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Pilot study reveals trends in women's surname choices

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Pilot study reveals trends in women's surname choices

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Published by University of Leicester Press Office for University of Leicester in Education and also in Communities

'Children can be made to feel 'different' if their surname choice style is not the conventional one'

A pilot study at the University of Leicester has uncovered emerging trends among female surname choices reflecting the changing nature of contemporary Britain.

Dr Jane Pilcher, of the University of Leicester Department of Sociology, will also describe her own experience of naming her children at a presentation on the subject on 7 March.

It sheds light on an issue recently introduced  on the popular BBC soap opera Eastenders in which the character of Janine Butcher argues the case for giving her unborn baby the Butcher surname with lover Michael Moon.

At an academic seminar entitled 'The Naming of Us Few: Women's Family Surname Choices' - is part of a research series in the Department of Sociology - Dr Pilcher will consider how unmarried parents decide what surname to give their child, whether women change their surname when they get married nowadays and how step-families decide about which surnames to use.

Dr Pilcher will talk about how and why she came to make surname choices for her own children (giving them a double-barreled surname, her own and their father's) and the consequences of that, for her children and for herself.

She said: "These kinds of issues about family surnames are potentially more important in Britain today, because of the rise in couples living together without being married, more children being born outside of marriage, a rise in the number of remarriages and of 'patchwork' families, and not least, the greater equality and independence of women in society."

In her small-scale pilot study, Dr Pilcher found that all the women she interviewed felt strongly about their own surnames in terms of symbolizing their individual or gender identity, with one saying 'I've already got a name, thanks, and I am quite happy with it. And that's who I am....Its just because I am a feminist'.

But when it came to surnames for their children, choices were made for reasons of aesthetics (for example, double-barreled names were rejected for being 'too much of a mouthful') and 'family connectedness' (for example, cementing the father-child bond by giving a child its father's surname or continuing family lineage by perpetuating the woman's own unusual family surname).

The pilot study showed that women who do not have the same surnames as their children can face problems when dealing with schools and so on. As one woman in the pilot study explained, 'Something rather offensive happened at school.....Clearly, assumptions are made. That I am not my children's mother, that we are divorced'. This finding suggests that administrative processes and practices in schools - and elsewhere - are just not geared up for families whose surname choices don't fit the norm, with a consequence that children can be made to feel 'different' if their surname choice style is not the conventional one.

Dr Pilcher's work on family surname choices continues her interest in family relationships and practices, evident in her earlier studies of children and the consumption of clothing, and a multi-generational study of women in families.

The seminar takes place on 7 March, and is open to University staff and students only.

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