The name of the mother

It’s hard to offer anything new in the constantly growing discussions of gender. Instead, I can offer, like everyone else, something personal. In December last year, I changed my last name. Or rather, I ‘augmented’ it, by including my mother’s surname before my father’s—the latter, given to me at birth by default: legal, cultural, political, moral, and practical default.

Whenever we do things by default, there’s also a reason to be vigilant. In the unquestioned, injustices can thrive. Of course, unexamined habits are useful and indeed necessary. But it doesn’t hurt to bring them to our attention from time to time. If they’re good, they can slip back into the state of the unconsidered.

I could not let this particular habit stay in the realm of the unquestioned: the practice of giving children the father’s surname, no questions raised. In Italy, at least, where I was born, the question is not raised because there is no alternative (only recently, the mother is allowed add her name after the father’s, never before, and never give the child only her name). But (with due exceptions) where the alternative is offered, it is rarely taken seriously. The child’s name is the name of the father. That’s how it’s always been done.

Even women of a younger generation, those starting families now, seem to rarely question this practice. Or if they question it, they still rarely change it. ‘It’s just a name, why make a fuss?’ is one of the reasons I heard, when I asked friends about the loss of their name in their offspring. ‘I don’t like my surname’ was another answer. Both, I think, are significant.

On the one hand, minimising the importance of a sign, a symbol, a word, is hardly done in good faith. In families, last names identify whose child this is. They are also the sound to which the child will respond as ‘me’ for their whole lives. We know names matter. Certainly in Italy (writing this with a pinch of irony) names as well as titles matter. Brushing off the importance of the mother’s name is akin to trying to set aside something uncomfortable, personally or publicly embarrassing.

The continual loss of the woman’s name becomes even more salient in the context of the significant advances in gender equalities in many countries. It is also more striking because it is dismissed by some of the very women who would not tolerate some other forms of gender inequality. This may, in fact, be a sign that it’s here that an important part of the game is to be played. In fighting oppression, but not the symbols of it. In the silence and discomfort around this issue.

Some mothers, I have been told, do not give their last name to the children because ‘they don’t like it’, ‘they can’t wait to get rid of it’. An aesthetic reason, which does not bear evaluation? I wonder. First -- and I admit this is anecdotal evidence -- this kind of reason is typically offered by women, not by men. Is it possible that the woman’s last name is so frequently uglier? My more daring hypothesis, here, is that women live through their family name with discomfort, the kind of discomfort that leads us to brush off the issue of the last name, and that the name of the father alone sits uncomfortably on them, upon them.

Let me elaborate with another anecdote: since I’ve had two surnames, it has happened that in public forms, say a doctor’s practice, my mother’s name appeared as ‘née Caprioglio’, since that is the name in the middle. It made me smile. I am not married, but that’s not the point. I am, indeed, ‘born’ Caprioglio, my very flesh and being formed and grew inside my mother’s flesh and being. I am ‘hers’ in a way that I cannot be ‘his’.

Is being deprived of the mother’s name, and living disliking one’s only surname, one more trick in the self-hate of women, and one more way to silence them? One more way to cut them off from their history?

When my new identity card arrived, my mother, who had only been mildly approving of my long paperwork efforts to achieve the change, was deeply moved. She said that for the first time she felt, in a new way, that she had a publicly – legally - recognised lineage, that her lineage mattered.

I like my name now. I no longer feel cut off from a lineage of women who are in my blood, whose struggles and oppression are in my blood. Whose feminine, whose joys, whose bodies are too. I have roots, which are so infinitely important, especially if they have been denied. Me, my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my great-grandmother…  

Silvia Caprioglio Panizza

*These thoughts reflect the practices of the countries, in Europe, with which I am familiar. They do not apply, of course, wherever the father’s name is not the default option.