What’s the Feminist Solution to Surnames?

My 12-letter, four-syllable surname is Gottesdiener. Its German translation–“servant of God”–is quite beautiful, but the name itself has given me my fair share of trouble. In elementary school I was the last student to learn to spell her name, and in middle school there was the familiar taunt “Laura’s Got-a-steamer! Laura’s Got-a-steamer!”

These days, the name gives me trouble for another reason: feminism. If I marry, what’s a Gottesdiener to do? Abandon the name my young self worked so hard to spell? Hyphenate with my partner’s name? Combine the two into one? In the event I marry my current partner, my name would become Gottesdiener-Stein. Or Gottesdienerstein. That’s a bit … long.

The simplest feminist answer would be keep your own name. OK–but what if we become parents? What do we call the kids? Do we hyphenate, combine, reinvent … throw our hands in the air?

We at Ms. spent the day brainstorming feminist solutions to the surname predicament, using traditions from around the world. Let us know which is your favorite!

[polldaddy poll=4104956]

Photo by Flickr user kaatjevervoort under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. My husband and I decided that we would both legally change our names by adding each other's last names. We agreed that any children would have my surname as the middle name and his surname as the last name. It was a mutual decision and it worked out well for us.

  2. Whichever last name is cooler! Seriously.

  3. My boyfriend and I gave our children his mother's maiden name as their surname.

  4. My choice is not listed on here…it's closest to the Spanish tradition, but w/ no dropping the mom's name later. I kept my last name, he kept his. Our kids will be hyphenates and what they do later in life is up to them! I don't need to figure out what they should do if they marry another hyphenate. That will be up to them!

    • We did the same thing . . . but without the hyphens. What they do in the future with their double last name is up to them!

  5. heatheraurelia13 says:

    What if you're future husband doesn't want to do any of those? What if he isn't a feminist?

    • So, don’t marry him!

    • Well, when it comes to your name upon marriage, grown women get to make their own decisions. If he doesn't respect your desires in that regard, what else is he going to disrespect about you? Not a good start to a marriage.

      When it comes to children, there should be compromise. And it's good to talk about these possibilities before marriage (even if you're not planning on children; accidents happen). I

  6. Make up a new name. My father did that for me and my uncle recently did that for my baby cousin. My last name is Shilpi, which means "art". My new cousin's last name is basically means "everyone's friend", aka "really friendly person". 🙂

    I've actually written on my blog about my name – I call it my best gift from my parents:

    The "make it up" option can also fit with the Sioux and Elision options. 😉

    • Hi Nano Muse,
      I am so happy to read about your name. Kudos to your parents for doing that and standing by it and that too almost 2 decades ago.
      I am expecting my first child and I don’t want our girl to carry the burden of patriarchy and the privilege of caste/religion in her name and we both want to give her a name and identity which will be her own- a protest against these systems. Like you said, It’s a small change but an important step which will make others reflect as well.

  7. Our decision was similar to Holly's. We both kept our own last names. Our son has my husband's last name, and my last name as his second middle name. We came upon this decision because my last name is much harder to spell and pronounce.

  8. Jacquelyn Lutz says:

    So, I'll be the first feminist to post at say that I took my husband's last name and completely dropped mine. I wasn't fond of my last name and there are plenty of people to carry it on. I think having the same last name gives you family unity. He couldn't change his due to professional concerns (read: he had a reputation on his name). I don't want to hypenate any children's names, or my own. I struggled with this decision quite a bit, thinking that I was betraying my feminism if I took his name. In the end, feminism is about having the choice. I chose to take his name, and I'm happy with my decision. I think any of the above options are good.

    • well, I must disagree with the argument that as soon as it is a choice its feminist and its right. Many women specially in middle east choose not to work and be dependent on their husband financially, in many cases because its the husband preference. Women choose that to show love to husband and they are happy with that, but by no means that’s a good thing to do.
      Also about the argument on family unity, this is just a cultural thing. In many countries, including Iran which is in middle east, women keep their name and it has never been though of having husband name translates to unity.

