A de Rossi by any other Name?

News that Australian actor Portia de Rossi (of Arrested Development fame) has taken her wife Ellen DeGeneres' surname casts an interesting new twist on a old dilemma: should a wife take her spouse's name?

Portia de Rossi married Ellen de Generes in the wake of the decision of the California Supreme Court in In re Marriage Cases (2008) 43 Cal.4th 757, 76 Cal.Rptr.3d 683, 183 P.3d 384, which opened up marriage to same-sex couples. While proposition 8 restored the former ban on same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court decision in Strauss v. Horton 46 Cal.4th 364, 93 Cal.Rptr.3d 591, 207 P.3d 48 confirmed that the c. 18,000 same-sex marriages contracted in the interim would remain valid.

Now, Portia has changed her surname to De Generes, to match that of her wife. An LA court recently approved the proposed name change. Incidentally, this is de Rossi's second name change - she was raised as 'Amanda Lee Rogers' but adopted the moniker by which she is better known at the precocious age of 15.

A wife may, on marriage, adopt and use her husband's surname. No formal legal steps are required to give effect to this change of use. A wife is not, of course, obliged to do so, but many still do take their husband's surname. Section 10(2) of the Passports Act 2008 allows a spouse (of former spouse) to apply for a passport using a name "that incorporates the surname of his or her spouse or former spouse, as the case may be, in place of, or in addition to, the surname of the applicant." The provision, notably is gender neutral: a husband may apply for a passport, it seems, incorporating his wife's name.

Some may object to this practice. It could be seen as a hangover from the time when a married woman was under coverture, her legal personality being subsumed into that of her husband. The adoption of a husband's surname thus may be seen as suggesting that the wife is no longer an independent person, but rather a subset of her husband. While a couple may wish to share a surname, there is no particular reason why it should be the husband's. The tradition that suggests that it should be is predicated, no doubt, on the notion of the husband's ascendancy over his wife, and the priority of men over women, a notion that is neither legally nor socially well-founded in these modern times.

Many married women will keep their maiden name for other reasons, for instance, because of the goodwill attached to that name (particularly where the wife is a well-established professional or businessperson), or where the combination of the wife's first name and husband's surname is un-aesthetic.

There are, however, some good reasons to share a surname. These may include an understandable desire to share a family name with a spouse and child, to signify the unity and common purpose of a family. A wife may wish to have the same surname, in particular, as her children. Anecdotally, it would appear that some lesbian and gay couples have changed their surnames to a combination of both partners' surnames, the purpose being to assert a common family bond, and to share a surname with the couple's children.

It may also be the case that one's surname wasn't that groovy to begin with, and is happily jettisoned.

It would possibly be unfair of me to critique de Rossi's decision to adopt her wife's surname to the exclusion of her own. She's an adult and can make up her own mind. Admittedly, the double-barrelled alternative "de Rossi-DeGeneres" doesn't quite trip off the tongue. It is certainly striking, however, to see a lesbian couple so readily adopting an aspect of traditional marriage that seems so out-moded. It is not entirely clear, moreover, why Portia is taking Ellen's surname, and not the other way around? (Though DeGeneres, having starred in an eponymous primetime comedy, American Idol and her own chat-show, is, perhaps, better known than de Rossi). The net conclusion may be that far from being the challenge to tradition and values that conservatives claim it is, the movement for same-sex marriage is in certain respects at least conformist and traditional in its outlook.


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