Making progress by breaking with tradition

Pellegrino Vitale
Pellegrino Vitale (1887-1973)

As an avid genealogical researcher, I am keenly aware of the role that tradition plays in history. In all cultures, each new generation largely expects to follow traditions set by their predecessors, often without much thought as to why. Asking why is important. Challenging tradition brings progress. Haven’t the advances in civil rights over the past 100 years come largely from challenging tradition?

Recently I saw a discussion on Facebook on the tradition of a woman taking her husband’s last name upon marriage. A friend who had chosen to keep her birth name commented that she didn’t see any reason to change her name; she thought the tradition was outdated and paternalistic. I agreed, but I couldn’t help but notice that while she had kept her surname, both her son and daughter had their father’s last name. This has always been a tradition with which I had been uneasy, but until now I hadn’t been able to come up with a better alternative.

What if we started a new tradition? What if girls were given the last name of their mother, and boys were given the last name of their father, generation after generation? Wouldn’t that create for women the same strength of identity that males have always gotten from their last name? I would love it if I had been given the last name of my mother, and her mother, and her mother, and her mother, and if I knew that the name with which I was born into the world was going to be the name I would take with me when I left it, without having to agonize over whether I would change my name at some point or what surname my children would have.

This new naming pattern wouldn’t simplify things for children with two dads or two moms, but accepting that not all children in a family have to have the same last name would certainly expand the options for those families.

When I first got married in 1988, I reluctantly changed my last name because I thought that I should have the same last name as my eventual children. When we divorced after fifteen years and three children, I took my birth surname back and felt like I had reclaimed my true identity. When my children were born, I considered hyphenating their last name – but that’s not a tradition that can be sustained for more than one generation. If you hyphenate a daughter’s last name and she later marries, she’s got the headache of deciding what to do with her last name.

I know everyone doesn’t struggle with changing their last name like I did, but my last name was a big part of my identity. It was the last name of my great-grandfather, who emigrated from Italy with his family, and whom I knew as a child. I knew two of my other great-grandparents, but never really knew their ethnic backgrounds or where their ancestors were from and, frankly, wasn’t that interested at the time. I got so much of my identity from my last name. Never mind that with red hair and blue eyes, I’ve always been the least Italian-looking person in the room.

So for the past four years I’ve been immersed in researching my family history. I’ve built an enormous family tree that extends back 13 generations in some branches, and I’ve discovered immigrant ancestors from Italy, England, Ireland, Corsica, France, and Canada. My research has included DNA analysis, travel, communication with newly-discovered distant relatives, and reconnection with relatives I hadn’t been in touch with for years.

And a recurring theme that I see in my research is that last names are important. They identify family groups, give identity to towns, and provide a paper trail connecting each generation to the next. But women can be much harder to track than men because if they married at any point, their name changed. Many family history researchers hit brick walls because they can’t find a female ancestor’s maiden name. Or the ancestor disappears from records because she got married, but there’s no written record of the marriage to reveal her married name.

Maybe it’s time to let go of the tradition that says everyone in an immediate family has to have the same last name. We’ve made such enormous strides in the past ten years in reconsidering the very definition of family that it’s time to reconsider the names we use, too.

About Patty Vitale

Patty Vitale lives in Germantown, Maryland. Born and raised in Massachusetts, she has lived in the Washington, D.C. area since 1986. She has a B.S. Business Administration from Boston University and a J.D. from American University. Patty is a member of the Society of Mayflower Descendants as well as the Daughters of the American Revolution, Hungerford’s Tavern Chapter, where she serves as the Chair of the Women’s Issues Committee.

20 thoughts on “Making progress by breaking with tradition

  1. An interesting thought! A new show could be women going to genealogists for Who Do You Think I Would Be.
    When I think about my identity, the northern ancestors, men and women, resonate more than the southern ones. Yet following this premise I would be carrying the name of one of the southern ones.

    1. It is an interesting point. I have done a ten generation maternal line chart with nine photographs. Yes a main issue in genealogical research is the mother without a name… a “brick wall.” Many of the women have their mother’s maiden name as a middle name. Where would you begin? I think the motivation is certainly justified.
      and. yes, “convention” is an issue. So keep the debate going.
      Charlie Wadhams
      Fresno , CA

  2. During the 1970s & 1980s some families did use the system you propose, mother’s surname for daughters, father’s names for sons. I recall reading about it in Ms Magazine and hearing of friends of friends using the Maternal-Paternal naming. But haven’t heard it mentioned in years nor any updates on how the children felt about their names. As I didn’t marry or have children, this problem never affected me directly but years ago heard an American historian speak on the naming issue (can’t remember name or details) who had the best idea in my view: He cheerfully recommended the Spanish model of adding the mother’s name to the father’s (Hernandez y Garcia) and waved away objections of practicality. It is practical for me, he said, as a historian the more names the better for my research!