  9. Spain is in a debate, because government don't want to keep the rule "if no consensus, father's surname first". The fact is that almost everyone has her/his paternal surname first as a (patriarchal) tradition, but we legally identify ourselves by both. However, nowadays we tend to use only the first surname (laziness? foreign influence?).
    I'm Spanish and it's really difficult when I go abroad to keep my two surnames I have and I want to be kept. They have called me only by my first, but once they called me by my second because they thought my first surname was my middle-name!
    My option is creativity: let's choose the surname(s) as well as we choose the name. This creativity can also ends in hybridation.

    • I have this same discussions on a daily basis as I'm a first generation Mexican living in the US. People think I married someone else (my husband is not latino/hispanic), that it's my middle name, or reporters use the wrong name, etc. I often get the "what do I call you" question. I actually insist that people use my apellidos properly, and I'm happy to enlighten them about the practice–it's only a burden if we let them convince us that it is.

    • “because government don’t want to keep the rule “if no consensus, father’s surname first”. ”
      well if they are looking for defaults, they can do something more impartial, whichever name is higher or lower on the alphabet (you decide) is the default last name

  10. My wife and I (who am also female) decided that she would take my name, but retain her maiden name as a middle name. Her legal name, and the one she uses professionally, is "Brigid Maidenname Lastname". We are discussing the possibility of giving our children her maiden name as a last name.

  11. We will each keep our last names. The kids can have his surname. There are enough people in the world with my surname. I like it, but don't feel the need to pass it along my gene-line.

    First names, OTOH, are very important to me. I have a unique name that I chose myself and had legally changed. My children will have special names, and I get to choose those. I figure naming them is my reward for, you know, labor and all.

  12. how bout both people just keep their names and if they have the child, the child hyphenates.

  13. there's a bizarre amount of patriarchy in this discussion for a feminist magazine – why is family unity a good idea? if you want unity then why can't it be plural? as in we are the name name (name..) family/clan. why erase cultural markers like names that show heritage because the current place of habitation doesn't understand/pronounce them… why assume children have two parents and not five? as for marrying (whatever the sexes and genders of the participants) – why are we even still considering it?

    • thethinkingfeminist says:

      My thoughts exactly! From its inception, marriage has been–and continues to be–an inherently sexist, patriarchal, antiquated institution. I don’t understand why many feminists choose to support such an institution. I often hear rationalizations surrounding government-granted benefits, but why acquiesce to government-dictated values of monogamy, heterosexism and patriarchy? Each individual should have the choice of who can visit them in the hospital, how survival benefits are distributed, etc.. And the tax structure, designed to reward procreation, is simply irresponsible with an already greatly overburdened planet. Rather than compromising our feminist values to align with our patriarchal government, we should demand the government change their policies to reflect our values. Let’s think critically about our cultural and historical institutions, determine whether they further feminist rights, then act.

    • thethinkingfeminist says:

      From its inception, marriage has been–and continues to be–an inherently sexist, patriarchal, antiquated institution. I don’t understand why many feminists choose to support such an institution. I often hear rationalizations surrounding government-granted benefits, but why acquiesce to government-dictated values of monogamy, heterosexism and patriarchy? Each individual should have the choice of who can visit them in the hospital, how survival benefits are distributed, etc.. And the tax structure, designed to reward procreation, is simply irresponsible with an already greatly overburdened planet. Rather than compromising our feminist values to align with our patriarchal government, we should demand the government change their policies to reflect our values. Let’s think critically about our cultural and historical institutions, determine whether they further feminist rights, then act.

  14. You missed one obvious solution — each partner keeps their own name upon marriage and you toss a coin for the last name of the child(ren). Heads it's one person's last name, tails it's the others. It's completely random, and hence there's no patriarchal influence on the decision. Whoever has the last name that ended up on the losing side of the coin toss gets to choose a familial name for the child's first and/or middle name (so long as the other parent doesn't hate the choice). In this way my daughter ended up with my husband's last name but my middle name and a first name that I chose and he also liked.

