Naming rights

Naming norms ... Research has found that 90 per cent of children have a surname that matches that of their father.
Naming norms ... Research has found that 90 per cent of children have a surname that matches that of their father. 

It seems the idea of children taking their dad’s surname is a non-issue for many Australian families. But why don't we think about it more? And what are the alternatives?

“I get what you’re saying, but it’s not happening. Unless I’m dead … actually, not even then. Not over my slowly decomposing corpse.”

I hadn't been too hopeful, but I’d thought the two kilos of gently ripened French brie and a litre of Chateaux-du-effing-expensive would at least oil the wheels of compromise. It hadn’t.

I’d just asked my husband to change our kids’ surnames from his to mine. Or maybe the youngest could take mine and the eldest could keep his. Or maybe we could talk about a different way that both he and I could be represented in the family name, an alternative to the one that says to the world ‘my name rules and her name can go hang’. 

The conversation was prompted by a recent court case in Brisbane. After a mother had registered her twins in her surname, their father (the woman’s ex) took her to court saying it was “right and proper” the children should bear his name. He lost, with Federal Magistrate Janet Terry stating, "This is not a case where the mother failed to name the father on the children’s birth certificate and rode roughshod over him by giving the children her surname.''

After reading about the case, it wasn’t so much a penny that dropped as the entire ASX. Why had our kids take my husband’s name? Why didn’t we even talk about other options? I kept my name after marriage to assert my position as an equitable partner in our relationship. After the kids arrived I'd ignored all that, syphoning myself off from my family and merrily condoning a tradition that allows my husband to pass down his name while mine is discarded like a cheap pair of holiday thongs.

The key factor for married couples is that no decision is ever really made: it’s taken for granted the children will have the father’s surname

I asked my husband why he should have dibs on the whole name thing and he couldn’t really give a solid concrete reason. Custom and tradition came up a lot. Silence came up a lot. Custom and tradition came up again, followed by a bit more silence. And that was about it. He finally settled on “it’s just the way it is”. (A bit like how denying women the right to vote was once “just the way it is”?)

As its most reductive, the default ‘right’ that men have to pass their name down just isn’t fair. As a child, I distinctly remember thinking my mum was an amorphous extension of my dad by virtue of the fact she carried his name. It was a revelation to find she had her own back story, her own family lineage, her own life. I didn’t quite understand why she’d had to give that up, and why I couldn’t carry that history with me in my name.

Jane Caro, media commentator and journalist, kept her surname while her children took on her husband’s. She isn’t convinced it’s a big deal.

“It worked out rather well. It allowed me to be provocative in my career without having to worry about subjecting my family to any negative associations with my name,” she says.


Caro feels that having raised children in a relationship where both partners are clearly equal, the fact they have their father’s name is neither a “negative or positive issue”. She says that it’s certainly not as important to her as the issue of women relinquishing their surname after marriage.   

It seems as if the idea of children taking their dad’s surname is a bit of a non-issue for many of us. The topic has very little visibility and doesn’t generate the same level of discussion as the post-marriage surname change. But the two issues are closely related; both traditions involve women giving up part of their identity so that an age-old tradition, with its roots in male ownership and dominance, can be upheld.

Dr Deborah Dempsey, senior lecturer in Sociology at Swinburne University of Technology, and Associate Professor Jo Lindsay, senior lecturer in Sociology at Monash University, are currently conducting research into the way we choose our children’s surnames. Using data gleaned from the Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Dempsey and Lindsay have found that 90 per cent of children have a surname that matches the father’s (a statistic mirrored by similar studies in the US).

It’s thought that the reason why so many women give their children the father’s name, even when they’ve retained their own, boils down to a number of issues. The need to belong to a unified family unit and the desire to have the same surname as the children are important influencers, but the key factor for married couples is that no decision is ever really made: it’s taken for granted the children will have the father’s surname. The fact is most of us aren’t even talking about it.

Even if discussions do take place, as Dempsey points out, families are unwilling to use alternatives (such as the mother’s name) as it would “mark them out to be different or radical”. Hyphenated names are an option but can be clumsy and unwieldy when passed down through the generations, which may explain why only a low percentage of families have a double-barrelled surname.

There is also a small but significant number of families who opt for brand new surnames. As Dempsey explains, this doesn’t have to be at the expense of family heritage: “Former Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and her husband decided to give their children a version of Bligh’s mother’s name, Frances, as their surname.”

Why should we care about naming practices? Dempsey believes it’s an important issue because naming decisions are a way of monitoring gender equity in families. “If there were no patriarchal privilege, we would expect the father’s surname to be less dominant,” she says. 

The UN felt the issue was so important it gave specific mention to it in the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. A core provision of the convention states that parties will ensure the same personal rights as husband and wife will include “the right to choose a family name”.

Assuming children will take the father’s surname introduces the notion of gender inequity at an early stage; it’s a tradition that’s at odds with the efforts many families make to ensure their dialogue and actions support fairness between women and men. Yes, names are important and many people feel strongly about the identity of their particular tribe. That’s fine, but there’s no reason why that identity has to be determined solely by those who have a penis.

Watch Victoria Birch discuss this topic on Ten's Breakfast here.

Did you talk about your child's surname before the birth, or did you think about it afterwards? Have your say in the comments below.