Note from Prudie: When answering the letter about the baby taking the mother's last name, your adviser was apparently dozing, causing her to become Rip Van Prudie. This, in turn, produced advice that more properly belonged to the 1950s. Prudie realized she might have been wrong when a million letters told her so. (Well, it felt like a million.) She is reconsidering the answer with a great deal of input from her readers—the following is the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
The desire to bestow upon my child a name that will die with my generation (for some reason my family seems predisposed to having girl children) does not make me aggressive or combative. Your inference that this woman has a screw loose paints you as an inflexible, misogynistic old bag—a description that I never before would have thought applied to you. For shame!
I doubt that there is anything sinister underlying a woman's desire to name her child after herself. Your question to the man about whether or not his wife was a "militant feminist" was uncalled for. Traditionally (i.e., archaically), a male gave his last name to his wife and children to designate that they were his property.
—Miffed in Iowa
I am guessing you are going to get many, many letters on this subject, so here's another one. I adore your column; I think you are wise and hip and everything good, so I am appalled that you used the phrase "militant feminist" in the way you did. One doesn't have to be a militant anything to think differently, and "militant" is a politically loaded adjective used to dismiss left-leaning thinkers without bothering to understand the issues.
Tradition aside, I'd like to point out another possible reason for a child to take the mother's surname: the alphabet. I was born into a family with a surname that started with W. All my life I was called last for everything (except in elementary school—thank God for Frankie Yowaski!). I never really thought about it until I married a man whose last name began with B. That's when I discovered what a difference being at the front of the alphabet makes and how much discrimination is heaped on those whose names reside at the end of the alphabet. To this day I have a Far Side cartoon tacked over my desk; it pictures all the animals crowded around the ark and Noah intoning, "OK, we're going to do this alphabetically." Over on a hill is the pair of zebras with a thought balloon overhead: "S***!"
Even at an early age I wondered why children are routinely named after their fathers, especially when the job of bringing them into the world is solely the responsibility of the mother. She endures bloating, mood swings, nausea, painful backache, and frequent urination. This culminates in hours of labor in order to squeeze out an object the size of a bowling ball. Afterward, the beaming father looks upon the squalling newborn and crows, "Look what I did! I think I'll put my name on it." Our son has my last name, and my husband (the only male in his family) was very supportive—and my father wasn't a Rockefeller and my husband isn't a Soprano.
Your response to Nameless in New York is so myopic. Yours is the typical American answer. Have you not traveled? Are you an American isolationist? Try taking a trip to Iceland.
—Citizen of the World
Geez, you were a bit harsh in your reply to the man whose wife wants their child to have her last name. As an adoptee, the laws of my state prevent me from knowing the name I was given at birth. My birth certificate is a legal fiction, listing my (adoptive) parents as mother and father. To me, names are identity, and names have power. I would not consent to give up my carefully constructed identity to soothe someone else's ego, especially since my own name was already changed once without my consent. You ascribe some pretty nasty intentions to the wife of the letter writer. Maybe she just Likes. Her. Last. Name.
—Your Last Name Here
I am a fan. Love your writing, your humor, and your common sense. Just read your answer to the man wondering what to do about his wife wanting to give their child her last name, and, I must confess, I didn't love your answer. You responded as if the woman was a nut case. I disagree. It's simply a matter of, why does the child have to always have the father's last name? I think the convention is sexist—and worth questioning.
You totally missed the mark on the question from Nameless in New York. For some of my friends, carrying on their family line is just as important as it is for their partners. You took the easy way out by simply suggesting that the mother has some sort of agenda and that their marriage is in trouble.
—Young Professional Female in Albany, N.Y.
Now we come to the issue of why, exactly, this is a problem for Nameless. His argument seems to consist solely of, "My dear, it simply isn't done!" The fact that something isn't done doesn't necessarily mean there's a real reason not to do it.
—Lucy S. in N.C.
You don't have to be a "radical feminist" to question the sexist tradition of naming. You can be quite a moderate feminist! I think this husband is a bit of a stick in the mud and prig. If he can (jokingly) entertain so many other solutions but his wife's name, perhaps he has the problem! Maybe he is afraid of looking like a man who defers to his wife.
I object to your tone, if not necessarily the actual advice you gave. My sister, married for 17 years with two children, has one child who has her husband's last name and one child who has her last name. My sister is certainly a feminist, but "militant feminist" suggests a bra burning, man-hating, strident, un-fun person. My sister wears makeup (and bras) and loves her husband mightily. Why the heck shouldn't this child have her name? She's the one carrying it and giving birth to it, along with contributing half the genetic material (more than that if you count mitochondria, vitally important and all of which comes from the mother). Me, I'm rooting for this guy's wife!
Time for you to join the 21st century! Giving the kids dad's name when Mom keeps her pre-married surname leads to what I refer to as "orphaned Mom syndrome."
I am related to the only family I've heard of in which the husband dropped his surname altogether and took his wife's ... and we're not Rockefellers or Hiltons. The last name was atrocious and included a c, z, j, and k, so he is now Mr. Herlastname. I love telling people that.
—Not the Hiltons
And now Prudie is going back to bed with an ice pack on her head.