Post One of Two: On the Vestiges of Patriarchy

For the first time in quite a while, I knew by the time I touched the keyboard of my laptop computer than I would write and post two articles today. This is the first. Normally, I would have posted first about the topic on my mind when I awoke; for my own reasons, normal is not the order of the day.

Unless exposed to other cultures very early on, I think children assume their own cultural norms are “normal” and they do not think of, or even know about, the norms in other cultures. In most Western countries, with several notable exceptions, the custom is for women to assume their husbands’ surnames upon marriage. Children, when they encounter married women whose surnames differ from their husbands, think the concept of a woman retaining her maiden surname is odd. They do not necessarily consider the idea of calling a name “maiden” odd, though. It’s what their culture taught them, whether intentionally or coincidentally.

An online article on, viewed on my Samsung phone, triggered thoughts on the matter. According to the article and several sources from which the article’s author got her information, 70 percent of women in the U.S. and almost 90 percent of British women adopt the surnames of their husbands upon marriage. Simon Duncan, a professor in family life at the University of Bradford, UK, is quoted as saying, “It is quite surprising… [so many women adopt the man’s name] since it comes from patriarchal history, from the idea that a woman, on marriage, became one of the man’s possessions.” He goes on to raise the question, “…is this just a harmless tradition, or is there some sort of meaning leaking from those times to now?”

This subject has interested me for many years. When my wife and I got married, she chose to retain her maiden name. I recall being more than a little proud of her for her independence. I remember, too, thinking the practice of adopting someone else’s name was evidence of subservience on some level. During the mid-1970s and early 1980s, I participated in a number of discussions with friends on the pros and cons of women adopting the surnames of their husbands. Ultimately, though I thought the practice was somewhat medieval, I came to accept that—in the U.S. and several other Western countries, at least—it was simply a cultural norm; a practice whose roots may have long since decayed, but whose fruit remained in full blossom.  Part of my thought process in accepting a practice I increasingly found patriarchal and subservient was based in learning about marriage naming practices in other countries. In Mexico, the naming convention is as follows: A person has two surnames; the first surname is the father’s first surname and the second surname is the mother’s first surname.  Marriage does not change the woman’s name. So, for example, here is a hypothetical example in practice: José Garcia López marries Luisa Pérez Garza (she retains her name); the full name of their child, whose given name is Estella, is Estella Garcia Pérez.

I think I have written before about naming conventions in some Scandinavian countries. In Iceland, for example, a child’s surname is created from the father’s given name, followed by “-son” or -dóttir (“daughter”). Again, marriage has no effect on a person’s names. As an interesting sidenote, though, in 2019, the laws governing Icelandic names were enacted which will no longer restrict given names by gender (a long story behind that, there is). Icelanders who are officially registered with non-binary gender are permitted to use the patro/matronymic suffix -bur (“child of”) instead of -son or -dóttir.

Strangely enough, I have gone off-track again. My intent was to explore the patriarchal nature in Western culture of women adopting their husbands’ surnames upon marriage (after doing so, I promptly revealed examples in which that is not the case). But it’s more common than not for women to give up their own names in favor of their husbands’ names. I think the cultural norms of a society are closely aligned with the political leanings of the society (or vice versa). For example, I would expect Republicans to be far more likely to oppose women retaining their names upon marriage because, in the Republican viewpoint (as I see it), to do so would be an affront to patriarchal culture; and that, my friends, is sacrosanct.

I have much more to say about this, but my focus has dissolved into a hazy mist. More when I am able to be more precise and persuasive. Next, my second post of the day. Eventually.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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