(If you just want to read the proposal, click here.)
I’ve often heard people say that there seems to be no good solution to the problem of passing down last names. The current custom, where children take the father’s last name, is obviously sexist. Some couples get around that by giving their children both last names: Perez and Myers marry, and their children have the last name Perez-Myers. If you think about it, though, this isn’t really a sustainable solution. What happens when the children have children? Do the children of Perez-Myers and Nasser-Lin get the last name Perez-Myers-Nasser-Lin? And what about their children? It becomes clear that if the parents’ last names are joined together every generation, then last names would get impractically long.
A possible solution could be for a parent with two last names to only pass one on to their children, but which one do they pass on? If they choose to pass on their last name from their mother, then that seems like a signal that their mother means more to them than their father, and vice versa.
(Note: In Hispanic culture, people do have two last names and they do pass on only one to their children. The problem of choice is avoided by having each parent pass on their last name from their father. However, this means that, again, it’s only the father’s last name that persists down the generations.)
I propose a solution that avoids the three problems: 1) sexism, 2) impractically long last names, and 3) making children choose between their parents.
1) People have two last names.
2) They get one last name from each parent.
3) Daughters pass on their last name from their father. Sons pass on their last name from their mother.
This way, the mother and the father’s last names have an equal chance of being passed on. Last names don’t become impractically long, because in every generation people only have two last names. And children don’t have to choose between their parents, because custom dictates which last name they pass on.
Why do I have daughters pass on their father’s last name and sons pass on their mother’s last name, rather than the other way around? Because I think we have an inherent bias towards the group that we belong to (whether it be based on gender or whatever else), so this is a way of trying to offset that. Rather than the last name encouraging a split down gender lines (we have mother-and-daughter “Team Perez” and father-and-son “Team Myers”), it becomes a way of binding the genders together.
Here’s an example illustrating how the system works:
This is a detail, but for the sake of the example, assume that last names take the form “(last name from mother)-(last name from father)”.
Sara Perez-Myers and Eric Nasser-Lin marry. They have a son and a daughter, Anthony and Marta Myers-Nasser. (You can call them the Myers-Nasser family.)
Emma Barnes-Dubois and Justin Dinh-Prasad marry. They have a daughter and a son, Wendy and Ethan Dubois-Dinh.
Anthony Myers-Nasser and Wendy Dubois-Dinh marry. They have a son, Samir Dinh-Myers.
In a strange twist of fate, Marta Myers-Nasser and Ethan Dubois-Dinh also marry. They have a son, Rafael Nasser-Dubois.
There are some details that I don’t have a particular opinion on. The last names could be hyphenated or they could just be two separate last names (as is the Hispanic custom). The father’s last name could come first or the mother’s last name could come first. People could change their last names after they marry (e.g. Sara Perez-Myers and Eric Nasser-Lin would become Sara and Eric Myers-Nasser), or they could keep their last names. The important thing to me is the spirit of the system, which basically requires the three points in the proposal. I also don’t have a particular custom in mind for gay couples, but whatever they do, I’m pretty sure it won’t be sexist. :)
This proposal may not be perfect, but it seems to address the major problems with our current system. Another advantage is that it doesn’t require societal change in order to be adopted—any couple can decide to follow this system when deciding what last name to give their children. What do you think?