  15. My husband and I wanted to combine names, but there was no nice combo available. We ended up trading last names as middle names. For babies, the first child gets the parent's name of that sex. So if the first child is a girl, she'll get my last name, and if he's a boy, my husband's. But this is where we differ from the norm: the second child gets the name of the un-passed down spouse. And it'll go back and forth like that.

  16. I forget where I read this, but I like the idea that is similar to the Jessica solution, except that any sons got the mother's surname and daughters got the father's.

  17. lonely lner says:

    what about not getting married and partaking in a patriarchal institution and be happy with your comitment to one another.

  18. Linda Farthing says:

    A late night feminist rant from one of the old timers. My niece just gave her baby her husband’s last name and I’m astounded that this nonsense continues across generations, even in “progressive” families. What is it that these young women don’t get about patriarchy? Especially after nine months of doing the heavy lifting to bring this child into the world. OK. my last name (and hers) are paternal, as are our mothers and grandmothers but STILL, you do have a relationship to that name, an emotional attachment, a history with it, and after all that preparation and labor to bring this child to life, why would you give it the guy’s surname? what are you perpetuating? and why?

    • @Linda: See, that’s the thing about empowering people to make their own choices–you then have to put up with them making ones you disagree with.

      • Cindy Peterson-Dana says:

        I agree with Linda. The only thing that will change this patriarchal practice is for men and women to choose something different. My kids’ dad and I both added a new name to our existing names – which is the name we gave to our children. They now have a name that is no longer from a patriarchal lineage. It’s worked well after 17 years:)

        I think this issue is so clear and important. I urge young people to take it seriously and not just cave in to existing patriarchal practices.

    • @Linda: well, if it was their choice then there isn’t much that can be done them can it. I mean this is one big fight for the freedom of choice, and if a progressive makes a choice, it should be respected as their choice. correct?

  19. Fernando says:

    In Spain this problem is much more limited. I think it is the only thing in which we can be a model.
    The traditional surname rules (present in some other spanish-speaking countries as well) are:
    -we all have two surnames. the first one is the father’s first surname, the second one is the mother’s first surname. Even the king has two surnames (even if they are repeated for him, due to the monarchy endogamy: he is Juan Carlos Borbón Borbón”.
    -women (nor men either) never change their surnames when they get married
    As you can see, most of the feminist demands about surnames in anglosaxon countries never existed here. In fact, it’s hard to understand for us how is it possible that in the countries where feminism is born, women still change their surname, and loose their personality in some way, and how there can be no surname transmission to their sons and daughters at all. In Spain (not a feminist paradise), since centuries ago, you would always be Gottesdiener, and your sons and daughters will always be during their life. This solves all your demands.
    There is still some sexist discrimination in this model, however, and there have been some recent law modifications by the last socialist gouvernment in order to solve it. After some generations, women’s surnames disappear. In fact, we all have our two grandfather’s surnames, and not our grandmother’s ones. Why should father’s name come first, and not mother’s? The last modification (I can’t remember when, but it was 5 years ago more or less) was to let the couples decide the order of their childrens surnames (but they must keep the same order for next brothers/sisters), and everyone is free to change the order of their surnames when they are 18, even if very few do that. There is no discrimination at all between men and women… but only if we suppose the parents reach an agreement, not otherwise. If there is no agreement, father’s surname still came first in a first time. The last law modification is to let a judge decide in a draw. The same thing applies in homosexual adoptions.
    So it seems solved irght now. The key point is the two-surname names.
    Anyway, I have always proposed another non-sexist solution based in the two-surnames, but it seems not to be well accepted by some reason I still do not understand. I think it would be fully symmetric if sons got their father’s name first, and daughters got their mother’s name first. This way every person would have their father-father-father… surname, and their mother-mother-mother… surname. Both of them. And none of them would ever disappear due to the sexist tradition.
    I apologize for my english, and best regards.

