Feminist Writing. Fourth Wave. For Women.

What’s In A (Woman’s) Name?

It’s time to stop letting men hold the power of language, history, and identity.

What’s In A (Woman’s) Name?

There is, perhaps, a no more constant reminder to women of our subjugation than our own names. A woman’s name, supposedly her most personal possession, central to her identity, is wrought with the history of ownership, sexual violence, and erasure of that very identity. Until recently in history, women didn’t even have the right over their own names. At any moment they could be married off by their fathers, their old identity now subsumed under that of their new husband/owner.

While I love my father, I have often mourned the loss of identity that came with the inheritance of my name. I want to understand women’s history — my history — in a way that is hidden by the patrilinear passing of surnames.

My mother, Karen, apparently felt a similar pull towards our shared maternal past. She named me Mary Kathleen after her mother (Kathleen) and her mother’s mother — my great grandmother (Mary).

After a few hours of research, I managed to trace my maternal lineage back to my sixth great grandmother, Ann Way. Ann lived in England from 1805 to 1838. She had four children before she passed away at the age of 33 (the cause of her young death is unknown to me).

If the records I’ve found are correct, one of Ann’s children, Mary Ann Ford, immigrated to America as a child, eventually landing at Prince Edward Island. She gave birth at the age of only twelve to a daughter, Julia Mallett.

Julia, my fourth great grandmother, was the product of child rape.

Four generations later, and my mother was born on accident to a young single woman in an abusive relationship with a married man. That man would go on to terrorize multiple generations of women in my family.

My maternal lineage is not traced by a shared name, but rather by shared trauma. Their stories and the impact of this intergenerational trauma are hidden through the erasure of our names and identities.

The patronymic surname passed from father to child is particularly insidious in that it is not only overtly sexist but blatantly stupid. For the overwhelming majority of history, until the invention of DNA paternity testing, a child’s paternal lineage could not be guaranteed beyond the good word of the mother. On the other hand, assuming there were witnesses to the birth, a child’s maternal lineage was clearly observable.

Women also do the overwhelming majority of work for children — a fact that has remained true across cultures and generations. The mother carries the child inside her for nine months, births the child through labor, and then cares for the child for at least 18 years, often with little real help. Even women who are the primary household earners still do more housework than their husbands, according to a 2019 report in The Atlantic. If anyone “owns” a child, there’s no doubt it’s the mother.

Some have claimed that patrilinear naming is an evolutionarily beneficial social adaption since increasing the father’s level of investment in the child helps increase their chances of survival. Male investment in childrearing is directly related to believing the child is theirs and traditional naming conventions help encourage that belief in a productive way, which in turn benefits both mother and child (or, so the argument goes).

This, of course, relies on the idea that men need to provide for their families for their survival — something that only holds true under patriarchy. If women were autonomous and free, we would not need to cater to male egos for our survival and that of our offspring.

Really, it seems that last names are just part of the larger patriarchal attempt to possess and control women.

Feminists have known this for a long time. In a 2014 paper published in the journal Signs, Carolyn Eichner describes the feminist history of protesting the patronym in Nineteenth-Century France and the theory which drove these actions:

“The assumption that women change their names upon marriage reflects social and cultural suppositions as to the dependent and relational nature of women’s lives. Women thus bear labels announcing to whom they belong: father or husband. Men, in general, retain their names from birth to death, demonstrating social and cultural independence and constancy.”

In 1881, French socialist feminist activist Paule Mink refused to accept her husband’s last name (though opposed to the institution of marriage, she got married to re-gain French citizenship and avoid deportation for her activism). In a rare show of solidarity, her new husband hyphenated his name with hers, calling himself Maxime Negro-Mink.

For French feminists of the time, the battle of the surname was intricately linked to the battle for women’s liberation in both a symbolic and literal way.

Desiree Veret Gay, who adopted the alternative name “Jeanne-Desiree,” wrote in 1833, “If we continue to take the names of men… we will be slaves.”

In 1833, of course, there were actual slaves being named by their oppressors. After Emancipation, most slaves in the U. S. were given the surname of their former master. This was primarily for convenience. Records of African ancestry were hard to access, if they existed at all. Prior to emancipation, slaves may have a surname that represented their father’s name (ex. Bill Scott, son of Scott), the surname of their owner’s wife’s family (slaves were common dowery gifts), or a surname that represented their role in the household (ex. Bill Shepherd, who tended sheep).

Elijah Muhammed, the founder of the Nation of Islam, wrote in Message to the Blackman in America (1965):

“You are still called by your slave-masters’ names. By rights, by international rights, you belong to the white man of America. He knows that. You have never gotten out of the shackles of slavery. You are still in them.”

He recognized that his analysis came from an observation of the roles of men and women and the power that names played in these relationships:

“You are still in authority over your wife as long as she goes in your name, regardless of her separating herself from you. If she has not gotten a legal divorce and freed herself from your name, you are still in authority over her by law. Likewise, you are still under authority of the chains of your slave-masters.”

Like Muhammed, many black activists changed their names. Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, and John Africa all adopted new names to distance themselves from the identity of those who raped, enslaved, and oppressed their ancestors.

Today’s black women are faced with intersecting forms of naming oppression — the slave name which was inherited patrilineally. Their history is doubly erased.

Lately, it seems, more and more women are resisting the pressure to follow traditional naming conventions. Most of my married friends have either kept their maiden names or hyphenated them. Some couples are even coming up with entirely new names for their families, often by combining their own two surnames(ex. Ackoff + Leviter = Levikoff).

While these new conventions are a step in the right direction, especially by denying male transfer of ownership of women during marriage, maternal ancestry and histories still remain hidden.

For women to truly understand our past, we can not allow our names and identities to continue to be erased over time. Unfortunately, hyphenated names and portmanteaus passed on to children continue to do just this.

Even if all women started passing on their own maiden names today (which are just the names of their own fathers), thousands of years of women’s history have been erased up to this point. There’s not a good solution to reclaiming our names and identities outside of the patronym.

Maybe, like the black activists of the civil rights era, women should adopt their own names, or a symbolic name representing what we don’t know (Mary Kate XX?). Alternatively, maybe we could adopt the name of the farthest woman we can trace our maternal ancestry to (Mary Kate Way?). Of course, changing your name is often impractical (especially for women with children), but imagining my name being passed down through eight generations of women helps me feel connected to my past like never before.

The power of naming is more than just symbolic. Language, identities, and history are shaped by names — names which men currently control. Whatever way women decide to do it, reclaiming the power of naming as our birthright is a necessary step to women’s broader liberation from patriarchy.

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