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Sirname or Surname?

Once upon a time, in a place not that far away, women had their own family names to pass down. In fact, some societies still use the matrilineal name, and it continues to be passed down. Surnames, family names or last names whatever you know them by, really are meaningful and are not just superficial identifiers. Surnames can hold status, wealth, political and psychological meaning. They can be identifiers of religion, family dynamics, culture, identity, and individuality. Stripping someone of their traditional surname is just another tool of the patriarchy and another step towards a violation of human rights.


At first, surnames were introduced as a solution to the inevitable issue; England was running out of their basic first names. In this blog, I will primarily use England and its common law as an example as well as the United States. The referencing of surnames will primarily be focused on the patriarchal Western world. Many Indigenous communities globally do not follow this colonised and imperialistic framework.

Surnames at first were functional and interchangeable, a man could be a baker so his surname was “Baker”, but he could also be the son of a man you knew named William. So to you, his surname was “Williamson”. This meant that members of the same family would have different names and possibly multiple names. People were even known by different names depending on how the other person knew them.

Women’s surnames followed this same pattern, oftentimes a woman’s first name would become their child’s surname. Around the fifteenth century, as surnames began to be inherited more often from parents, the mother's first name would be the child’s surname in many cases. This carried on through the generations through the mothers.

Sometimes depending on their status, characteristics, and wealth, the husband would take the wife’s surname. A lot of the time this was so he could attach himself to her wealth and estate, continuing the family’s ownership. Again continuing the woman’s last name to the children.


But as there began to be a shift largely due to colonialism, the patriarchy, and enlightenment many social “norms” were now being replaced with what they were calling “tradition”. It seems odd that while they were introducing a new idea of the surname as a patrilineal name to pass on they referred to it as “tradition”, but this was skilfully done in the name of politics and power. Beginning the gradual shift of surnames to become passed down through the father. English common law had always permitted that names were a personal choice and that individuals could change their names for any reason besides fraud. However, as time wore on while it was still not a legal rule, women were forced into changing their last names to their husbands or fathers. Slowly as the patriarchy and colonialism powers grew so too did the erasure of the matrilineal surname. This then shaped the modern naming framework primarily in use even now.

Courts began refusing the recognition of women if they did not have their father's or husband's surname even considering them to be null or void citizens. In the infamous CHAPMAN case in 1890 in Texas, the court refused a woman’s service as she had retained her birth name after marriage so the court thus deemed that name was no longer legal nor was she existing under that name. Many cases continued to refer to this case and similar cases then later used them as proof for law and legislation to be changed to reflect these cases. A 2011 study found that almost three-quarters thought it was generally better if a woman takes the husband's last name and half thought it was a good idea that it be a legal requirement.


Surnames became more and more important over time as Sovereign States and Nation States grew and with them their identity, culture, and traditions. Those stripped of their rightful names such as slaves and women were therefore excluded from the political community and not viewed as active citizens. People of Colour felt the devastating impacts of this harshly.

The word surname even came to play, many quoting that it be spelled as Sirname rather than surname to recognise it must be passed down through the father. Another easy way to enforce the patriarchy. In fact, people fought so hard for this ‘sirname’ fight that often when scholars released pieces that stated women used to have their own surnames it was fought back or deemed offensive. Arguments that these women only did so as they were “unfit for marriage”, “married to a shameful man” or an “illegitimate partnership” meaning they had been born out of a bastardy relationship. Reminding society that the very idea of a woman having her own last name was absurd, it was passed down by fathers and husbands.

This social enforcement of change helped lead us to enforce the patriarchal surnames and erase women’s individual surnames. Another telling moment in history where society was tricked into “misremembering” or that it was utter nonsense for women to have their own identity.


There is a modern discourse around surnames and many people are now opting for more inclusive and flexible options rather than upholding rigid tools of the patriarchy. Now we see a change, in that many women choose to hyphenate their name or keep their maiden name (a term in itself a reminder of the patriarchy). Some men even changed their last names to their wives. Same-sex couples also joining in as loud voices in this discussion. Some even opt to create a combination of both their surnames. In some cases, people do this in order to gain their own independence, resilience, and sovereignty, as an empowerment tool or just to create new traditions. It appears there is momentum to help release the hold this patriarchal tool once had on society and law.



The studies and examples used in this blog came from the Journal Article i recommend for everyone;

ERADICATING WOMEN’S SURNAMES: LAW, TRADITION, AND THE POLITICS OF MEMORY

by DEBORAH ANTHONY

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