Why should a baby get the father's last name?

Historians, scientists and legal scholars offer some explanation.

Published January 20, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

"I never really thought about it." "I didn't care and he cared." "Hyphenated names are so cumbersome." "It was important to his father that we pass on the family name." "I didn't really like my last name anyway." "I gave my children my last name as a middle name."

On and on it goes -- the rationalization of unconventional women who choose to do a very conventional thing: to give the child that emerges from their womb their husband's last name.

In 1994, American Demographics magazine reported that in marriage, 90 percent of women still adopt their husbands' last names. The remaining 10 percent choose some alternative -- from creating hyphenated names to making middle names out of their maiden names. But only 2 percent choose to retain their maiden names as their sole surnames.

Given the numbers, one might assume that choosing a child's surname is not exactly a hot button issue in the domestic arena. But it is. Modern couples do sit down and hash out what to call their babies. It's one of the many emotional calisthenics performed in the name of intentional parenting.

As soon as I became pregnant, I became entangled in the surname debate. After queries about morning sickness, weight gain, C-sections and the baby's gender, people asked the inevitable question: What are you doing for a last name? If my interrogator was a mother, she'd usually reply to my answer with her own creation tale of her child's surname.

These stories swerved radically from accounts of misogynist medical and legal practices to marital conflicts to the "it just seemed easier" riffs. Often there were aesthetic critiques of various phonemes. The endings of these diverse tales were almost always the same: The children got the father's last name.

Of course, patrilineal naming assuages both marital conventions and male egos. But there would seem to be plenty in our recent history to make women less likely to bow to such societal pressures. We've had three decades of skyscraping divorce rates and a growing contingent of dead-beat dads. Meanwhile, happily married women increasingly work double shifts as the primary parents and breadwinners of their families.

Yet the patrilineal torch has hardly flickered. Rarely do women give their children their last names -- even after divorce leaves them as sole providers and caretakers. (Though they often pay the several hundred dollars it takes to erase the taint of an estranged spouse from their own identity.)

So why is it that so many women appear not to care about the names they give their offspring while their husbands do? Why is it that so many women just happen to have an aesthetic preference for their husband's name? Why do so many women choose to abdicate a symbolic connection to their children to avoid disapproval of conservative family members, even when they are willing to buck family tradition on other issues? Why is it that when the woman wants everyone in the family to have the same last name, she immediately assumes that it is she who must change her name? Why do so many career women go through the rigmarole of maintaining two last names -- one for their work and one for their family?

Are women just self-hating wimps and men old-fashioned swine? The diversity of women's explanations suggests that something else is at work quite beyond feminist politics or personal choice.

Unsatisfied by ham-fisted stereotypes, I went in search of political scientists, historians, legal scholars, biologists and psychologists who might cast more light on why most women make their first public act as mothers an etymological suicide, obliterating the most visible identifying link between their children and themselves.

Political theorist Jackie Stevens, author of "Reproducing the State" (Princeton, 1999), looks at how last names were originally an invention of political societies seeking to make nationality seem natural rather than man-made.

"One of the ways we think of our national identities as natural is that we can tell what people's nationality is from their last names," she explains. "Governments have put a lot of effort into deciding what we're named. For example, there's an official list of first names in Switzerland and you have to choose one for your child."

Stevens maintains that in the 11th century, minions of William the Conqueror created surnames in the midst of a census to codify inheritance rules and thereby bolster tax revenue. Later in Europe, surnames were used to control and homogenize various ethnic groups.

"Jews wouldn't take last names because Moses didn't have a last name," she explains. "But when they rebelled, the government assigned them really gross last names like -- Grossman -- which means fat man. If you wanted a pretty name, you had to a pay a bribe."

But how do the nation-building origins of the surname shed light on the personal choices made by modern couples?

"Inheritance laws, political bodies, surnames -- it's all about compensating for men's inability to give birth," Stevens contends. "The surname remains the only way of showing legitimacy. Without it, there's no certainty that the kid has a legal father."

She also hazards a psychological hunch that women still want to demonstrate that they've nabbed a man. "That's especially important if women are keeping their own last names. It's ironic because keeping one's maiden name is supposed to be feminist -- but it may ignite that old anxiety about legitimacy."

But if it's all about legitimacy, why didn't any of the women I spoke to offer that as an explanation? And why did so many of the stories seem so different?

"It is interesting when you get many explanations for the same choice," muses psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow, author of the ground breaking "Reproduction of Mothering" (UC Press). "One begins to wonder what's going on unconsciously." In her current book, "The Power of Feelings" (Yale University Press), Chodorow addresses this conundrum: How many so-called "personal choices" often have internal and unconscious meanings.

