Choosing a baby name is one of the first major decisions you make as a parent, and it can be a stressful one. Should you pick a trendy, unique name? Honor a family member? Go gender neutral, or traditional? The questions can be dizzying, and the choices feel rife with meaning. Names, after all, are our introduction to the world and tend to make a statement. Some women are making that statement by turning an old patriarchal tradition on its head: They’re naming their daughters after themselves.
For certain mothers, sharing a name with a child is an intrinsically feminist act simply because it’s unexpected in our society. Susannah Wilson, who manages arts organizations in New Haven, Connecticut, recently welcomed a daughter and named her Susannah. When she began to spell her newborn’s name for the hospital record-keeper, the person interrupted, insisting that Wilson was giving her own name, not her baby’s. “My brother’s a Junior … and his whole life, no one bats an eye when he and my dad give their names,” Wilson told me. “This lady couldn’t comprehend that I would name my daughter after me.” And that, she said, felt good. It’s a clear double standard that Wilson’s happy to confront.
In the United States, the passing down of the surname—traditionally from the father’s side in heterosexual partnerships—is the naming convention that stirs the most discussion. (Though one might assume that hyphenated surnames that include both parents’ names are a growing progressive trend, straight American women today almost always opt for children taking their father’s last name.) But first names may carry even more weight with regard to our identity. “I think there’s something about that claiming of self that women haven’t been encouraged to do,” Wilson said. “That’s what I will do with my little girl … encourage her to own herself and assert herself.” Even if that means her daughter chooses a different name at some point in her life: “It’s a working title.”
Historically, names have been patrilineal because they were often a way of proving property ownership, inheritance, and reputation. So, if a man had a business called “John Smith’s Grocery,” his son, John Smith Jr., would be the obvious heir. It isn’t that mothers’ names have never been passed along, though, says Laura Wattenberg, the author of The Baby Name Wizard and the founder of Namerology.com, a community site for name enthusiasts. One common tradition for passing along a mother’s name involves using her maiden name as a first name for a son, but even that isn’t really about the woman. “That, to me, is not about honoring the mother at all, but honoring the mother’s father, and showing off your connections,” Wattenberg told me. “Especially if the mother came from a prominent family.”
Although experts told me that the number of male Juniors is declining, many of us personally know boys or men named after their father. Female Juniors are harder to come by. According to Wattenberg, you can tell how rare it is for women to name their children after themselves, because whenever people try to find examples, they point to celebrities: Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Sinatra, or Big Edie and Little Edie, the cast-off Kennedy relatives whose oddball lifestyle was documented in the cult classic Grey Gardens.
What’s more, in the fictional pop-culture world, when girls are named after their mother, the act tends to be used to portray eccentricity. Lorelai Gilmore of Gilmore Girls, for example, is a larger-than-life character who had her daughter, Lorelai Gilmore (a.k.a. Rory), at 16. Rory explains in the pilot episode that her mother “was lying in the hospital thinking about how men name boys after themselves all the time, you know, so why couldn’t women? She says her feminism just kind of took over. Though personally I think a lot of Demerol also went into that decision.” The implication is that naming a daughter after her mother is a decision one would have to make under the influence of either heavy pharmaceuticals or feminist rage. Pamela Redmond, one of the creators of the baby-name site Nameberry, told me that she has spoken with mothers who have thought about naming babies after themselves but who felt “uneasy” or “apologetic” about it.
An added layer to this hesitance may be the fact that naming boys Junior is sometimes associated with a tradition of masculinity and even narcissism. But for Nancy Swider-Peltz Sr., a former competitive speed skater and coach in Wheaton, Illinois, naming her daughter after herself was an enthusiastic decision that brought her joy. Still, she says she runs into judgment when people learn of Nancy Swider-Peltz Jr. “People feel odd about it,” she told me over Zoom. “They think it’s egotistical. And it’s like, well, what do you think the men [who do it] feel?” For her part, Nancy Jr. has loved the uniqueness of her name, and the connection it draws to her mom, especially as she built her own career as an Olympic speed skater. “I was proud to carry on the name,” she told me. “I think what my mom did well when we were younger was never pressure us into something just because she did it. I didn’t like skating until I was 13.” By the time she did begin to skate competitively, being known as her mother’s daughter on the ice wasn’t a negative thing, she said. “I wanted to follow in her footsteps.”
Such a close association with parents can feel special, but it can also cause pain. Betsy Cornwell Lyons, an American novelist who lives in western Ireland, was named Katherine Elizabeth, the 13th in a long line of Katherines in her family, including her own mother. Even though she and her mother went by different aliases (her mother, Kitty, for Katherine; herself, Betsy, for Elizabeth), as a child she wasn’t pleased about the name. “I disliked having the same name as my mother, because it felt like a way to erode the boundaries between us,” she told me over email. “She seemed to enjoy people confusing our records at the dentist’s office and that kind of thing; it always made me squirm.” Though Cornwell Lyons is estranged from her mother today, since she’s become a parent herself, she says she does appreciate her name’s connection to her further-back ancestors. “I think I like feeling connected to those 11 other Katherines who came before my mother, even though I know very little about them.” And because she has separated her life from her mother’s, she doesn’t resent the connection as much, similar to how she feels about retaining her ex-husband’s last name after divorce. “I think names can hold value and heritage and meaning even when the person who gave you the name is gone from your life, for whatever reason. ”
Naming a daughter after a mother isn’t a modern phenomenon; in some cultures, the tradition of matrilineal naming goes back centuries. In Ireland, and several other European countries, it was commonplace to name the first daughter after the maternal grandmother, the second daughter after the paternal grandmother, and the third daughter after the mother. Hence why looking through an Irish family tree can often feel like swimming through a sea of Marys, Kathleens, or, as in my own family, Margarets.
The practice is also prevalent in several Spanish-speaking countries, where it’s common to carry on both parents’ last names as well. Destry Maria Sibley, a media producer, is named after her mother, who was born in Mexico. Sibley was born and raised in Maine in the 1980s, however, and she says having the same first name as her mother was not normal. “The fact that my mom continued that custom while we were living in a place where that would seem very strange … I just think that’s very cool.” Though Sibley did not pass her own first name along to her daughter, she did opt for another matrilineal name, her maternal grandmother’s. Still, she hopes that more American mothers “will at least question why it is basically taken for granted that it’s a thing men will do but not women.”
It’s nearly impossible to say whether female Juniors are becoming more common, because most naming data we have access to don’t follow familial generations, and most girls, even if named after their mother, don’t have an official “Jr.” suffix that would be trackable. But an increase in the practice wouldn’t be surprising to Brian Powell, a sociology professor at Indiana University who studies family and gender. “For the past couple of decades we have really been reevaluating names, and using names we had never used before, and creating names we never used before,” he told me. So, more girls sharing names with their mother “could be a logical consequence of a general move toward more freedom and flexibility in what kind of names people can have.”
Nameberry’s Redmond told me that roughly two generations ago it was almost radical for families not to name sons after their father. Since then, the concept of individuality has become more important for American parents to bestow on their kids. Ironically, the idea of mothers naming children after themselves today could prove just the opposite, a radical move granting a daughter a unique story to tell and a name most of her classmates probably don’t have—at least until the trend becomes more popular.