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Students Research Non-Traditional Last-Naming Practices

Anthropology Professor Sarah Hautzinger and students in her Block 4 class, “Women, Men, and 'Others': Gender Diversity Cross-Culturally,” interviewed 59 people about how they came to have last names that are nontraditional in North America.  With this academic and community-based learning project, they’re hoping for a wide-ranging conversation on their new website.

Consider the humble hyphen and the chaos it can sow.

Jane Doe and John Roe get married. Jane, a child of the sixties, keeps her name, and they give their first child a hyphenated last name:  Amanda Doe-Roe.  Amanda grows up and marries Sally Henderson-Smith.  So does their child get to be Joey Henderson-Smith-Doe-Roe? Or do they figure out some creative combination, dropping the pesky hyphen: Joey Hensmidoro?

Then consider how the hyphen’s absence can roil the social waters.

Hautzinger and Tim Ferguson decide to give their first child both last names, without a hyphen:  Marley Ferguson Hautzinger. A hyphen would make a re-hyphenated name too long and unsustainable over several generations, they think.  And surely, if a choice were to be made, everyone would go with “Ferguson” as a last name, the young couple imagines in their post-partum fog.

Yet chaos ensues.  Teachers insert a hyphen, over the child’s objection.  School administrators, reluctant to just choose the final name, “Hautzinger,” because it’s not the father’s last name, struggle to keep both last names on forms and paperwork. More pointedly, Marley insists on using both names, eliciting a librarian’s wrath when she shortens her signature to “Marley FH.” Likewise, her equally strong-willed younger sister objects when anyone else tries to hyphenate, truncate, or otherwise trespass on her two last names.

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“It was messier than I thought,” Hautzinger says.

In assigning a name other than only the father’s last name to their child, Hautzinger and Ferguson were part of a “grand experiment with naming in contemporary North America” that followed some 1960s Second-Wave feminists’ worry that a women felt erased as she dropped her birth last name and took on her husband’s. From this legacy, Hautzinger created her Block 4 class, “Women, Men, and 'Others': Gender Diversity Cross-Culturally.”

She and 21 students interviewed 59 people, looking for stories from as wide a variety of people as they could find.  They sought men and women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or queer couples, children with nontraditional names, and adult children who chose to change their names, among others.

They talked to Andrea Lucas, who with her husband Malcolm Howard — after much deliberation — created “Lucard” for a last name. They talked to a young woman with two gay moms and two gay dads whose surname is a combination of her moms’ last names. They talked to identical twins who disagreed, with sibling intensity, about whether they should shed their multi-syllable hyphenated last name upon marriage.

They merged the interviews into a database and analyzed the information using NVivo software, which allowed them to work with transcripts, audio, and video.

 The course was the continuation of a commitment on Hautzinger’s part to get students out in the community doing hands-on anthropological research. It was community-based learning, and she wanted reciprocity from the community.

By publishing a website, they hope for more discussion about last-naming, a messy reality of contemporary life.  “We hope the conversation continues, and invite visitors to explore, enjoy, reflect, and comment!” the website explains.

In working on the project, Hautzinger discovered that the names given to children were the most important point of name-changing experiences.

“I had originally anticipated that the two junctures in time, getting married or civil union and thinking of name changes or creating a new name, was going to be equally important as the second juncture, what names you give to children,” Hautzinger said.  But, as her own daughters demonstrated, the names given to children affect them daily, as they wrestle with what they’re called and how they own their names.

At least one interviewee pointed out that even if she were to keep her last name at marriage, that name was “some dude’s,” anyway, in a traditional, patrilineal naming convention.  Other interviewees worried about losing history when the woman changed her name.

“A lot of us came out more favorable to new names, like Andrea and Malcolm did, the Lucards,” Hautzinger said. “The benefits of that outweigh the costs of losing history.  You’re already losing 15 of 16 names from the time of great-great-grandparents, anyway.”

So some students got excited about the idea of creating names.  “That seemed to be the most attractive of all the options,” Hautzinger said. “That had seemed a little bit from left field when I started to think about it.”

At first, many of the students didn’t see an issue with last-naming, and said that their own names had not given them problems.  At the end, many students reflected that the people they interviewed were negotiating with name issues daily, and they were shifting their own views.  “They got connected to it because they met so many people,” Hautzinger said.  “They got excited about it as a research project, the legal and logistical issues, the ‘What is this going to look like in 100 years?’ ”

The website notes that the interviewing was done on top of all their academic work of readings, papers, and presentations in the course.

The Anthropology course is cross-listed with Feminist and Gender Studies, and is a community-based learning course.