Wednesday, January 2, 2008

To Change or Not to Change . . .

. . . one's last name: that is the question asked by almost every woman, but by very few men, upon marriage. Prof. Elizabeth Emens of Columbia Law School (pictured at right) decries this situation in her recent article, Changing Name Changing: Framing Rules and the Future of Marital Names. Carefully describing the scope of the problem and critiquing current social defaults, Emens suggests an alternative to the "Mrs. His Name" convention -- hyphenation by both spouses, and then "biphenation" by the next generation. As a dual hyphenator myself, it's hard to claim impartiality, but I find her arguments thoughtful and compelling. That's all well and good, you might say, but what does this have to do with international law? Emens has tracked down a 2002 decision of the UN Human Rights Committee, Muller and Englehard v. Namibia, finding a violation of Article 26 (prohibiting gender discrimination) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights where a man was subjected to different and substantially more burdensome procedures to change his name after marriage than a woman would be. I found this particularly interesting, given that the clerk who issued our marriage license right here in Media, Pennsylvania, informed us that while I could change my last name as a matter of course, my husband would have to obtain a court order to do so. It's not clear to me whether this actually reflects Pennsylvania law or is a manifestation of what Emens labels "desk-clerk law" -- misinformation provided by officials -- but either way, it's a shame we didn't think to call in the Human Rights Committee. Emens' article also begs for a comparative study of administrative approaches to name changing around the globe. For example, at least under the apartheid government, in South Africa, after a woman was married, her last name was automatically changed to her husband's last name in all official records whether or not she wanted the change to be made. Any other disturbing or inspiring examples out there? (photo credit above left to Matt Brett).

3 comments:

Diane Marie Amann said...

A flip-flop: I have never changed from the name my parents gave me at birth. Yet when my husband, son, and I registered for our cartes de sejour -- documents necessary for extended residence -- in France, though my birth surname appears on the front, on the back I, like them, am classified as a member of the "family" of my husband's surname.

Fiona de Londras said...

Another angle on the difficulty here relates to people who marry/acquire a civil union with someone of the same sex - who, if anyone, changes their name? What surname do the children have? I think most people keep their own surname for work, but hyphenated surnames are particularly common (probably with some arguments about the order of hyphenation) as are hybrid surnames. Straight couples don't tend to go for the option of creating a hybrid surname and having their names changes by deed poll, which is very common as far as I know in same-same couples (especially in countries where there is no legal option for marriage/equivalent and people want to do something to signify their family ties).

Diane Marie Amann said...

Hi, Fiona -- great comment, but what's a "deed poll"?