Can we make surnames non-sexist?

Surnames in the UK and much of the rest of the world are generally patrilineal. To take a recent example, the Prime Minister’s new son, Wilfred Johnson, has taken his father’s surname, while his mother’s surname (Symonds) has not been passed on. (Carrie Symonds might also take the Johnson surname when they marry, but let’s not get into that too much.)

To give another example (bear with me a minute), world-famous sports star Serena Williams also had a child fairly recently and that child’s name is… Alexis Ohanian (Jr.). In the UK, US and many other countries, fathers tend to pass on their surname while mothers do not, as the diagram below depicts (complete with a fictional next generation).

The existing, patrilineal system of surnames

This is a fairly sexist system, even if it is now a traditional norm.

But are there any good alternatives? We could do away with the concept of surnames entirely, and/or use unique identifiers (‘X Æ A-Xii‘?), but I assume that’s too radical. Each family could come up with an entirely new surname, but that seems to defeat the purpose. There is the possibility of creating blended surnames – Johnson and Symonds might give their child the surname Symson, for example – but that seems particularly messy.

Of course, we can double-barrel: e.g. Johnson-Symonds or Symonds-Johnson (with or without the hyphens). Great! That does raise the question of which name should come first. But the bigger problem is what to do after one generation? What do you do when two double-barrelled surnames collide? It’s not feasible to have a quadruple surname, and then an octuple surname – and so on – as the generations progress.

So is a simple but non-sexist naming convention possible? Yes! We can take the current patrilineal system and couple it with a matrilineal one. So, everyone would have their father’s father’s father’s (…) surname, but they would also have their mother’s mother’s mother’s (…) surname. (There is a strong argument that matrilineal names are more sensible, incidentally, as there is greater certainty over the identity of people’s mothers!)

What would that mean in practice? The diagram below gives an example, assuming that this system had been in place for a couple of generations already. With this system, the PM’s son might be called Wilfred Johnson Lawrence: taking a patrilineal name from his father and a matrilineal name from his mother.

A symmetrical system of patrinames and matrinames

Another way of putting this is that it is a system of double-barrelled surnames in which women only pass on the part of their double-barrel that they got from their mother, while men only pass on the part of their double-barrel that they got from their father. The two elements can be referred to as matrinames and patrinames.

A particularly neat thing about this proposed system is that it has a strong biological parallel. Mitochondria are inherited from one’s mother, while Y-chromosomes are passed on from father to son to son. This system would essentially be naming ‘haplotypes’ of Y-chromosomes and mitochondria (albeit with women having their fathers’ Y-chromosome names without having Y-chromosomes). (I believe this point may also be made in ‘The Seven Daughters of Eve’ by Prof. Bryan Sykes.)

In the diagram above, I’ve put the patrilineal name first. But, equally, the matrilineal name could go first. Or, the name that someone could pass on would go first: so it would be Johnson Symonds for a boy, but Symonds Johnson for a girl (though it might seem strange to give siblings different orderings). Perhaps a convention might emerge, or maybe this is something best left to each family and what sounds best in each case. As for the question of hyphenating, I (like Rebecca Long-Bailey) don’t have a strong view.

Despite being gender-balanced overall, this system places a lot of weight on gender: patrinames are passed down through your male children and matrinames through female children. (Indeed, a simpler variant of this system would be single-barrel names where sons take the father’s surname and girls take their mother’s). And, as such, there’s (still) a strong element of chance. In the example above, there are eight people in the first generation but only Stanley Johnson and Oracene Price pass their surnames on to their hypothetical great grandchild. What’s more, no system is going to work neatly in all circumstances: people’s lives are complicated, and so is gender.

That said, a matriname-patriname system would be a great improvement on the predominant patrilineal single-name system, and seems like the best approach. And, in the short-term, for most parents the choice I’d recommend is fairly simple: opt for a double-barrel rather than single surname. It will be for those with double-barreled surnames to decide where to go from there, but I hope they – including my very-soon-to-be daughter – will opt for the gender-balanced approach of patrilineal and matrilineal names.

PS: While having two surnames can be unusual in many countries, the system above has some common ground with Spanish/Portuguese conventions. Simplifying, in many Spanish/Portuguese-speaking countries you might have two surnames: one from your father and one from your mother (and I believe in Portugal some people even four surnames). This is roughly demonstrated in the diagram below (without caring about ordering), for comparison with the systems above. But, ultimately, the element that gets passed on to the next generation is usually the name you received from your father. So it’s still fundamentally a gender-biased system, and one that could be made fairer.

