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.

6 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.


    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.


      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. 🙂


  2. Keely Schierman

    I liked this post because it was interesting content, backed up with an interesting example. I wasn’t aware of the naming of Serena Williams daughter and how they chose to represent the child’s father with Jr attached to it. I agree with how it is interesting that only bold steps like this are taken in isolation, opposed to being considered a potential revolutionized norm. This post relates to the themes of the class with both topics of gender and culture being present. Gender is mentioned in relation to the patriarchy being considered a normal, well-known and practiced naming system in North american society, and culture is related back to the naming patterns in our present culture. In class, we discussed the importance and relevance of families and our identity associated with our kin. We talked about patriarchal families, and where the identity and recognition comes from in those families. We compared patriarchal systems in comparison with matriarchal systems, and discussed positive, negatives, and reasons for both. This post discusses the norm of patriarchy in society, and how some people are now beginning to challenge it in various forms; such as what Serena and her husband did, homosexual couples, and other forms of relationships that would challenge the normal patriarchal naming system and pattern in North America. This post allowed me to start thinking about what is considered traditional and normal.Growing up in North America, I never even once noticed that naming through the males in families for last names was a practiced occurrence. I never stopped to think about, or realize it. It was always just considered natural, and normal. The first time I ever heard about a family that was not just the father’s last name, but was hyphenated, was when I was in about grade six, and that was a huge deal for me. I remember always asking my mom about it, asking her why that was a thing. I would always ask why is it not just Maria’s dad’s last name? Why would her mom’s name be included? But as I grew up, and how our society has continued to change and challenge different norms, I now start to see how people are stepping up, and trying to change something that was always just considered normal. My only question to you would be a personal one of course, but why did you choose to split up the last names between your two children? Does that not concern you that they have different last names, which might cause somebody who is not aware of this to not consider your children as siblings? I think it is a different, respectable, and bold approach. I have just never met a family who chose to do that, and I am curious about how you and your husband chose to do so, and why.


    1. Thanks for the nice insightful comment, Keely! To answer your question, we made the decision because for us the pros outweighed the cons. I wanted my name to continue within our own family and both of us hated the idea of hyphenating. We realize some people may not know our kids are siblings, but we are ok with that. There are disadvantages to being known in school as “someone’s sibling”, so the tradeoff didn’t feel too bad to us.

      Thinking about it as an anthropologist also helped me – families don’t have to look the way we always assumed they should, in so many ways much bigger than sharing names. And the impact has been positive, emotionally – it actually makes me feel more a member of the entire Shulist/G*** family, not the “odd one out” in a family that doesn’t share my name. Thinking about how names have this emotional affect is also significant to me as a linguistic anthropologist.


  3. Alexina Sandra

    I found this post to be a really fascinating (and accurate) understanding behind naming in Anglo-North American societies, I feel that it offers enough background and relatable information that someone who does not have an anthropology background, or even a strong academic background would feel that it is easily comprehensible and accessible. Just like someone with an anthropology or in a similarly academically related background would find this post to be intriguing and as I like to call it “a cool fun fact or blurb” on a subject. I especially loved the media insert in this post by mentioning Gilmore Girls, growing up my mother and I would watch it together as a sort of bonding act (I’m sure you can understand the many reasons why) and although it does indeed have a place in my heart, I really enjoyed how it showed that despite the father-son domination surrounding this subject, there are still some known mother-daughter examples that people who may not be familiar with can “turn to”.

    What I also loved about this post, is that although it touches heavily on the gendered aspect of naming, it also touches on the fact that a name isn’t simply a name (oh good old Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.”) it is also a large part of someone’s identity, and the subtle allusion between names and power.

    This part of the post was definitely an interesting thing to mention:
    “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).”

    It certainly get’s someone thinking about history and naming.
    The connection to the course, I would have to say, is the exploration of gender and identity in names and how they apply to one’s personhood.
    This post certainly had me considering naming and the power it holds, not only in one’s identity or in one’s gender but as how Alexis Jr. was named after her “much less famous parent”. This concept intrigued me to want to understand more, or speak with someone who may no more on the idea of the possible effect of either “the much less famous parent” or on simply having a famous surname.

    As someone who has a name that hasn’t been popular since the late 1800s (40 people had my name last in 1882, so if that’s to tell you anything it’s that my name is hard to pronounce to most people and everyone thinks it’s very pretty…) it does make you consider a few things on the subject of naming, like societal trends and it’s effects.

    What are your thoughts on (famous) parents naming their children “traditionally unconventional” names like for example Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s daughter North West or Gwyneth Paltrow and Partner’s daughter Apple Martin (as an aside note: whose current partner took Gwyneth’s last name and her children received the patrilineal last name), etc.?

    What are your thoughts on (famous) parents naming their children with “traditionally opposite” gendered names and how they could be “helping” those names in becoming perceived as more gender neutral, a good recent example is how Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds named their first daughter James? (this question is both a mouth full and slightly problematic and I have no idea how to fix it or alter it to be anything else…But I’m still curious so I hope it makes sense.)

    Do you believe that because the traditional pattern of receiving a surname has always been patrilineal, we will be stuck in an endless loop? For example if a mother were to give her surname to her child, that child would still be getting her name from her grandfather’s side of the family and so on and so forth.

    Have you ever encountered a society with strictly matrilineal surnames?


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