Matrilineal erasure? Nah, I’m good.
Naming is power. Call Me By My Name is a series that highlights personal stories and cultural commentary about who gets that power and who takes it back.
What’s in a name? It’s a question I’ve been pondering lately. My name is long, complicated, and in true Spanish tradition, a combination of each of my parent’s first last names. Although it can often prove inconvenient to spell and difficult to pronounce, I’ll never change it. Not for bureaucracy and certainly not for a man. My thought process is hardly just feminist though — it’s intrinsically cultural.
In the U.S., over 70% of women still choose to take their husband’s last name when they get married, according to a survey by the New York Times. In the U.K., this number rises to 90%. This choice to change your name seems to revolve around the desire to create a new family unit with a shared name. Also, it’s hard to push back against a centuries-long norm. “I think most of the time, women change their last names because of tradition,” says Vanessa Montalbano, a journalism student in Washington, D.C. “For many people, it’s also expected, either by their own families or, in some cases, by their partner’s families.”
Montalbano reminded me that this trend of keeping your maiden name after marriage has really only been prevalent, globally, for a few decades now. For Spanish women, it has always been an emblem of the presence of the powerful matriarchal line. My mother kept her name, as did my grandmother and her grandmother before her. They fused it with their partners’ after marriage, symbolizing unity rather than an exchange of power. Records of women with different last names to their husbands’ living in what is now modern Spain can be found as early as the 12th century. By 1850, the practice of giving children the last names of both their parents’ was widely extended.
For Spanish women, names have always been an emblem of the presence of the powerful matriarchal line.
Like nearly everyone else in Spain, I have two last names; I share both with only my sister. If I get married, my children will receive one last name from me, and one from my partner. This way, each generation has a name that showcases their individuality while also maintaining a link with the past. “I love that my mother is as reflected in my name as my father — it connects me to my roots,” says Blanca Travesí Bugallo, a biomedical engineering student in Madrid. Travesí Bugallo’s observation reflects that her roots are evenly split, rather than just those from her father’s side of the family. There’s an invaluable balance in this.
As much as I love parading my long name with pride, I almost changed it when I moved to the U.K. Having two last names in a country where that’s an aberration can easily become a bureaucratic nightmare. In Spain, every form you have to complete has spaces for both last names. There, people also know when to address you with one, and when to ask for both. In the U.K., my name would often get cut short thinking part of it was my middle name, or because of lack of characters. These were slight inconveniences. Others weren’t so innocuous.
Three years after having moved to the U.K., a doctor realized they had me on their system twice, with different versions of my name. It was an honest enough mistake, and my medical information was correct in both, but it could have led to more severe consequences had I been on medication or developed a dangerous allergy that was only recorded in one profile.
Carmen Hatchell, a teacher in Connecticut, faced similar issues when she used her full Spanish name when applying to master’s programs in England. "Now I have a degree in a name that isn't my legal name in the U.S.,” she says. “I admit, I've considered going by my mother's last name exclusively, but that wouldn't escape that fear either, and my aversion to paperwork has kept me from that bureaucratic nightmare.” It feels strange that one last name is the norm. It somehow conveys the message that including both sides of your lineage is both inconvenient and unnecessary.
In contrast, after moving from Venezuela to Spain, and then to London, consultant Sofia Caraballo, decided to go by her first last name alone. “It’s just easier this way,” Sofia says. “And HR never asked.”
Simplicity seems the goal for everyone, even if they chose to adopt their partner’s last name. “I would change my last name,” says Kathryn McMullen, a healthcare worker in Orlando. “I am in a long term relationship with someone I would like to marry. I believe adopting his last name will bring an external connection to him that is noticeable to everyone else without having to explain that we are married and connected to each other for life.”
To each their own, of course. For me, the idea that women’s names should immediately identify their connection to a man feels foreign in every sense of the word. After all, (most) men’s names don’t claim a connection to their partner. This reality yields an unsavory tradition rooted in a woman belonging to a man.
And what happens when there are no men in the relationship? Although the Spanish naming system was not designed with same-sex couples in mind, it is definitely one that is very accommodating to their reality, as it doesn’t rely as heavily on traditional gender roles. Neither Andrea Varela Sánchez, a nursing student from Madrid, nor her girlfriend would consider changing their names if they got married. “My last name is part of my identity,” she says. “It’s what I have identified with my whole childhood and how I’m professionally and legally known. Changing it, to me, would be impoverishing.”
Andrea and her partner have yet made a decision on the order of the last names their children will use, but they’re not in a hurry. “There is no clear path or a default setting. It’s fun to make our own rules,” she says.
Ultimately, making your own rules feels like the most freeing way to decide what you’ll be called. In my case, the rules I was born into fit just right. Despite the challenges mine creates, I will keep fighting for it, for my mother, for myself, and for the history and tradition that it embodies.