Monday, May 16, 2011

Matrilineage > Patrilineage

Before you read this post, it is strongly recommended that you also read my post on the distinction between feminist actions and feminist people, because I am about to criticize a practice which many of my readers likely engage in. This post is not a criticism of you. It is a criticism of it as a standard practice.

Married couples in this country overwhelmingly practice a form of patrilineage in which children are given the surname of their father only. If one assumes that children taking the name of their parents has some inherent value (which, as a hobby genealogist, I do) and acknowledges that they can't take both (or name length will grow exponentially), then it boils down to a simple question: which is better, matrilineage or patrilineage?

For a whole host of reasons, I think matrilineage is clearly better. Allow me to enumerate them:
  1. It is more accurate. Any realistic discussion of lineage needs to acknowledge that the identity of the biological father is not always known. Adultery and other forms of non-monogamy occur at pretty significant rates. It's difficult to determine what percentage of children have incorrectly identified fathers; this review cites estimates ranging from 0.8% to 30%, with a median of 3.7%.

    We can do an analysis in a similar manner to that of my birth control post. If paternal misidentification occurs at a rate of X%, then the likelihood that a particular one of your descendants who came along N generations after you is P%, plotted below:

    Using the median 3.7% rate, most people will have (genetically) inaccurate names after 30 generations. This would not be the case with matrilineage.
  2. Women are still raising the next generation. I would love for this to change, but currently women do 80% of in-home child care. It is reasonable to expect, then, that women play a larger role in shaping the personalities, manners, and values of the next generation; why not acknowledge that in our naming conventions?
  3. Women give birth. They deserve props for this. I feel like this is due some acknowledgment on its own. If I craft an entire extra person from my own body and extrude it through my pelvis, you can be damn sure I'm slapping my own name on that piece of work.
  4. Women carry and pass on more genetic material than men do. Mitochondrial DNA is wholly matrilineal. And the X-chromosome has 153 million base pairs to the Y-chromosome's measly 58. Sons in particular will have more DNA from Mom than from Dad.
  5. It would be one less way that women are omitted from history. It is more difficult to conduct genealogical research on one's female ancestors due to the loss of their birth names. Given the many other ways that women are lost to history, I'd like to see this particular method ended.

Any way I look at it matrilineage seems obviously the better choice, and I would love to see a shift towards it as both the most sensible option and as an acknowledgment of the work women do to raise the next generation.

I'd just like to end by apologizing for the cis-normativeness of this post. Men give birth, too, and I don't mean to erase this fact. However, I don't know a succinct way to designate "person who gives birth"; "mother" is gendered. So I have settled for this codicil instead; suggested solutions are welcome.

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