  3. I like the latino tradition of using the surname of your father and your mother. For example. I would be Patricia Adams Allison de Lowe. Adams is my father’s surname, Allison is my mother’s. The de Lowe means of my husband’s name.

  4. Really interesting. Like you, I’ve struggled over what to do about children’s names. I like your suggestion, as it provides enough consistency in names from one generation to the next to satisfy the needs of bureaucracy, but still gives women an equal voice.

  5. I think a good start in terms of genealogical record-keeping would be to change Register style.

    My first in depth genealogy research was into my Swedish and Finnish relatives, and in those cultures, historically, women did not take their husband’s names (though they do now). More recently, I have found that early Dutch settlers also didn’t merge names when they married. Now, I find it impossible to get used to Register style, which adds a woman’s married name(s) to her maiden name, and puts her maiden name and any earlier married names in parentheses. This seems to me to diminish her and her ancestry. Additionally, it doesn’t cover the range of realities that exist these days. For instance, when my mother re-married, she went back to using her maiden name and didn’t take her new husband’s surname. Adding her second husband’s name to hers in the records would just be wrong.

    My suggestion would be to list all individuals by their birth names, adding any additional legal names as aliases. Women have long been standing on their own two feet, and marriage as an institution has been changing. I think it is time that genealogy record-keeping caught up with the times.

  6. In Spain and Latin American countries, women do not loose their birth surname; in fact, their birth surname includes both parents surnames. If she marries, she may add her husband’s surname preceded by a “de” or she may choose not to use it at all.
    An example would be: Ana González (father’s father) Pérez (mother’s father). If she marries, Pablo Martínez (father’s father) Rodriguez (father’s mother), she may call herself in several ways: Ana González Pérez de Martínez, or Ana de Martínez, or, just keep using her birth surnames. If the husband needs to be acknowledged publicly then she may be called, “la señora de Martínez” or “señora Martínez”.
    In any case, for both women and me, th official or legal name is the birth name with both of the parents paternal surnames.
    This tradition causes many problems for those who come to countries, such as the United States, where traditionally women take their husband’s paternal surname. On the one hand, people and official forms choose the very last surname (the mother’s) as the official last name which is totally erroneous because that choice would prevent recognition of the father’s surname. In the above example, Ana would be called Ana Pérez which is not her legal name, and Pablo would be called Pablo Rodríguez, also incorrect. To prevent this some of us choose to hyphenate the two last names, but when we marry, we may loose it completely, or as my sister did, she hyphenated our father’s surname with her husband’s surname.
    It is very complicated, but I would have liked to have kept my birth surnames officially. However, when I became a citizen, years ago, I was a new bride and chose to please my husband by changing to his surname. Now none of my official records show my birth surnames, unless they ask for a maiden name. In addition, our children do not carry my surname as part of their name.
    This situation makes it very difficult to keep track of genealogical branches using programs made for people with only one surname, such as Family Tree Maker and Roots Magic.
    Sorry about the long explanation. I just wanted people to understand.

  7. In the early days of my feminism, when I’d already been doing genealogy quite a while, I too came up with an alternative:

    Names would be carried down through the respective men’s and women’s lines. So my Dad would have been Aurand, my Mom, Stump (the earliest surname I know in the maternal lineage), so I would be Aurand-Stump and my sisters had been Stump-Aurand. I’m unmarried so I remain unchanged, but my sisters would have become Stump, but their children would have been born either, DeWitt-Stump or Stump-DeWitt and Sakonyi-Stump and Stump-Sakonyi. Both continuity and family coherence at once.

    A birth certificate would only need the surnames of both birth parents. I’m sure there’d be other complications to account for, but it could be handled.

  8. Personally, I have no problem with a male OR female child’s surname being the same as the father’s. The naming tradition I would like to see instituted would be similar to the Latino tradition of both parents’ surnames mentioned above by Patricia Lowe. In my perfect world of genealogy, the mother’s maiden name would automatically be a child’s middle name. Not the grandmother’s, the mom’s. Had such a tradition been in place in America for the last 200 years, I’d not still be banging my head against the brick wall of one gr-gr-gm’s maiden name and her line back to who knows where.

    And don’t get me started on newspaper obits listing a woman as “Mrs. Homer Jones” without mentioning her first name – let alone her maiden name – anywhere in the two column inches below the heading!

  9. Last year, I enjoyed helping a Spanish-ancestry Phillipina friend do her genealogy, from the Phillipines back to Spain. Oh my, what a treat!! Every woman’s name showed parental ancestry. Every step of the way back.
    When I divorced I kept my married name so that there would be no arguments at school when I went to pick up my children! But I did wish I could have found a better way to identify myself as a person.
    And yes, I’m with Joanna above – I have a great-great grandmother whose long detailed obituary lists her only as her husband’s full name, gives all his history (he pre-deceased her), never mentions any of her own family, and the only personal details of her were her death date and city where she died. Sigh.