Like Stevens she feels that patrineal surnaming is about a woman giving her child and its father a definite connection. But she casts the choice in a more positive light. "[Giving the man's last name to the child] can be a way of having a sense of two parents," she explains. "It's also a way of trusting in the marriage -- saying, 'This is someone I can count on.' It's about enjoying the good parts of being part of a family, of feeling somehow that this man is making a commitment."

Yet it's interesting that traditionally, the man shows his commitment to the child by giving his name, while the woman shows that same commitment by giving up her own. Why are so many men still so attached to their last names?

"Identification with the father," says Chodorow. "I don't think it's any mystery. It's the classic "in the name of the father" -- in Lacanian psychoanalysis. The mother has the baby in utero but the name is how men get tied to their babies. The tie has to happen somehow that 'This is my baby too.' If she's feeling generous, then this is a way to show it."

Choderow also notes that many young feminists are choosing their battles more carefully. "Women are making choices about where they think it's important [to change] -- maybe they're focused on getting men more interested in child care. They're also learning that every time you do something that's traditional, it doesn't mean that you're not a feminist."

Evolutionary biologist Helen Fisher doesn't dispute Chodorow's notion of patrilineal naming as a linguistic umbilical cord, but she casts the idea in biological terms. "It's tremendously advantageous to think that the father belongs to [the mother and the child] for Darwinian evolutionary reasons. The main reason for marriage is for women to get a man to not only sire her children but to help raise them.

"Even in the age when women can be economically powerful, any way they can build that connection with their husbands [means] they will win VCRs and bicycles and college educations for their DNA."

She notes that studies have shown that mothers and their kin comment more often that a baby resembles its father. "Evolutionary psychologists ended up thinking that this habit is more than just chance; it is a way of building that connection [between father and child]," she explains.

Even with the high rate of divorce, the increasing economic power of working women and the decline in marriage, Fisher doubts that the prevalence of patrilineal naming will change any time soon. Why? Because illegitimacy is not just a paranoid male fantasy.

"Studies of blood types in the 1940s revealed by accident that as much as 10 percent of children were not the children of the man they called father," she says. "They were not genetically related."

Paraphrasing from her recent book "The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women," she adds: "That's a huge percentage and women are deeply driven to have their husbands think that a child is theirs because if it isn't, he may not give resources or he may abuse the child."

That women have a choice of surnames at all is only a relatively recent development in legal history. Originally, patrilineal names were part of the British and American common law called "coverture," in which a woman lost her legal right to own property, to enter into contracts or sue another party as soon as she got married.

Sexist property laws began being dismantled 150 years ago, but even in the 1970s, many state bureaucracies still prohibited women from keeping their own names after marriage and giving their children their surnames.

Interestingly, the last legal battles of patrilineage were not fought over love or tradition or civil rights, but the true blood of our society: money. According to Hendrik Hartog, Princeton legal historian and author of the forthcoming "Man and Wife in America" (Harvard University Press, May 2000), it only became truly irrelevant whether a woman wanted to keep her own name after it was established that women did indeed have the right to have their own credit cards. Before that, a married woman could only obtain a credit line if she had her husband's surname.

I could find no current laws prohibiting women from keeping their surnames after marriage or giving their names to their children. The state-by-state battles of the 1970s are all over. So why haven't our naming rituals also changed? Hartog maintains that despite the societal campaign that began in the 1900s to "reinvent marriage," much of what people do in marriage continues to be done out of habit -- even when the tradition has no legal or financial roots.

"People find it very difficult to imagine being married and not doing what their parents did," he explains. "There's a powerful pull toward the reproduction of tradition. Of course, there's enormous divorce and people having children outside of marriage but still, when people get married, they're doing something that's historically grounded."

And as Stevens, Chodorow and Fisher have observed, even the most arbitrary traditions remain remarkably resilient when they have a biological seed.

Names flutter abstractly on bureaucratic forms and even a feminist woman, filled to the brim with a child of her own blood and bone, may see the symbolism of giving her last name as a trifle compared to the visceral bond she already shares with their baby. Even as our legal system evolves to accept the notion that families are essentially cultural-political institutions in which each parent must have equal influence, the body stealthily intrudes.

But just because women are blessed and cursed with the vital umbilical connection, it doesn't mean that we have to relent on every symbolic front. Long after my husband hacks through that bloody rope, long after my breast milk has dried up and my pregnancy leave is but a sleep-deprived memory, we will both be parents, working equally, I hope, inside and outside the home.

My husband won't need to brand our daughter to compensate for the fact that she is in his care less often than she is in mine. He won't need any exterior sign to remind him of his responsibility, his connection, his importance.

Yesterday I felt the tiny kicks and stretches of our first collaboration in reproductive love. After much discussion, we decided: She's getting both our last names (no hyphen) -- with mine as the last, last name.

Biological motherhood is an awesome process but its powers won't last as long as the symbolic gift to my daughter of her mother's last name. And when she is old enough to ask me why she has the name she has, I won't need to come up with some justification that I don't even believe myself.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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