New York Times Article


Published in the New York Times, November 13, 1987

In the months preceding a child's birth, first names were always the ones that kept parents awake at night, mulling over their mellifluous qualities, debating whose relative deserved a namesake. Last names were a given: like father, like child.

But as increasing numbers of married women decide to retain their own family names in both professional and private lives, many couples are recognizing the maternal line in their children's surnames.

Their choices run the gamut. Some give one child the mother's name and the next child the father's. Others give all their children a hyphenated version of the two last names. Still others come up with hybrids, linking part of his name and part of hers to form a new surname. No Legal Restrictions Remain

Because of a spate of court cases since the 1970's, no law in the United States now requires a child's birth certificate to bear the father's last name. Parents are free to devise any name they wish for their children.

''You're obviously seeing more flexibility,'' said Priscilla Ruth MacDougall, author of ''The Right of Women to Name Their Children,'' an article that appeared in The Journal of Law and Inequality in 1985. ''It's not the exact name that is chosen that's important. It's the idea that women have some choice and input.''

Although national statistics on patterns of naming offspring are apparently nonexistent, couples who shun the traditional practice of bestowing the male surname on the child are believed to remain in the minority.

But the nomination of Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg to the United States Supreme Court - Judge Ginsburg withdrew amid the furor over his past marijuana use - thrust the unexpectedly liberal private life of a conservative public official into the spotlight: His two daughters, from his first and second marriages, had been given their mothers' last names. (His 2-year-old daughter is Hallee Morgan, while his 17-year-old daughter is Jessica de Secundy.) ''I was elated to hear about the names of Ginsburg's children,'' Ms. MacDougall said. ''Regardless of his motives, it has made naming children an issue, and it's one the women's movement hasn't given enough attention to.''

''My reaction was that there must be more to this conservative than is meeting the eye,'' said Judy Neumann, an employee at the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission in Boston. Ms. Neumann and her husband, Ken Goldberg, gave their first child her last name and the next child a hyphenated version of both their last names. Sarah Neumann is 6, and Michael Goldberg-Neumann is 3.

''We decided that we wanted our daughter to have my name rather than his name, which would have been the traditional, patriarchal thing to do,'' said Ms. Neumann, who uses her own family name in every sphere of her life. ''But when our son came along, Ken decided he wanted his name involved somehow, so we gave Michael both names.''

A lawyer in Helena, Mont., William Sample, whose 5-year-old daughter, Sonja Gullen, has his wife's surname, echoed this philosophy: ''I'm an all-American guy. I love football. But Kristi and I both absolutely reject the patriarchal notion that children and wives are the property of the father.''

Some family counselors argue, however, that such methods of naming will do more harm than good, especially in the children's early years. ''When they're very young and in school, it can be confusing,'' said Dr. Alan D. Entin, a clinical psychologist in Richmond. ''The kids don't know which parent to identify with or why they have a different last name from those of their siblings. Teachers don't know what to make of it, and other children may tease them.''

Diana Altman, a freelance writer in Newton, Mass., remembers when her daughter Claudia, whose last name is Altman-Siegel, entered school at age 6. ''Her teacher greeted her with: 'And what will you do if you marry someone with a hyphenated name? Will you have four names?' '' she recounted, adding that she herself is now universally called Diana Altman-Siegel, even though she refers to herself as Diana Altman.

''My neighbor of 14 years still introduces me as Mrs. Altman-Siegel,'' Ms. Altman said. ''In the real world, whatever your children are called, you'll be called.'' Longevity of Names Doubtful

The flippant remark by the schoolteacher drove home a legitimate point, which is that the longevity of these elongated names is uncertain at best. ''Altman-Siegel will only last for a generation,'' Ms. Altman admitted. ''That's why the whole thing is kind of ridiculous. I hate to say that because I thought so hard about it.''

But for many women, getting the maternal name into the child's name, whether by using only the mother's family name or another variation, is a weighty statement. ''It sends the message to the children that their mother is important, as important as the father,'' said Ellen Henningsen, a lawyer in Madison, Wis. ''It's the name I have been known by since I was one second old, and I'm very proud to know that my child has it.''

Ms. Henningsen and her husband, Jim Gentry, have two children. One is 8-year-old Peter Henningsen Gentry, the other is 5-year-old Kate Gentry Henningsen. No hyphens, she explained, just two different last names - or, if you will, democratic nomenclature.

A version of this article appeared in print on November 13, 1987, on page A22 of the New York edition.


Diana Altman

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