  20. My husband and I are hyphenating, because I want to have the same last name as my husband and he wants the same as me, but both of us are very attached to our last names, because we’re both very attached to our family histories.

    My alternate suggestion is “prettier last name wins” so if a Belcher marries a Bird, they take Bird regardless of gender. If a Schmuck marries a Sweet, Sweet wins and they both end up with Sweet. In cases where you’re unsure, a coin toss.

  21. Incidentally my mother took my father’s last name despite them both being feminists, because she had a terrible last name (Clap, as in Gonorrhea), as opposed to my father’s very pleasant sounding last name.

  22. Cindy Peterson-Dana says:


    I am a 51 year old woman and felt from a very young age (at age 4 I told my parents that I would be marrying a man with the last name of ‘Peterson’ so I did not have to change my name),that I did not agree that women lost their names upon marriage and that children take only their father’s names. My children’s father and I chose a new name when we married and added it to our existing surnames. We gave only the new name, ‘Dana,’ (meaning generosity in Sanskrit), to our 3 children. My kids’ father’s last name is his birth surname and Dana, mine is Peterson-Dana, which is my birth surname (Peterson) and our new family name. Our children all have only the last name, Dana. I think this way of choosing a new family name is non-patriarchal and allows both parents to stay connected to their birth names while celebrating their union together with a new name that they choose together.

  23. Jesus fucking Christ. just have their middle name be the mom’s name and the dad’s be the last name, this isn’t hard, three names instead of two. that’s what my folks did and they didn’t even have this debate, mom said “I wanna get my name” dad said “sure why not?” and boom my mom’s name is now my middle name.

    • Urhm the very reason upon this debate is to find a feminist solution to this issue. The middle name is less important than the surname as it cannot be carried through generations.(if desired) as stated in your plan, hence still continuing the patriarchy. Jeez can’t you comprehend or something.

  24. I like the idea of a matrilineal-patrilineal system. If Sarah Smith procreates with John Jones, the kids are Smith-Joneses (or Jones-Smiths if you prefer). Let’s say they have a child. We’ll call her Jennifer Smith-Jones. If Jennifer marries Matthew Washington-Bates, she can pass on her mother’s name (Smith), and Matthew can pass on his father’s. So their children would be Smith-Bates. I like this system because it works equally well for same-sex couples. Two women can easily pass on their mothers’ names. Two men can easily pass on their fathers’. Anyone can pass on either name, if they (for example) feel more connected to one parent than the other.

  25. if it’s a straight couple the answer is simple. the family takes the mothers last name . hyphenating will get too complex and will cause so much confusion. only reason my name is hyphenated is because i added my mothers birth name “Cook” myself. who knows, someday i may just change it to Aldo Cook and then when/if i get married, when/if we have kids i’ll just take her name and hopefully she’s fine with that. Why you ask? again, as i said … as the generations progress hyphenating will cause more confusion than anything else. So the rational solution for married couples where the mother is giving birth to the child would be to take the wife’s name. if you have to choose one it makes sense to choose the name of the person who is carrying around a child for 9 months. if a woman marries another woman and they choose to have a child through sperm injection, same thing applies. the family name goes to the woman who is carrying the child for 9 months. don’t ask me about same sex couples who adopt because i don’t have an answer for that. i actually just thought of the above solution recently but it makes sense when you think about it. i cringe when i see a straight couple do one of these: Jenn Smith marries Jeff Brown and after they get married it turns into: Jenn Smith-Brown and hold on…. heres the part that makes me freakin cringe… her husband remains….. Jeff Brown. like, are you kidding me right now. why is she adding your name Jeff and you’re not adding hers. freakin pissses me off. okay, rant over.

