Sheila Ngọc Pham discusses why women around the world choose to keep their surnames, including in her context as a Vietnamese woman living in Australia.
When I attended a discussion at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last year on ‘Mistakes We’ve Made and Other Lessons in Feminism’, an audience member asked the question, “I work with a lot of young women who are wonderful and talented and a lot of them would call themselves feminists…but they keep changing their names when they get married and I can’t understand why!”
I’ve noticed that the issue of surnames is a particular bugbear of (white) feminists in Australia, and this question has come up many times in different arenas. Like a Facebook debate started by a friend who works in the media: “…the expectation of surname changing comes from a very unequal place and is a quiet, yet constant reminder that we’ve got a long way to go in the struggle for proper equality.”
An example of a young woman changing her surname is my husband’s sister who took on her husband’s name when she married, as per tradition…Anglo-Celtic (or Anglo-Saxon) tradition that is. It’s important to note that it’s largely Anglo tradition that acts as the main reference point when it comes to the discussion about women’s married names in Australia.
So, conversely, 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 these traditions don’t have to be the norm in culturally diverse societies like Australia.
I never considered changing my surname. Not only because my husband’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’s been pointed out to me that in Australia, the only people around my age called “Sheila” seem to be Asian. Sheila is an old slang term in Australia meaning girl or woman, so established Australians avoid it as a name for their daughters and only migrants are 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 Trần, even after thirty-five years of marriage. It would probably be ridiculous to say that this practice comes from a place of equality. The fact that women in Vietnam don’t change their surname upon marriage is probably more indicative of a deeply patriarchal society where children belong to their fathers and why they keep their father’s surname for life. It’s funny to think that by not changing my surname to my husband’s, I’m actually being traditional within Vietnamese culture given there are relatively few traditions I maintain.
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 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. In other societies however, like Japan, it is still compulsory for husband and wife to have the same surname (usually the husband’s), despite recent efforts of campaigners to over-turn the outdated 19th century law governing this.
Overall, married names are a 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 culture. It doesn’t seem to be so uncommon to find Vietnamese-Australian women changing their surname to their husband’s, even if their husband is also Vietnamese. In taking that step, they’re adopting a new tradition.
In writing this, I realise I’m lucky because there’s only ever been one choice that makes sense for me: keeping my surname to honour my heritage, and keeping my surname to show solidarity with the Western feminist stance of maintaining an independent identity. Ultimately, it’s what I’m most comfortable doing. I don’t believe there’s right or wrong in this case. My main point is that the dominant culture generally forgets that we are a pluralist society and these high-level debates are often conducted from narrow points of view.
If I was to be really radical in future I could buck both Vietnamese tradition as well as the dominant culture and give our children MY surname rather than my husband’s…but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
Sheila Ngọc Pham is a writer and creative producer. She produces radio programs for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and her writing has appeared in a wide range of anthologies, websites and publications. www.sheilatakeabow.com
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