Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Gender, Family Names, and Pronouns

Should women adopt their husband's surname upon marrying? "It's up to her" is the obvious answer, but I'm curious as to what the most reasonable decision for an engaged couple would be. A quick disclaimer: none of my conclusions should be imposed on anyone, of course! I'm merely interested in how they might address the question.

Now, one option would be for the married couple to retain their distinct family names. But this might be awkward if they have children: whose name should the children get? The mother has a distinctive link in virtue of bearing the children. Meritocrats might thereby favour her right to the family name. Egalitarians might use the very same datum to argue that the father should be compensated for lacking this historical connection; perhaps a symbolic connection to his surname would help bring him closer to his children? (I don't really think either "connection" is particularly significant compared to the non-symbolic acts of actual parenting, but let's bracket that for sake of this comparatively trivial discussion.) Perhaps they could alternate, if planning several children, or flip a coin. But however it goes, the symbolized disunity seems unfortunate -- not the end of the world, of course, but it would seem ideal for the entire family to share their "family name". (I imagine that alternatives might also get administratively inconvenient at times.)

The flipside of the problem, of course, is that it seems unfair to ask just one partner to replace their surname with the other's. For the woman, especially, this symbolic act may be associated with oppressive patriarchal traditions. So, if a one-way sacrifice must be made, it might be most reasonable for the husband to instead adopt his wife's surname. On the other hand, this may be socially awkward precisely because of its untraditional nature. In any case, again, either way seems less than ideal: one's family name reflects their roots, and it seems unfortunate to have to give this up entirely upon starting a new family. (Though of course if either partner doesn't give a hoot, then there's no problem.)

Some opt for hyphenization to combine the two names, which has nice symbolic value but is clearly unsustainable. (Won't somebody think of the children? What are the next generation supposed to do when they want to marry? Give birth to a triply-hyphenated monster?) This option also suffers from the more general objection that hyphens are annoying.

The ideal solution, I think, may be to follow Mother Nature's genetic example and merge (parts of) the two names into one: hence a partnered "Smith" and "Jones" might become a family of "Smones". Nice symbolism, perfect equality, and no hyphens -- what more could you ask for? ;-)

While on the topic of gender symbolism and controversial trivialities, I guess I should also address the vexed question of generic third-person singular pronouns. Here a merging solution seems impossible, and efforts to explicitly include both genders (e.g. "he or she", "s/he", etc.) are too ugly to use in writing that's meant to be read.

I take it that the pronouns "he" and "she" can be used in a gender-neutral sense to refer to a generic third person. Nevertheless, feminists could have a legitimate complaint about always using "he" in such contexts. For even if technically gender-neutral in denotation, the connotations are clearly another matter. And if such use has the practical consequence of alienating female readers or reinforcing male privilege, then that's plainly a problem no matter what the dictionary says.

I usually try to mix them up a bit, rather than using either generic pronoun exclusively. That seems a decent enough compromise. (I'm also a fan of singular "they", at least in contexts where it doesn't sound too awkward to my ear.) But let me propose a better ideal: writers should use the generic pronoun that is oppositely gendered from themselves.

The great advantage of this policy is that it is naturally proportional and self-correcting. If there is a predominance of males in one field, then the writings will be correspondingly dominated by female-friendly pronouns. (This might not have any significant effect, but it can't hurt.) If the gender balance changes over time, the risk of "matriarchal bias" is naturally mitigated (however slightly) by the male-friendly pronouns used by all the female writers who are taking over the field.

Does such a pronoun policy deserve to become the new politically correct norm? (It might need at least one exception: if the gender imbalance is very excessive, it might be appropriate for the minority group to express solidarity by use of their own gendered pronoun.) What do you think?



  1. My wife kept her name and when we had kids, we were going to give her last name to daughters and mine to sons. When our daughter (our first) was born and they heard the plan, the family freaked and my wife rethought the question felling that it was unfortunate that my name was nowhere a part of our daughter's, so we changed our mind and hyphenated. Me, I diodn't really worry about it one way or another, I just call her "shorty" regardless.

  2. Even though it might be culturally awkward, I've always thought it would be some kind of a testament to gender equality for the male to assume the female's surname. It's something I've been thinking about a lot, as my girlfriend and I have been considering marriage. She has such a distinctive last name, and I would hate for that link to her heritage to get lost in the transaction.

    This is also an interesting question for gay couples. Which partner should drop his family's surname, if traditionally it's the male who keeps his family's surname?


  3. You could just use either name depending on the situation and how you felt that day

  4. It is common in many Spanish-speaking cultures to give the child both the father's surname and the mother's maiden name. So Vicente Fox Quesada, the President of Mexico, had a mother whose maiden name was Quesada, and a father whose last name was Fox. Only the paternal surname is inherited through the generations, though, so they avoid the hyphenation problem entirely. After all, for the usual reasons we use surnames, it isn't relevant what the grandparents' surnames were. One just needs to decide which name to carry forward on each side. That would be arbitrary, but it seems to me a plausible rule of thumb would be to carry the maternal name on the mother's side and the paternal name on the father's side, so that the grandchildren will share a last name with their father's father and with their mother's mother.

    Part of the problem is that our surnames are institutionalized and not (as they used to be long ago) just things we were called to help distinguish us out. So 'Peter's son' became Peterson and so forth (sometimes on the maternal side as well; Karensdatter is a fairly common Nordic name). But, once institutionalized, there has to be some rule to govern them; all the candidates are arbitrary and they all have disadvantages.

  5. In the philosophy world, it is common to keep your own name, especially if you have already published at the time you get married. But there are exceptions, of course. For instance, Delia Graff is now Delia Graff Fara.

  6. I think that in the modern world, wives have to carry their husbands surnames as a formality, eventhough it is not usually mandated by the law. People just make use of this in order to make note that the person is married to this other person.

  7. here's what i was thinking about the other day. i'm definitely keeping my last name, and my husband is keeping his. what do we do with the kids? well, here's an idea: we come up with our kids' first names, so why not make up the last ones as well? each of my kids will have a different last name, which will also be different from his/hers parents' last names.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.