  26. It’s just my idea. Through the centuries, if not thousands of years, there has only been patrilineal family names. We can invent matrileal ones. Option 1: Jack Wilson and Mary Thetcher got married and have a son and a daughter. Son will be known as Fred Wilson while daughter as Sally Thetcher. Fred’s sons will take Wilson with them til the last male descedent so the female equivalance at Sally’s side.
    Option 2: The hyphen. Children of Jack Wilson and Mary Thetcher will be named Fred and Sally Thetcher-Wilson. Fred marries to Janet Roberts. Their kids will bear Roberts- Wilson as their last name as the main idea here is that a kid’s family name is composed of their mother’s (mother’s) name-their father’s (father’s) name. Meanwhile the offsprings of Sally and her husband, supposedly James Ward-Thompson, will bear Thetcher-Thompson as their last name. It’s a bit similar to Spanish naming system, in which a person is in the order of first name, maternal grandfather’s last name, followed by paternal family name, only this time we allow mothers to have their own last name mentionned as part of theirs children’s name and to have the matrilineal family tree. By this new matrilineal addition to a child’s name, linking family is much easier also appreciating the importance of mother (it’s mother who has to carry the child and give birth risking her own life) in a child’s life. If both parents carry long family names, in the case of George and Diane Fredricksen-Jespersen, we can refer to George as Jespersen since he would carry his father’s name with him. By applying the same method, we can also refer Diane as Fredricksen without any alternation in their birthnames. Just wondering… 🙂

  27. Jill johnson says:

    I am a proud feminist and gave all 4 of my children MY last name. I feel that no person should have to give up their name ( their personal identity) because they marry someone. I find the entire idea insulting to women. I do not understand why we don’t just use a matriarchal and patriarchal system where all boys carry fathers name and all girls carry mothers name. This would eliminate all the problems associated with hyphenated names as well as preventing accidental interrelation between relatives as you would know everyone’s lineage. Another answer is just give a unique full name not including either father or mothers. Until society adopts a sensible answer to this last name issue I say, WOMEN stop being chumps. Stop under-estimating your worth. Your name is just as important as any man’s name. Considering women carry the children, give birth to children – why are they named after men in the first place. – it’s because we were always considered possessions of men. In this century it is long overdue for women to reject this ridiculous patriarchal notion that we need to follow these primitive archaic ideas. Stand up for yourself and show your children that you respect your own value as a person ( which includes the name you are born with) and theirs as well. I hear woman tell me that they changed their name because it was the easiest thing to do. The easy way is not the right way, it’s just another cop-out. Woman need to stand up for woman or we will continue to live in a solely patriarchal world. It took until 1972 for women to receive equal status. How many more years will it take to actually aquire or believe this. Just saying….

    • Best reply i’ve seen yet. I’m struggling with all this right now as I wait to deliver my first child, a daughter, in January. For the record I agree that its about choice, but the issue is that choices are probably being made without any realisation of how important it is and how it props up sexist values every time you give in because it’s “easier”. Lots of women actually attempted to defend the notion that women shouldn’t work and women shouldn’t vote at the time those were contested issues in society and if you look back you think “WTF were they thinking!?” because it’s so obviously a violation to themselves in society. People sometimes defend ideas and behaviours that work against them because its how they’ve always done it and they’re tied to tradition. I get the desire to maintain a connection to our past by keeping traditions. But I believe there comes a time when you realise some traditions are not benign, but effective and sometimes not for good.

  28. Jennifer Waddle says:

    Regardless of what name people take or don’t take when marrying, what do people think about girls taking their mothers surname and boys taking their fathers? Though this is assuming a traditional male+female parent family of course and doesn’t solve the issue across the board for same sex marriages etc.
    Hyphenating, as people have discussed, still has its issues, i.e. what names goes first, what the kids do when they grow up. And this is important, because you are just passing the issue on.
    I suppose picking the cooler name is an option, but doesn’t work currently when many men aren’t ready to drop their name and adopt their partners.
    I think making up a new name is the only way for it to be entirely fair and easy for the kids. Do any other cultures do this?

  29. This is interesting. In general I think the battle for equality should be fought on all fronts, but I honestly don’t get the name thing. I fail to see the benefit to keeping my FATHER’s name in the fight against the patriarchy. Picking a random cool name would be fun.

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