My partner’s sister recently married. She opted to change her surname and take on her husband’s name, as per tradition…Anglo-Celtic tradition, that is.
It’s largely Anglo-Celtic tradition that acts as the main reference point when it comes to married names in Australia. So when a woman marries and keeps her surname, it’s often interpreted as taking a feminist stance against the traditional practice of taking on the husband’s surname. Yet there are many reasons people keep or change their surnames, and there are many other practices that demonstrate that Anglo-Celtic traditions don’t have to be the norm in a culturally diverse society such as Australia.
I’m getting married in six months. For me, it’s a no brainer to keep my surname. Not only because my husband-to-be’s surname would be ridiculous when combined with my first name – his surname is Bird – but I see my surname as being an important link to my Vietnamese family. Pham indicates my cultural background in a way that my first name doesn’t at all…though having said that, it has been pointed out to me that in Australia, the only people around my age called “Sheila” seem to be Asian. I was given the name partly for reasons outlined in a previous Peril blog post, ‘Taking on an English name‘. Because of the use of Sheila as slang in Australia to mean ‘girl’, most established Australians avoid it as a name for their daughters and only migrants seem unaware of the name’s cultural baggage. The only other people named Sheila in Australia will be much older women originally from the UK, Ireland and elsewhere – migrants from another era. But I digress.
Traditionally, in Vietnamese culture, when women marry they don’t change their surname. For example, my mother is still a Tran, even after thirty years of marriage. In social usage, the norm in Vietnamese culture is my mother to be referred to by her husband’s first name, so my parents are known as Mr and Mrs Tho (Dad’s first name).
It’s funny to think that by NOT changing my surname, I’m actually being traditional within Vietnamese culture. The fact that women in Vietnam don’t change their surname upon marriage is probably indicative of a deeply patriarchal society where children belong to their fathers – and which is why they take on and keep their father’s surname for life.
I’ve found myself thinking about this a lot lately and I’ve asked my diverse group of friends what happens in their cultures. Traditionally speaking, Arabic women keep their surnames, as do Chinese, Greek, Italian etc. Digging deeper, I’ve started to discover all kinds of practices that I didn’t even know about – like husbands and wives in Russia have genderised versions of the same surname (though often the husband’s). It’s clear that the women’s liberation movement has had a strong effect on naming practices though, because a lot of laws around the world were changed to allow for more flexibility – including the option for the husband to take the wife’s surname.
Overall, married names are a very personal choice in Australia. It’s interesting that a lot of women from non-Anglo backgrounds will buck the traditions of their inherited culture and take on their husband’s surname, as per the practice of the dominant Anglo culture. You’ll find that many Vietnamese women change their surname to their husband’s – even if their husband is also Vietnamese, and in taking that step, they’re adopting a new tradition.
What’s the choice then for me then? In writing this, I now realise that I’m pretty lucky because there’s only one choice that makes sense for me: I’m going to keep my surname to honour my family, and I’m going to keep my surname to show solidarity with the Western feminist stance of maintaining an independent identity. Ultimately, it’s what I’m most comfortable doing…there’s no right or wrong, and I completely appreciate that there are different ways of going about this in our pluralist society.
Of course, if I was to be really radical, I will give our children MY surname…but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.