Adopting surnames is sexist. So let's be like the saints, and get rid of them.

A few columns ago, a reader emailed me to point out that I’d made a mistake in referring to “Benincasa” as St. Catherine of Siena’s surname. He happened to be a biographer of Catherine’s and reminded me that, in 14th century Italy, surnames as we know them today were not the norm. Benincasa was her grandfather’s name, it turns out. But to history, the great saint is most commonly known by her given name and the town where she was born.

Jesus himself was merely “the Nazarene” to those who wanted to denigrate him and “Christ” to those who believed—no surname. Same with most of our favorite saints. In many cases, as with Catherine, surnames didn’t exist yet. But even Thérèse of Lisieux, who lived well after the advent of surnames, is known according to the place where she took her vows as a nun. Perhaps, in this as in other ways, more of us should be like the saints.

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As my wife and I were preparing to get married about a year ago now, like many couples, we talked a lot about names. Would she take my last name? Would I take hers? Would we make up our own? I like hers, but I also feel a certain loyalty to mine, in part because I’m the only grandson on my father’s side. (I’m the only grandson on my mother’s side, too, but no dice.) We’ve kept our surnames, but now that we’re expecting our first child, the problem is coming up all over again.

For those of us who don’t view a man in a married couple as holding a higher social or spiritual status than a woman, there is no easy solution that I know of. Hyphenating names is one approach, but a generation or two later, it will get quite unwieldy. The Spanish system of compound names only forestalls the dominance of the male side for a generation. Making up a new name upon marriage seems to cut the new family off from their elder relatives, reinforcing our culture’s lamentable overemphasis on the nuclear unit alone. Maybe it’s time to do away with surnames altogether, finally. Maybe it isn’t so hard.

Surnames came to be in Europe during the late Middle Ages, when cities grew big enough that there would be too many people called “John of York” to keep them straight. Ever more sophisticated political systems needed to distinguish particular individuals for purposes like taxation and military service. In a patriarchal culture, passing a surname down the line of males seemed like a sensible solution. But patriarchy is less obvious now, and any city’s white pages are still full of indistinguishable names.

Today, we have other ways of identifying people. Most of us have social security numbers or ID card numbers; more and more people have Facebook accounts. As online “reputation” becomes increasingly important for businesses, new tools are being developed to track and identify individuals, to keep straight who is who. There’s no reason why we can’t come up with a sensible system that would be more effective than surnames for distinguishing us. Some of us might prefer not be identifiable to the state or the Internet at all, and maybe that’s okay, too.

So what if we were to do away with surnames altogether? Maybe we could change parts of our names as we go through life, as we change our affiliations and locations. We could earn names with our deeds, like Muslims who go on pilgrimage to Mecca earn the title “Hajji,” like monks and nuns who take new names for their vowed lives. We could use one name from birth to death, or several at once. And if there’s any confusion, we could refer back to that sensible ID system and be sure who is who.

For now, convenience compels people to maintain a practice that is sexist and antithetical to values many espouse. We cling to a human tradition that doesn’t do justice to the equal dignity that women and men hold in the eyes of God. In the absence of something better, however, my wife and I will probably end up clinging to tradition, too.

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Martha Cordero
2 years 3 months ago
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Tradition can be beautiful too. I took my husband's last name when we married because that was what my mother did, as did her mother before her. I see my own choice as a way of honoring the choices made by my mother and grandmother, rather than to affirm any patriarchal prerogative. And as the vast majority of children are given their father's surname, many women also choose to adopt their husband's for the reason of having the same name as their children. Every choice made can do justice to men and women's equal dignity in the eyes of God. Names are immaterial after all, as Shakespeare reminds us. What did the author choose in the end?
Nathan Schneider
2 years 3 months ago

Thank you for your response, so much. The last thing I would want to do is claim to judge or denounce those who do adopt names of fathers and husbands. I agree that, under the circumstances of our culture, this can be a beautiful act of commitment and unity. Maybe this is a good opportunity to draw a distinction between identifying a patriarchal structure and honoring a loving practice within that structure. What I am suggesting in the article is that the social structure of patrilineal surnames is essentially sexist—it prefers the socially dominant gender over the other. However, since it is the default in many communities, people have found ways to practice it lovingly, as you no doubt have. One of the great revelations of grace in our world is how love and compassion can shine through unjust social structures—ranging from the horror of slavery, for instance, to the more benign injustice of patrilineal surnames.

