Seven-time Formula One world champion Sir Lewis Hamilton this week revealed his confusion about the archaic formula we use to pass on our surnames. Speaking ahead of the start of the new F1 campaign in Bahrain this weekend, he said: “I don’t really fully understand the whole idea of why, when people get married, the woman loses her name.”
It is why he said he is adopting the surname of his mother, Larbalestier, as a third middle name. (John Lennon and Yoko Ono both made a similar decision when they married in 1969, adopting each other’s last name as their middle name. “It gives us nine Os between us, which is good luck,” said the Beatle.)
Hamilton’s words highlight both the number of us pondering precisely why we adhere so stubbornly to age-old naming practices, and those trying to come up with modern alternatives.
“It is surprising that the tradition survives so strongly, even though women have recently been more dramatically emancipating themselves from male domination,” says Simon Duncan, emeritus professor of comparative social policy at the University of Bradford. Though “many would say it’s harmless”, he believes it “is redolent of women’s subordination”.
One reason for its endurance is that “the patriarchy hasn’t gone away”, he says. “Another answer might be that you don’t just want to have a ‘good family’, you’ve got to show other people you’re doing the ‘right thing’. And the right thing is often seen to be taking your husband’s name. It’s seen as a symbol of commitment.
“There is also a sense that the children might be confused. But they understand perfectly well what’s going on.” A 2011 study by a researcher at King’s College London found children are not remotely puzzled about who is in their family, whatever the surname. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, insisted William Shakespeare. But a wife by her original surname can still send unintended signals.
When a woman chooses not to take her husband’s name after marriage, people perceive him as being higher in traits related to femininity and lower in those related to masculinity, a 2017 study at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas found. He is also perceived as having less power in the relationship.
“I’ve been trying for years to do an updated survey to capture people’s naming practices around family surnames,” says Jane Pilcher, associate professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. “But I’m either very bad at applying for grants or the funding bodies don’t think it’s a significant enough issue.”
Many countries have a different approach. Since the 70s, the law in the Canadian province of Quebec has prevented a woman from taking her husband’s surname after marriage. Greece followed suit in 1983, while in Spain children are typically given the first of the surnames of each parent.
Sir Lewis’s choice is just one of the creative ways people are updating our naming customs. But while many women struggle with the patriarchal overtones of replacing their name with their husband’s, they also believe there is no simple or elegant alternative.
Some wives who simply hang on to their original family name have found themselves being delayed at border control on suspicion of child trafficking (because their surname does not match that of their offspring). The small numbers of men who adopt the surname of their wife are also having to make a sacrifice.
And the choice to hyphenate (made by 11 per cent of people aged between 18 and 34 when they got married, according to 2017 research) may just be passing on the problem to the next generation – unless we are soon going to see the advent of quadruple-barrelled monikers.
But there are other options. When they married in 2015, Kim Copitch and Josh Lee decided instead to blend theirs to create a new name. Taking a syllable from each, they both became Coplee.
“I just didn’t like where it comes from for the woman to take the man’s name,” says Kim, 34, from Hertfordshire. “There are a lot of connotations of the man purchasing the woman and now me being part of his family but losing everything that I grew up with. We decided that, as much as it might be a faff to change it and there’s the awkwardness of explaining it to people, once we had it, it’s just a nice name.
“Also, with my first name being Kim, I would have become Kim Lee. It’s a very popular Korean name, and I felt that that was not something I related to. It didn’t have to be a specifically British name, but having something that related to another culture felt a bit odd.”
Dr Pilcher suggests another – more macro – alternative. Instead of finding ever more inventive workarounds, she says, we should do away with the assumptions that are causing the problem in the first place.
“I think we just need to get more up-to-date and recognise that surnames don’t always accurately map out family belonging,” she says.
“Families’ lives are increasingly messy – you get blended families and people living in different kinds of family set-ups. So we need to recognise that and not rely on surnames in the same way that we have in the past. There are still family relationships there without having that as the signal.”