  10. Great Article to get advancement on the subject. As I read the article and the posts, none of the proposed resolutions completely solved the problem and could add even more complexity, conundrum or confusion. However the writer hits on the root problem and the solution from my seat. I see it as a “given” name as the problem and “choice” as the solution. Perhaps making the formal name changing process more accessible and education that it is ok to change it is a method to accomplish this as future generations can decide at some age if inclined to do so and align their name to where they attribute their own personnel identity. As the writer states she reclaimed her identity in her direct paternal name not a maternal name 4 generations back, what’s great here is she made a choice that she felt was best for her. Congrats Go Patty

  11. Enjoyed your post, both my wife and I added each other’s surnames into our names when we got married, although our daughters just have my surname. Bryan Sykes in his book The Seven Daughers of Eve proposed a similar idea in his book The Seven Daughters of Eve, except along the lines of double names for everyone, but the name that would be passed forward would be gender specific, i.e. people would have their patrilineal and matrilneal surnames and men pass on their patrilineal while men pass on their matrilineal (which would usually have a DNA benefit as well), so it’s different than the Spanish system. My wife’s family being from Dominican Republic, has her double surname of “Ovalle Paulino” while if our children had that they would be “Child Ovalle,” however if we instead had our matrilineal surname as our second name instead of just our maternal grandfather, my names would be “Child Smith,” my wife’s would be “Ovalle Grullon” and our children would be “Child Grullon”

  12. I married young and took my husband’s name. When we divorced, I took back my birth name, my father’s surname which I still have. My mother was disappointed. Her birth name was the same as my ex-husband’s, and I learned that her grandchildren having the same surname as she did had meaning for her. That really opened my eyes.

    Two of my daughter’s chose to use my surname, even after marriage. Some of my grandchildren also have my surname. Boy, do I understand how my mother felt! Another daughter kept her father’s name, even after marriage, then decided to take her husband’s name for religious reasons. After they separated, she chose to take back her father’s name. One of the deciding factors, though, was that it is also my mother’s birth name (it is a fairly common name). Then there is the hyphenated granddaughter. I guess she gets to choose.

    I was once friendly with a Korean woman who was on a one year sabbatical in the US conducting research. Unusual for Koreans at that time at least, her husband had taken a leave of absence from his job so he and their children could join her. They both found it rather odd and humorous that in Korea, a woman traditionally retains her birth name when she marries, though gender equality is well behind the US. Yet here, where women enjoy a much wider range of choice and opportunities, when a woman married, she is expected to take her husband’s surname, and to subsume her identity in his!

    I know many women who have chosen their own surname. Personally, I think that women full original names should be recorded as their official names, regardless of what name they might use socially. This used to be the custom (as many have pointed out). But then think also of the generations upon generations who had only one name, and the many cultures in which people changed their names at seminal points in their lives. There is something to be said for that, too, that is lost when we get to thinking like bureaucrats with rigid rules.

    I am not known by the same first name I was born with, and that was a personal choice. But the change is recorded, and will not be hard for future genealogists to trace.

  13. Your tradition or “memory of the blood” is encoded within your own DNA …. what ever “birth names” you were given just refers to common practice of that day. A most interesting topic not mentioned here is when family names are “Anglicized”. It is such an honor to have one of my family surnames assumed by those of Jewish descent. This is of course, the surname “Small”.

  14. My parents could not/ would not understand my choice to keep my birth name, even tho I am the last to do so (no sons). They sent me letters as “Mrs.” even when I pointed out that if the “s” was smudged I would not exist… then I found that my great aunt Florence Sherwood Sickenger used her own name for her union and suffragist work, and only used her husband’s name for a mortgage. 100 years ago! This fact was published in a Chicago paper (Tribune?) and someone kept the clipping. To my father the word “union” meant “Communist”. !!!

  15. My cousin and his wife Cathy was born in Hawaii and ended up in Michigan where she met my cousin.. During their moves they ended up working on one of the Pacific Islands and they adopted two children of Samoan lineage. The boy has his dad’s surname and the girl her mom’s surname. I thought it strange to do that, but after reading some of the replies maybe we should look at making a change.

  16. For women, France has made it simple. A woman’s only legal name is her maiden name. Whether it’s being reimbursed for medical expenses, renting an apartment or getting a passport, her maiden name is first followed by “spouse of”. Marie Smith who married Jacques Champel will always be Marie Smith épouse Champel.
    A child can take the mother’s name if desired. For me this was a problem when I wanted to carry on the family tradition of a child having my patronymic for a middle name. The French vital records refused because if he had later chosen my name he would have become something like George Smith Smith.
    Unless the mother has a famous, and therefore advantageous name, in France children keep their father’s name. Thank goodness for the sake of the genealogist!

    1. French women have always shared an equality that is not available to British women…. this was shown in the early colonization of North America. While the women of New France were very active in not only domestic matters but political matters as well those women in the British colonies of New England were relegated to domestic ones . And even here, they had as much control over their lives as did the livestock that they cared for !

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