June 14, 2016

Annabelle Pendlebury



Think that sexism is a thing of the past in Australia? Okay, picture this: a man and a woman are in a relationship and opt for the woman’s surname as their shared family name, also deciding that their children will be given her surname.

If this sounds strange to you, it’s because it is.

In Australia, the father’s name goes to 96 per cent of children, according to a study carried out by Flinders University.

Yet these skewed, imbalanced and unequal numbers do not fit with the concept that I hear so often preached. That is, that sexism is long dead in Australia because we are a modern and forward-thinking nation. Women have exactly the same rights as men! We would never allow sexism to occur in this first world country! Right?

Sadly, the truth lies in our cultural norms and the traditions we instinctively perpetuate.

If I ever have children, I want to give them my last name. My parents know of this plan and my father has strongly tried to dissuade me from it, because he knows that to do so will make me an outlier. And he is right, I will be an oddity – while I know a handful of women that kept their last name after marriage, I do not personally know of any woman that has passed on her name to her children.

This alone is an indicator of a majorly problematic trend.

We are certainly privileged in Australia to have gotten rid of laws that literally positioned women as property belonging to men, unlike other parts of the world. But it’s terrible that these archaic ideas have weaved their way into our social norms, norms that suggest we should continue living in the good ol’ fashioned days, as though the identity of a woman has less value than that of a man.

By allowing these lopsided statistics to remain the same, we are clinging to a leftover remnant of an era where a woman had no identity except that of the man she belonged to.

In essence, it is the oppression and subjugation of women in yet another form. So, while there may be many important and pressing issues facing women that I strongly believe we need to fight against, for me this seemingly small matter is just as important.

That little scenario above, where a woman’s surname is chosen to be the family name, should not make us feel like something strange is going on. What should be making us all uncomfortable is that only four per cent of mothers are passing on their names to their babies. This tells us that our supposedly modern and enlightened society does not yet have a culture that embraces the idea of ‘free choice’ within our own households.

We simply decide that because one partner is a female, they are happy to give up their identity. Can you imagine the fuss if the western world was reversed tomorrow and all males were suddenly asked to take their wife’s surname?

“But my name is my identity,” they would cry. “It’s who I am.”

Yet we silence these concerns if they are coming from women. This is why discussing surnames should be a conversation every family has, so that passing on a surname to children is a valid option for women just as it is for men.

I’m not saying that all babies should be given their mother’s name, any more than I think every child should bear their father’s name. Instead, I hope our society continues to strive for a mixture, to strive for a day when children are given either their mother’s or father’s surname, simply according to the personal preference of the parents. This is equality, and I hope this is the future. I will certainly be fighting to ensure that it is.

By this point, you’re probably sitting there asking yourself, why the fuss? Why not just hyphenate your children’s name? For some, that might be a perfectly fine choice. But my last name happens to be extremely long. What if the father of my child also has a long name? How cruel would I have to be to force any child to endure not only writing ‘Pendlebury’ but ‘Pendlebury-Pendleton’, for example?

So, hyphenated names may be all well and good, for peeps out there with short names. If you don’t want a long and unwieldy name though, then you are back to square one. And there is no excuse for the fact that we, in this day and age, subconsciously think it is “wrong” or too difficult to name a child after their mother.

Maybe the future will mean more people following in the footsteps of Bryn Huntpalmer and her husband, who created an entirely new, hybrid surname for themselves and their children out of their two last names, ‘Hunt’ and ‘Palmer’. This was done to “honor both of our pasts” and to celebrate the beginning of the new life they were creating together.

It is even more important that we have conversations about acknowledging a mother’s last name because mothers most commonly do the most work in the actual raising of their children. Women currently do almost double the amount of unpaid labour in the home than men. So why do we automatically deny women input into the identity of their children and family?

Opponents to using a mother’s surname will drone on about the dangers of losing our lineage because of the chaotic mess of last names that would arise.

Calm down folks. By using either surname, we do not risk toppling the very foundations of our society.

This argument about keeping track of our ancestry is basically irrelevant today as we are living in the age of the internet. Today we have highly advanced systems at our fingertips that provide foolproof ways of tracing our heritage, and even looking into our DNA. Ancestry.com is only scratching the surface. These mechanisms are arguably even more concrete than depending on a changeable name. ‘Losing’ our lineage is no reason to maintain a patriarchal and unequal system.

The only other reason most people could give, when pressed on why they are choosing the father’s surname over the mother, would be an argument in favour of tradition: that it is the commonly done thing and they don’t want to stand out. But wouldn’t it be great if they no longer had to stand out?

If I can be one extra number in the amount of women who give their children her last name, in the process demonstrating to others that it is okay if you do not choose to automatically follow archaic traditions, then gradually the amount of women carrying on their names will rise.

Maybe one day, if enough people begin to make this choice, then we will live in a world where giving your child either parent’s name is a real choice that comes down to your family’s own personal preference. The choice will no longer be a fabricated, fictitious choice that is already made for us by social pressure.

– Annabelle Pendlebury

– Feature image courtesy of How Africa

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