So, I agree with you that the choice to adopt a husband's name, and to honor that tradition, can be a moving expression of women's dignity in the eyes of God. But why don't men also have this opportunity or expectation, typically? I've noticed that my wife has to struggle with the question of chainging her name, while I have the privilege of merely joking about changing my own, since there's no social expectation that I would.  The fact is, there is strong pressure for women to shed a part of their public identity—often for the sake of sharing a family identity with their children that will be easily legible to strangers. Choosing to do differently can make life harder for those who do, which is why it's important to have a public conversation about these kinds of things. I would hope that, as we debate the injustice of the structure, we honor the grace visible in the practice of people like you.

Tim O'Leary
2 years 3 months ago
Nathan - Martha asked what you did in the end. I would be interested as well. If you really believe that patrilineal surnames are a form of injustice, why not light a candle rather than curse the darkness? I don't think there is any legal impediment for you to take your wife's name, and "have this opportunity" and take a matrilineal stand :). It is also possible to adopt a single name (Bono, Eminem, Beyonce...).
Nathan Schneider
2 years 3 months ago

The article was only published a day ago, so I think it's fair to assume that there haven't been significant developments beyond the last sentence.

Tim O'Leary
2 years 3 months ago
It seems to me it would be a further step towards family disintegration and absolute individualism to drop the surname or family name. And, to replace it with some numeric ID seems very distasteful to me. It also appears that most people in biblical times were known by their name and their father's name. Surnames of sorts in Jesus' time amounted to adding "the Son of" to a first name. They they were used when one wanted a more formal appellation or to say something highly important. The best example is when Jesus asked his disciples who/what did the people say He was (Mt 16). Only Peter gets it right, using the patriarchal "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." He didn't say the son of Mary or just Jesus or the Nazarene. Then, Jesus replies using his surname: "Simon, bar Jonah (son of Jonah)..." as He gives him the new name of Peter, which is not only a name, but a new role (the Rock of the Church). Our God has revealed Himself to us in patriarchal language (Father, Son etc.) and clearly takes gender to be far more than accidental, and certainly not interchangeable. I think it is altogether getting it backwards to think that patriarchy was imposed upon God by the Jews and not the other way around. And contrary to some interpretations, patriarchy need not imply superiority or inferiority. After all, Our Lady is the only non-divine royalty in heaven - the Queen - part of the Lord's fulfillment of the 4th commandment to honor our father and mother. If we judge God by the world's standards, we can think a modern understanding of equality (= sameness, interchangeability, etc.) trumps the Lord's words. But, if we judge the world by God's standards, then we must interpret equality in a way that does intellectual and moral justice to patriarchy. The complementarity language in most recent Church documents seems to get it right (just as transubstantiation solved the philosophical dispute on the Real Presence).
Jeannette Mulherin
2 years 3 months ago
Adults name children, pets, and property because they have authority over them. So why would an adult male think he can name another adult? Why would an adult woman tolerate such a thing?
Tim O'Leary
2 years 3 months ago
Jeannette - in marriage, it is not the man who "names" anyone. It is the woman who freely takes the name of her husband and her future children. It is a free choice to take a name, and some women choose not to do so. It is the mistaken idea of equality = sameness that is confusing the issue. This sameness argument is also stripping women of many rights and privileges they have as women in our society. No-fault divorce is a perfect example, as is the expectation that women will take contraception and have sex before marriage, or resort to abortion when the BC fails. It is not men who are most hurt by these changes. Another tragic irony is that the feminists' drive for abortion has resulted in hundreds of sex-selection abortions, targeting girls. And guess who will be the targets of euthanasia? Women again. Liberals need to think harder. First-world feminism is bad for women and children. If you must use the term feminism, then convert it into a Christian feminism - one that is pro-life, pro-family and pro-men and women, and that looks first at the impact of any change on the poorest of the poor.

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