A Patriarchal Tradition That Just Won’t Budge

Straight, married couples in the U.S. still almost always give kids the father’s last name. Why?

A father has his arm around his child, who is wearing a blank name tag
LMPC / Getty; The Atlantic

About a year before Christine Mallinson gave birth to her first child, she and her husband agreed that all of their children would take her last name. The decision came down to family cohesion: The couple wanted their children—they eventually had two—to share a last name with the only cousin near their kids in age, who was Mallinson’s niece.

Mallinson knew that their choice was not a popular one for heterosexual American couples—she’s a professor of sociolinguistics and gender and women’s studies at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, and wrote a 2017 paper that, in part, analyzes patrilineal surname conventions. In 2002, researchers found that about 97 percent of married couples passed down only the father’s last name to their first kid. That proportion seems to have remained remarkably consistent: A 2017 paper studying adoptive heterosexual parents found that they gave a patrilineal surname to their child 96 percent of the time. Though few studies on the topic have been conducted, evidence suggests that in almost every American family with a mom and a dad, children receive their father’s last name.

Mallinson thinks that is partly because of inertia. She suspects that many heterosexual couples aren’t seriously discussing what they want their child’s last name to be. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say I’m not sure those are common conversations,” she told me. “For a lot of partners and family, it’s habitual and unconscious.” This norm is especially striking when compared with other patriarchal relics that have been eroding. The share of women who themselves kept their surname after marriage was about 3 percent in 1975, when some states still required women to take their husband’s name to register to vote. Three decades later, it was about 20 percent. Yet even among heterosexual couples in which each partner keeps their name, the father still passes down his last name to the kids the majority of the time. A large swath of American society has simply failed to conceive of a reality beyond patrilineal surnames.

Few scholars argue that passing down a father’s last name is wrong for any given family, but the aggregate statistics point to an enduring patriarchal culture. This is as much a reflection of the conversations that couples have—or don’t—as it is a product of desk-clerk-level policies. Some new demographics of American families, however, approach their names differently. As they opt for an array of surnames, hyphenated or otherwise,  they might shift the country’s norms too.

The first thing to understand about the patrilineal surnames commonly used in the United States is that they are not universal. In many Spanish-speaking places—including Spain, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Mexico—children traditionally receive the last names of both parents, creating a double-barrel surname. When two people with double-barrel last names have children, they each pass down the first of their two last names. For example, the actor Salma Hayek was born Salma Hayek Jiménez; her parents are named Sami Hayek Domínguez and Diana Jiménez Medina. Icelanders, meanwhile, don’t have family last names, instead taking surnames that reflect a parent’s first name. The last name Helguson, for instance, means “son of Helga,” referring to a mother’s first name; many other Icelanders have surnames that reflect the first name of their father. In China, the share of women who pass down their family name is on the rise. In 2018, 8.8 percent of babies born in Shanghai received their mother’s family name. One scholar has suggested that the shift could be tied to the end of the country’s one-child policy in 2015: Couples in a major developed city might give the father’s surname to the first-born child and the mother’s to the second.

Even in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, patrilineal surnames are a surprisingly new convention. As Deborah Anthony, a professor of legal studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, outlined in a 2018 paper, surnames in England prior to the 17th century weren’t standardized. Many signified a profession (such as Potter) or place of residence (such as Hilton, short for “hill town”). Surnames also changed over time: A person named Hilton, for instance, might take up the last name Potter after beginning their vocation in ceramics.

By the 1400s, Anthony wrote, when surnames were more commonly passed down directly from parent to child, plenty of children took their mother’s or grandmother’s last name. That started to change by about the 18th century, when coverture laws—which counted wives as legal property of their husbands—grew more entrenched in Britain, and evolved to effectively forbid women from owning land at all. For women, taking their husband’s last name became a symbol of accepting his authority. Cases of women passing their name to their children nearly evaporated by the turn of the 19th century. In the U.S., patrilineal surnames have long been the norm—in 1881, a New York court said that “the common law among all English speaking people” demanded that wives give up their last name.

Today, women aren’t legally mandated to give their husband’s last name to their children but U.S. bureaucracy has continued to enforce patrilineal naming conventions. Anthony has researched court cases in which couples battle over who has the right to pass down the surname to their kids. “The mother almost always loses,” Anthony told me. Individual judges have repeatedly used the legal doctrine of the “best interests of the child” to side with the father. “There’s this implicit understanding that having the father’s last name is inherently in the child’s best interest,” she said, citing cases where judges argued that taking the father’s surname would deepen the family relationship or provide children with more financial security later in life. Some states, such as Louisiana, maintain policies that enforce patrilineal surnaming as a default when the father is known and supports the children, unless both partners agree otherwise.

