The Observer is now being infested with some of the glorious feminist nuttery of The Guradian!*

Even those female friends who are determined to keep their surname concede, in most cases, that their husband will keep his own and pass it on to their children.

These are women I would call feminists. They want successful careers, comparable salaries and partners prepared to share the childcare. Yet here is one custom that many of them have never questioned. Nor have their partners. Adam is the first man I have come across who would happily change his surname to that of his wife.

\’It\’s traditional; it\’s expected; it\’s the way I imagined it would be,\’ my friend Rosie explained after I brought it up over a drink. An hour later and we had not come up with one good reason why. The only point that had any logic to me was the notion of a \’family name\’ for parents and children, but then why should it be the man\’s?

Given 30 seconds I managed to come up with a reason: we know who the mother of a child is, we don\’t (always) know who the father is. Thus the name signifies who we think it is.

I\’m also rather amused by this insistence that women should not give up their family name….one which, in the course of things is in fact their father\’s, not their mother\’s.

But where did it come from? In his book Face of Britain, The Observer\’s Robin McKie writes that surnames were introduced during Norman times, when authorities wanted a way to assign ownership of business and property. The surname became an ancient form of the identity card, McKie argues, and the reason that it was passed down through the male was simple: men owned everything and women inherited nothing.

That\’s a pretty odd view of British history. In those times when land ownership was strictly tied to military service (something which didn\’t last all that long) it also wasn\’t strictly tied to inheritance. And I\’m not sure that there has ever been a time when "women owned nothing" nor when "women inherited nothing".

We\’ll be getting Polly in the paper soon enough, you mark my words.

* There is something of a battle going on in the two papers, merging their quite distinctive voices into a rolling 7 day operation. So expect more of this to happen, modern liberals taking over what still is, in many ways, an historically liberal paper.

7 thoughts on “Glory Be!”

  1. Although it is certainly true that in England and Wales, women could not inherit coats of arms.

    The two that I carry come from Irish and Scottish ancestors, which did allow arms to be passed through the female line.


  2. “The Observer’s Robin McKie writes that surnames were introduced during Norman times”: is that right? I understood that it was later, consequent on a change in land tenure laws, when proprietors and tenants had good reason to prove, or at least to record, who their forefathers were.

  3. Wikipedia self-contrdicts a bit, but includes “In Britain, hereditary surnames were adopted in the 13th and 14th centuries, initially by the aristocracy but eventually by everyone.” England still under Frog rule, then, but not Norman. after “The Normans”, then.

  4. Devilskitchen,

    Right up to Tudor times women could inherit titles in England and Wales and there are still some English titles that can go down the female line if there are no male heirs. It all depends on the mechanism whereby the titles were given. Does that mean that the coat of arms was not inherited with the title? All Scottish titles are still handed down through the female line if there are no male heirs but the Tudors put an end to that in England.

  5. All that is not entirely true, readings of Anglo-saxon epics and chronicles with give you plenty of examples of sir names (patronimials) Icelandic sagas (essentially viking) have both patri and matri. Property could pass both to the male and the female, with women having access to the law, under their own steam well before 1200. Helen is correct that it was under the Tudors that official legal inequalities came in, a process rapidly enhanced by the rise of Protestantism. Alan Macfarlane has pretty well shown that these systems were in place very early, indeed teh earliest documentary evidence of (non-noble) property transfer suggest that the common people had a far more equitable system in place that far preceeds Norman fuedalism.

  6. David B. Wildgoose

    We have written records of my surname back as far as the 13th Century, so if that’s when it started my name was there at the beginning.

    However, “Wildgoose” is Anglo-Saxon, not Norman French. (One way you can tell is that the plural is formed by changing the vowel sound, i.e. goose – geese, rather than by adding an ‘s’).

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