A system in which maternal grandfathers' names can also be passed on

3 thoughts on “Can we make surnames non-sexist?

  1. Hi Adam,
    Thanks for speaking about this. I had trouble choosing a surname as well. Let’s start by saying my husband did not take it well when I first mentioned that the child should take both surnames. It took him a good week (of instant outrage followed by sulking/mulling and then eventually coming around to agree) to accept it. Great. Then the battle of naming. South Indian surnames, particularly where I come from, are incredibly long and really meh-sounding. Even Indian friends make/made fun of my paternal surname (the official one). I do not like it either. But since it was given at birth and I love my dad anyway and changing my surname when you are fully grown adult is a hassle, I kept it. All throughout my living life, I loved my maternal surname which is ‘Peri’. Like Peri-Peri Sauce. Simple. Easy to pronounce. Compare that with my official surname ‘Chimalakonda’. What-on-earth?! Its literal English translation is ‘Ant’s hill’. Our surnames are supposed to names of places historically. While I was keen to give my daughter my surname, I really did not like the idea of passing on Chimalakonda. Plus, I am closer to my mom’s family. My mom’s sisters took care of me at different stages in life. I am becoming a mother and I wanted to show, in a tiny way, my appreciation for my mom who took the burden of raising us while my Dad was busy at work. She was the more present parent of the two. I decided to pass on Peri to my child. My husband’s surname is Madduri. Compare Nyra Chimalakonda-Madduri or Nyra Maddduri-Chimalakonda to Nyra Peri-Madduri or Nyra Madduri-Peri.
    We finally decided on Nyra Peri Madduri. No hyphens. But Peri Madduri (with space) as the surname. I did not have the emotional energy to argue for which surname comes first. Although I would have liked it to be a coin-toss. As you mention, it is up to Nyra to pick what she wants in the future.

    This experience (and seeing some of my friends) has taught me that most men who are seemingly liberal are not really. It is liberal-only-in-my-comfort-zone for most.

    I really liked the concept of girls taking mom’s surname and dad’s surname. But I’d reverse it to sons taking mom’s surname and daughters taking dad’s surname for socio-cultural reasons. Especially in countries with deep-patriarchy, female infanticide etc (screaming Indian sub-continent here). In parts of India, say the Haryana state or some rural Rajasthan, baby girls are still looked down upon. But passing on surnames is indeed a matter of pride. If only daughters can get the father’s surname, perhaps men would want daughters in such parts. And the mother will not be looked down upon for giving birth to a daughter. I have to think a bit on if it makes evolutionary sense or to give it an evo-meaning.

    I really appreciate you thinking about ‘sexism in surnames’ and writing about this. I have strong opinions on this topic. Haha. Good Luck with everything in the next few weeks and the next year in general. #cannotwait


    1. Dear Deepthi,
      I really like your system of “girls take father’s surname, boys take mother’s surname approach! Not only in India but also in other counties of eastern culture, unfortunately, girls are looked down upon as they are believed to not provide continuance of patriarchal family. This system would at least make the situation a little bit less severe.
      Let us as eastern women not stop our fight for equality!

  2. Think it’s kind of unnecessary to declare what the vast majority people do as being sexist. There might be perfectly good reasons for doing it the standard way, even reasons related to gender, but which are not *wrong*. Since you don’t even begin to investigate why people choose to do it this way it seems a bit much to just deem it all sexist.

    Anyway, this is a neat idea, but suffers one fatal flaw: it means that, within a family unit (by which I mean the parents and dependent kids), there isn’t a single surname. With a family with three kids, there are three surnames. Key to the point of a surname is that it represents the family – indeed, that is why we often call it a “family name”. The husband and wife are no longer primarily a part of the family they were born into, their primary family is now the one they have with each other and with their kids. That is where their first responsibilities lie, and where they belong – not with their own parents. The surname represents that very important social fact. It also reflects the way we think about families – we say “Shall we invite the Smiths over?” and we know that we mean Mr & Mrs Smith as well as their kids. We naturally think of the Smiths as a distinct unit, which the traditional arrangement signifies.

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