Names and Patriarchy

Names are a remarkable form of linguistic material. Group names, place names, personal names – all have functions and social roles that are far more complex than we often credit (I’ve written before about the use of endonyms for Indigenous peoples/languages, and will put a bookmark in my brain to try to write about place names at some point as well). Names carry a lot of weight in defining identities — and this means they do a ton of social work in establishing relationships among people.

I am well behind on blogging things I’ve found interesting, so forgive me for delving into ancient internet history of a full month ago, but the story of Serena Williams’ baby’s name was too fascinating to let go entirely. As the link notes, the name is apparently highly conservative, putting a junior on the father’s name – except that in this case, Alexis Ohanian Jr. is a little girl.

For all that we, in Anglo-North American society, have moved away from many aspects of patrilineal descent (like for example in terms of inheritance), names are one of the ways we cling quite strongly to it. Without wanting to get in to any kind of discussion about the merits of name changing at marriage (seriously, don’t @ me. It’s always the same conversation), one point that’s always raised is that women choose between “their partner’s name or their father’s name”. It’s a claim that depends on the notion that our names have and will come from our fathers, and that it is primarily boy children who get to claim ownership of the name. While there is now a proportion of heterosexually married women who have, either completely or partially (e.g. using one name professionally and another personally) kept their original names, this has not yet translated into a widespread change in how offspring are named. Hyphenation has a definite presence, but the most common pattern remains that children receive their father’s names. My own family is an exception here, because I said I wanted a child that would carry my name, and my partner and I quickly agreed to have one of each. Our older child has their father’s name, and our younger child has mine.

This is meaningful to me because my lineage is marked in our family. Last names, though, are not the only ways that we put that identity forward. Giving our children family names, particularly ‘Junior’ from an immediate parent, also carries those meanings. And while the practice is generally waning, it remains much more strongly associated with father-son bonds than with any relationship involving women and girls. Gilmore Girls made a joke of this by having teenage mom and highly quirky Lorelai name her baby daughter Lorelai (called Rory) for exactly this reason – men do it all the time, why couldn’t she want her girl to carry on her name? (I have a general theory that this is why we see much greater variation in the “Top 100” baby names for girls than for boys – decade after decade, William, Michael, John, David, Daniel, and Matthew hold strong, while Sarahs and Katies – to pick two entirely not random examples – peak and fade relatively quickly. This theory is entirely the product of my brain and fascination with reading baby name lists, however, and no real stable evidence).

Little Alexis Jr. inserts another interesting exception to the pattern, having a daughter carry on her father’s name/identity. Honestly, it’s somewhat unsurprising that a powerhouse mother like Serena would be willing to push the boundaries of how her baby daughter will be named and seen. At the same time, I am a bit surprised that this little Junior is taking on the name of her much less famous parent. A Serena Williams Jr strikes me as a name that would inspire an impressive reaction (although perhaps too much weight to put on a tiny person, but that didn’t stop countless famous men from assigning that burden to their sons).

The whole conversation speaks to the way we see names and identity, and yes, the ways in which our perceptions of descent and family lineage remain oriented around fathers and sons. An era of acceptance of non-traditional family structures, including gay and lesbian couples (as well as decades of feminist pushback against the ways that names connote ownership) may have made a dent on this view, but its prevalence shows just how deeply engrained this part of patriarchy is. And this is why names are so meaningful and powerful – ultimately, this is a part of linguistic and cultural practice that holds force long after we have stopped thinking of our descent practices as inherently passing through a male line. I agree with the linked blogger that a female junior, in this context (and adding in the racial dynamic, which is also hugely important in defining young Alexis’ relationship to her white father) is a bold step. What strikes me, though, is that these bold steps seem to be taken in isolation, and I’m interested to see what it might take for them to start adding up to a march away from the status quo.

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3 thoughts on “Names and Patriarchy

  1. So…as a historian who works with Colonial New England subject matter while researching the migrations of successive generations of a particular kin group, I find it strange that you make no mention of the fact that many families in earlier centuries did, in fact, name daughters after their mothers, and some of those were indeed known as “Jr.” A famous example resides in the records of the infamous Salem Witch trials: one Ann Putnam Jr.

    Also, sons frequently bore their mothers’ or grandmothers’ maiden names as middle names, and sometimes even as given “first” names. Meanwhile, naming patterns honoring grandfathers by giving the grandfather’s first name to a first or second son make for a difficult time distinguishing one first cousin from another (as Colonial records are sparse and references to several boys or men of the same family and of similar age and location are frequently too vague to determine exactly which individual is indicated). There’s a lot to unpack here, but ultimately it would seem that eventually, even ancient naming trends cycle around.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! The short version of why I don’t include that is because I wasn’t aware of it. I’m not an expert in North American naming history, and I use this blog to apply ideas I do know well to some general observations. I don’t have time to do deep research on a topic prior to writing a post, so I really appreciate this input and the expertise that you offer here.

      I think the examples you offer are really fascinating, but I’m not convinced that the conclusion should be that “Ancient naming trends cycle around”. I see major differences between what you’re mentioning and the types of changes we’re seeing now, though there is some overlap. The social and cultural factors underlying the practices are also different, which is itself an interesting and important anthropological lesson – the same surface behaviour can mean very different things in different times and places.

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      1. Well I certainly agree that the social and cultural factors influencing the trends are very different. My intention about the “cycling around” was simply that the effect can be similar. 🙂

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