Surnames As Feminist Issue Disc./May 1997

Query From Harald Fuess 02 May 1997

I want to examine why surnames (especially the introduction of optional spousal surnames) have become the defining issue of the current public controversy over the revision of the civil code in Japan.

To gain broader comparative perspective, I am interested to learn about surname debates in other nations. While I am aware of the German legal discourse on surnames, I do not know when, how, and to what extent feminists in the anglosaxon world (or in other countries) have criticized requirements for common spousal surnames (if there were any such requirements), and what the popular and political response to their demands has been. I would appreciate information on studies that explore surnames as an issue of the feminist movement.

From Loni Bramson-Lerche 05 May 1997

In Belgium there is no debate because women are legally required to keep their maiden name. When Americans come here they have a hard time getting used to the system because the Belgian government refuses to recognize that the women have legally changed their names. Regardless of what is on their passport they are required to use their maiden name while in Belgium.

From Ruby Rohrlich 05 May 1997

The Province of Quebec in Canada passed a law that the name given at birth is the legal name. A woman can use the name of her husband if she wants to, but that doesn't change the fact that her legal name is the name given her at birth. This law was passed some time in the 1970s, I think, and was definitely due to the efforts of the Francophone feminists.

But in this country, the U.S. A. (NOT America, for heaven's sake), apparently there was such an outrage by Hilary Rodham's use of her birth name that she took on "Clinton," something she, for long an independent professional woman, found very difficult.

From David Doughan 08 May 1997

In Britain I believe that anybody can legally call themselves what they like, so long as name changes are not made for the purposes of deception. In practice it tends to be assumed that the woman will adopt her husband's surname, but there is no legal requirement to do this, and many women retain their "maiden" names either altogether, or for professional purposes. In cases other than marriage, people who want to make sure that their changes of name is definitely recognised for all legal purposes may go through a process known as "Deed Poll" - but again, as far as I am aware, there is no legal requirement to do this; it is just a way of putting the change of name beyond dispute, especially when money can be involved.

None of the above is allowed to alter what appears on an individual's Birth Certificate, but that's another matter.

From Barbara M. Freeman 08 May 197

In English Canada, at least, there was a tradition, but never a law, that women changed their names upon marriage. This little known fact was pointed out to women who appeared before the federal Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1968 to present briefs concerning their legal status (or lack of it) as housewives. I am not clear on the Quebec situation. I thought that the same tradition applied, but perhaps not? Or perhaps Quebec felt it necessary to underline its own cultural options at the time, regardless of tradition. Any other commentators out there?

From Karen Dunn-Haley 08 May 1997

Just as a matter of interest, Hilary Rodham is not the only first lady to consistently use her birth name in her form of address. The wife of Herbert Hoover was known as Lou Henry Hoover. I have not come across any contemporary criticism of LHH for the continued inclusion of her "maiden" name. I wonder if anyone else has. (And of course, by virtue of marrying her cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt kept her birth name without causing any comment.)

From Yvonne Klein 09 May 1997

Barbara Freeman asks about surnames in Quebec. Historically, married women retained their birth-name for legal purposes (being style "Dame" in legal documents but used their husband's name, as in English Canada. Then when the new marriage regime was passed within the last decade, women were required to retain their birth name and are only able to acquire their husband's name as a legal name by going to court and having it changed. The birth name becomes the woman's name for all purposes, appearing on one's pay cheques, medicare card, etc. This last can lead to considerable confusion for those women who have been using their husband's surnames for most of their life--admitted to hospital, they find their charts are in their birthname and they will be addressed by that name by hospital personnel. When the law first went into effect, nurses had to be reminded not to assume that their elderly patients were confused because they didn't answer to their names. Children may be registered either under the woman's name, the man's name or a hyphenated name composed of both in either order. To prevent these names from proliferating to impossible lengths, a child may have only two last names.

It is not my impression that this law was the result of Quebec's asserting a particular cultural practice but rather a response to feminist concerns, as it appears in a larger act which deals with marriage and property.

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