Other banal, structural factors have stymied more varied approaches to surnaming. When Alícia Hernàndez Grande, now a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University, got her driver’s license as a teenager in Houston in 2004, she remembers that the DMV tried to split her last name, Hernàndez Grande, into two parts. They printed her a license in which “Hernàndez” was listed as the middle name and “Grande” as the last name, shortening her name to Alícia H. Grande. Hernàndez Grande, who had moved to the U.S. from Spain at the age of 8, panicked. “It’s incorrect. It doesn’t match my passport. It didn’t match my green card,” she told me. When she and her mother pointed out the error, she said officials told her that they couldn’t add spaces in the last-name column. (Hernàndez Grande said that, as an adult, she managed to get the license corrected.)

This problem was apparently widespread enough that, in 2019, New York State passed a law to allow residents to choose two last names separated by a space. Although hyphenated last names are much more widely accepted than double-barrel surnames in the U.S., even they have faced roadblocks. In 2007, when one researcher was studying state last-name policies, the New Hampshire DMV reported that its computer system couldn’t add hyphens to last names. (Neither the New Hampshire, New York, nor Texas DMVs responded to a request for comment.)

When Hernàndez Grande had kids of her own, she decided they should take the last name of her husband—who is from England—so that they wouldn’t have the same experience she did. “Passing on a double last name the way my culture does, it was just going to be an administrative headache for my kids,” she said.

Bureaucratic roadblocks aside, many researchers suspect that the stubbornness of patrilineal surnames for heterosexual married couples relates to how they communicate about the issue—even when they discuss surnaming a child, they’re more likely to lean on tradition. In 2016, the researchers Charlotte J. Patterson and Rachel H. Farr compared last-name conventions among opposite-gender couples and same-gender couples who adopted kids, finding that 52 percent of adoptive same-gender couples opt to give their children a hyphenated version of both last names. When the researchers asked the couples to explain why they chose the last names they did, “lesbian and gay couples spoke far longer on those topics than did the heterosexual couples,” Patterson told me. The heterosexual couples mentioned passing down the father’s name as though it were self-explanatory; the lesbian and gay couples talked about how they wanted the name to represent both sides of the family.

That study also offers a roadmap for how American surnaming norms could change. The look and structure of the American family has transformed to include more queer couples, more unmarried couples, and more racially diverse couples, all of whom seem less attached to patrilineal surnames.

Many Hispanic people in the U.S. continue traditions of double-barrel surnames. Same-gender couples looking to start families, meanwhile, have no gendered default to fall back on. And the rate at which parents are choosing not to marry has risen dramatically over the past 50 years. Several states, including Indiana, North Dakota, and Rhode Island, require unmarried mothers to pass down their surnames as a default (unless there is a paternity affidavit or written consent, depending on the state). “I think you can say with a very high degree of confidence that unmarried parents are less likely to pass down the father’s last name,” Emily Shafer, a sociologist at Portland State University, told me. Shafer pointed to data from an ongoing study by researchers at Princeton and Columbia Universities, in which 707 unmarried mothers in a survey of 3,624—about 19.5 percent—reported that they would not give their child the father’s last name.

Even if patrilineal surnaming does begin to lose some of its hold over the U.S., a single, perfectly equitable standard for surnaming is hard to imagine. Each approach has trade-offs. When two people with hyphenated last names marry, figuring out which last names to pass down is particularly messy. (Double-barrel surnames can also retain patrilineal lineages of their own; Spain required that the father’s last name be listed first—and therefore be the next name that gets passed down—until the laws started to change in 2000.) Creating a new last name from scratch, which would be shared among all members of the family, involves a lot of extra paperwork. Plenty of women—and men, for that matter—might choose not to give their last name to their kids if it’s bundled up in familial trauma. How to name one’s family should be a choice for each couple.

Names today no longer denote a profession, hometown, or mark of ownership; instead, they reflect what a family values. The percentage of American babies born with the top 10 most popular first names for boys in their time has fallen dramatically in the past century, from 40 percent in the 1880s to 8 percent by 2015, a statistic that might reflect a rise in people using names to signal their identity. If new parents make a point of discussing how to structure their child’s last name, Mallinson said, they might open up space for a similar explosion of surnames. Today, maternal and paternal influences can exist alongside hyphens and double-barrels and other assorted conventions. To get there, couples and desk clerks alike just have to think beyond the defaults.