As Lewis Hamilton adopts his mother’s surname, Etan Smallman asks if maiden names have had their day
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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 have resonated with those who ponder why we adhere so stubbornly to age-old naming practices, and also those who are trying to come up with modern alternatives.
“It is surprising that the tradition survives so strongly,” 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.
He says there is also a sense – though perhaps old-fashioned – that “the children might be confused”. But, he adds: “They understand perfectly well what’s going on.” A 2011 study by a researcher at King’s College London found that children are not remotely puzzled about who is in their family, whatever the surname.
According to a 2017 study at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, 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. He is also perceived as having less power in the relationship, it found.
Might that help to explain why almost 90 per cent of British women are thought to abandon their surname to take their husband’s?
The most recent authoritative and nationally representative data comes from the late 90s. And that in itself may suggest how pervasive and unchallenged this tradition remains. “I’ve been trying for years to do an updated survey to capture people’s naming practices around family surnames,” says Jane Pilcher (inset), 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. The law in the Canadian province of Quebec has prevented a woman from taking her husband’s surname after marriage since 1981, insisting that spouses use their birth name to exercise civil rights including signing a contract and applying for a driver’s licence. 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 struggle with the logic of replacing their name with their husband’s, they also believe there is no simple or elegant alternative.
Some women who retain 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 face a similar dilemma.
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 quandary 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.
“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 set-ups. We need to recognise that and not rely on surnames as we have in the past. There are still family relationships there without having that as the signal.”