property changed their name. Gender equality could have grown from this system, saving us all considerable trouble. Unfortunately, it was usually women changing their names, a tradition later enshrined in marriage law. This change of name symbolised branding—becoming property.

Remnants of outdated oppression survive through the surnames of wives and children, demonstrating that gender roles are still alive and well in 2018. Eighty per cent of Australian women adopt their husband’s surname and children usually gain this name even when their mother does not. Frowned upon is men adopting their wives’ surnames, and it is legally more difficult. A survey found 96 per cent of men wouldn’t take their wives’ surnames if they asked.

So: marriage is problematic, surnames are oppressive and gender roles are entrenched. Hooray. Thankfully, second-wave feminism overturned many unjust laws and gender roles. Many obviously remain, but these changes paved the way for marriage equality. Studies suggest it is easier for LGBTQ+ families to select surnames, free from the pressure of tradition and societal expectations.

Women often change their name after marriage to unite their family with a single surname—an argument that would be sensical if both surnames were treated as options. Same-sex marriages are uniquely free of gender roles, so both names are valid. Couples adopting a single surname must employ practical reasons to select the name. Reasoning could include the ease of a name’s spelling or pronunciation, and the relationship one spouse may have to their wider family.

In Greece, Quebec and Belgium, it is illegal for spouses to change their names in marriage. This equality-inducing idea restricts freedom, but the conundrum considers the damage name-changing can have on society. Obviously, no such law exists in Australia, but many people keep their surnames after marriage. Of course, this option is available in same-sex marriages, but the issue of children’s surnames remains.

The final, common option is hyphenated names—a possibility for children and parents alike. Though fair, the system can pose challenges by creating lengthy surnames. Ideally, every child would have a hyphenated name, but their children would have four names hyphenated together, which multiplies by the next generation. Not to mention the poor child learning to spell their name in prep, or any adult filling out a ‘one letter per block’ government form. This option is the most popular for Australian lesbian couples, as they often seek a surname that represents the equal role of both parents.

While these options are usual for LGBTQ+ Australians, more radical ideas are circulating. Alternating surnames involves one child taking the surname of one parent, and the second child taking the other name. It accounts for equality, but potentially lacks convenience and family unity. Melding two surnames into a single name is also possible. Again, this method is very fair, but robs people of their heritage, connection to ancestors and wider family, all embedded in a surname. To work, this idea is limited to names of certain lengths and similar sounds. Bizarre as this last option sounds comparative to traditional possibilities, it’s becoming rather popular, with nearly three per cent of Australian children receiving a freshly created, blended surname.

Marriage equality isn’t bringing about a new dawn in Australia. Same-sex couples have been finding names for their families for years. Some things are changing—the wedding card section at every non-homophobic newsagent is now a lot more fun, and Australia has even had its first same- sex divorce. Legalising marriage equality is a step, but it’s hardly the end of the road. Campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights cannot stop now, nor can the progress within heterosexual marriage traditions to move beyond the sexist present. The UN slammed Australia’s endless road to marriage equality—so maybe we could work on this one a little faster.

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