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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

What does erasing the maternal surname mean?

November 6, 2017
"When I realised I didn’t have the surname from my maternal family, it was quite a blow" Heliosa Righetto explains what erasing a women's last name really means...

It wasn’t until my adulthood that I realised I was (am) a Feminist. But when I think back on my childhood and teenage years, I often remember specific situations or “family traditions” that already provoked that “something-is-not-right” feeling. Things that made me uncomfortable although I couldn’t quite explain why (or didn’t feel I should “complain” about).

One of my first sexist experiences is connected to a very happy time of my life, the new year celebrations with my family. While my father, my grandfather, my uncles and my male cousins would sit around all day drinking beer; my mother, grandmother, aunts and female cousins would work all day. Cooking, cleaning and making sure everyone (but themselves) were having a good time. I have a feeling that this situation was not exclusive to my family.

But there was another of those wait-this-is-sexist moments related to family traditions: when I realised I didn’t have the surname from my maternal family. Neither had my mum! It was quite a blow to realise that mum had given up her surname and adopted my dad’s surname (which is, of course, his dad’s surname and so on…). I couldn’t understand this social rule, but on the other hand, I didn’t have enough repertoire to build the argument to question it.

It wasn’t until I got married that this “tradition” started to bother me again. Although I didn’t let go of my surname, I didn’t even think about not adding my husband’s. The first time I was called by my “married name” it felt weird, to say the least. I wasn’t at all comfortable with that and I couldn’t find a reasonable explanation for why I had done it. How come I only carried the surnames of the men in my life? How not having my maternal surname influenced my relationship with this side of the family? Why had I changed my name if my husband hadn’t changed his?

It’s interesting how these questions are met with a shoulder shrug even from feminist women. And I completely understand why so many women prefer to turn a blind eye to this misogynistic marriage tradition (or to say that it was their “choice”, as if women’s choices were free from sexism and not at all embedded in our gendered existence – but that’s a whole new subject for another column!). It is painful to realise we are perpetuating something that exists to erase our very own existence.

Moreover, marriage is something we are encouraged to pursue since our childhood. Go on, find yourself a good man, get married, have children. Take care of your family. And becoming part of the “good man’s” family and embracing their surname is considered a status symbol: I did it. I am a Mrs now. I am not here to blame women that have done it (myself included), but to argue that we can’t simply state that “this is not a big deal” or “there are more urgent issues we as feminist should be tackling right now”. This is an oppressive tradition. We are eager to point out this kind of thing in far away countries and cultures, but why are so so protective of our own everyday oppressions disguised as traditions? Our names are our patrimony. They carry our legacy. Erasing a name means erasing this legacy, this heritage. This action, which some describe as romantic, impersonates sexism and objectification. It shows the world that men and women do not enter the marriage journey as equals. There is power in the surname.

When we erase our history, we are silencing ourselves. And I am not even questioning how this influences children… we are so into the word “deconstruction” right now, but what are we doing to not perpetuate the social constructions about gender to our kids? Especially when we know (or we think we do) how harmful these social symbols are. And, from my own experience, I know that carrying the name of only one side of the family is planting a sexist root which is hard to tear in the future.

Words, Heloisa Righetto @HeloRighetto

Pic: Addie VanDreumel (Flickr)

COMMENTS 2
  • November 6, 2017 at 2:13 pm
    Math

    I agree with this article but some food for thought:

    If we were to double-barrel the surnames of each parent, after 100 generations, could a person end up with more surnames than there are stars in the universe?

    John Smith + Lisa Jones = Dave Smith-Jones (2)
    Dave Smith-Jones + Angela Evans-Davies = Lucy Smith-Jones Evans-Davies (4)
    Lucy Smith-Jones Evans-Davies + Clive Parker-Williams Taylor-Brown = James Parker-Williams Taylor-Brown Smith-Jones Evans-Davies (8)
    etc.

    See the Legend of the Ambalappuzha Paal Payasam.

    I think we need a new approach to surnames!

  • November 6, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    Hey there! yes, this is definitely an issue, and I know I don’t present the answer. But I do think we have to question the male supremacy. We could have only one name, but the problem is that it is ALWAYS the father’s. If we lived in a truly equal world, we could choose. But how can we choose now that this sexist tradition is so embedded?