General, Women's History

What’s in a name? Or leaving your patrilineage behind.

As tends to happen when you get to a certain age and your friends set to marry themselves off, the question of naming suddenly becomes a topic of discussion. Should you choose to take your husband’s name? And, what are the implications if you do? Within feminist circles, while many women do take their husband’s name (and equally many don’t), there is a lot of discomfort around this process due to the implications for women’s social position and identity. The loss of a father’s name and its replacement with a husband’s, for many feminists, highlights the patriarchal baggage of marriage where women were property to be transferred from one man to another. Yet, naming is and was never so straightforward.

Today, as in the past, both naming practices and complex family organisations mean that a person’s surname is not always what it seems. For starters, the tradition of taking a father’s surname at birth and then a husband’s at marriage is not a universal custom. In fact, it is an English custom, which made the transfer across the Atlantic to the Anglo-American communities in the US with the early settlers, and spread into other parts of Britain in the nineteenth century. This particular naming custom is at the heart of most feminist critique. It was partnered with a legal and customary system (called coverture) that saw women as property, and saw marriage as the contract which transferred women from their father to their husband. In this model of marriage, women were literally ‘made-one’ with their husband- their legal identity subsumed into his, and they had no rights, whether to vote, to make contracts, to do business, or manage their own property. The process of name changing then highlighted that woman was without an identity of her own.

Yet, this is not the whole story. Even within England, naming was not straightforward. While children of legitimate marriages were given their father’s name (to reflect that they too were his property), illegitimate children- that is those born outside of marriage- took their mother’s name, and unlike in Scotland, they were not legitimised by the subsequent marriage of their parents. The emphasis of the family name- passed down through the male line- also meant that men marrying heiresses to large estates were asked to change their names to preserve her family name. Or, occasionally, when two wealthy families were joined in marriage, the elder son would take the name of one family, while a younger son would take the name of the other family in order to pass on the name (and frequently a tied inheritance) down a particular family line. Sometimes, children changed their name to that of an uncle, aunt or more distant family friend or relative- particularly if they were likely to inherit from them or if that person would aid them in later life (such as through paying for education or an apprenticeship). Children may also change name if one of their parent’s remarried- much like today- although this was not universal. And again, inheritance played a large part in these decisions- if it was financially beneficial to become the heir to a new parent, then a name change might be prescient. But, equally, love, affection or a desire to reflect a close relationship could inspire a name change. In this context, it was not just women who changed their name on marriage, but men and women for a variety of reasons.

In other countries, the situation was more complex again. In Scotland, while women also had limited legal rights, they did not have coverture and women kept their family name on marriage. This reflected a belief that marriage was not the subsuming of women into her husband’s family or person, but that marriage was the joining of two families in an alliance. In a world where marriage was not for love, but because it brought economic and political benefits, women kept their own family name to signify her links to her natal family and the benefits she brought. This was complemented by a complex system of adoption and fosterage, where children were raised or sometimes became part of other families- including sometimes adopting the new family name- in order to consolidate alliances between family groups.  Naming practices reflected social needs and customs around stability and social order. In Scotland, illegitimacy also worked differently. If a woman had illegitimate children with her future husband, they were legitimised by the subsequent marriage of their parents- perhaps with children undergoing a name change. However, in Scotland, it was very common for illegitimate children to live with their father’s family, so they often took his surname anyway. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, with the rise of romantic love and a growing belief that marriage was about the joining of two individuals, rather than of two families, many women began to follow the English custom of taking their husband’s surnames. This change reflected as much changing motivations for and understandings of marriage in Scotland, as it did the growing fashion for English customs.

In other countries, like parts of France and Scandanavia, women also customarily kept their own name on marriage. In Iceland, things were different again, with women taking their mother’s first name as a surname, and men taking their father’s. So, I would be Katie Fionasdaughter, while my brother would be Liam Billysson. A similar custom is seen in Egypt, where people take their father’s name as a surname. In an interesting twist, in cultural contexts where family names are less stable- changing with each generation- they tend to stay with their owner for life. In contrast, in the UK and the US, with our emphasis on patrilineal surnames, people are asked to change names all the time for a variety of reasons. Naming practices then are varied across the world and the question of whether it is ‘feminist’ to take your husband’s name is complicated by different cultural contexts.

Katie Barclay is a historian of marriage at the University of Warwick. She is enjoying the fabulous weather this weekend by typing a blog in her garden and trying to ignore the fact her grass needs cut.

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