More often than not, tradition is oppression: why Eastern Europeans need to rethink their last names
For those unfamiliar with how Slavic last names tend to work, it’s a simple sexist formula: the men’s name ends in an -i (or occasionally a -y, depending on the language), the woman’s ends in an -a. Most obviously, this is hugely oppressive for non-binary Slavs, but there is just so much more that is wrong with this, and I’m here to unpack all of it for you today.
In Slavic societies, names are so gendered that one is forced into a hypergendered identities through their name alone. Firstly, as is the case globally speaking, a child is traditionally given the father’s last name (a problem in itself), with a gender marker attached to the vowel at the end. The last name alone reveals so much patriarchy in itself: it tells you what the last name of the child’s father is, and it tells you the child’s assigned gender. Add a gendered first name and/or middle names, and every word in the child’s given name becomes a marker of gender. In pretty much all other parts of the world, the last name at the very least remains ungendered, which shows just how deeply patriarchal this culture is even in comparison to other cultures.
Some languages and cultures go even farther in patriarchal naming by using patronymics and matronymics in the place of middle names. In Russian, for instance, the patronymic consists of the father’s first name with an -vich at the end (for instance, a man named Ivan would give his son the patronymic Ivanovich). So, a full Russian name literally goes: Gendered first name, Child of same-gendered parent with this first name, a member of this family with a gender marker at the end of this name.
Think about the implications this has for young children. They are given such a hypergendered identity through their naming alone, and this will have drastic implications for the way they learn to see themselves and carry themselves in this world. The gendered name will always precede the essence of the child when the child goes out into the world and tries to make a name for their self; on the first day of kindergarten, the teacher will know the child’s gender by their name alone before they even meet the child. What Slavic people are calling tradition is really a lot of baggage for children to have to be carrying with them from the very beginning of their lives onwards. While carrying this variety of baggage won’t exactly lead to back problems, it will clearly lead to other issues that take place deep within the individual.
If one chooses to reproduce, they are morally obligated to raise their child without any traditional markers of gender so that their child can really come into their own on this world, instead of having a repressive box placed around what they can and cannot make of their personality by the very parents who ought to be encouraging them to discover their authentic selves. We can avoid gendered parenting in all sorts of ways: by choosing non-traditional or gender-neutral names for your children; by referring to them as gender-neutral with they/them or other pronouns until they have discovered for themselves what they want to be addressed by; by not dressing them in colours such as blue and pink; and by avoiding common tropes like giving “girls” dolls and “boys” toy trucks.
We can also seek justice in giving the child the names of both parents, in attempt to undo the thousands of years of injustice that came before modern times in which a child only could bear the father’s name. Or we could just start giving all children the birthing parent’s last name only, to recognize the fact that they did most of the hard work in creating the child. Or, even better, we can just stop getting married and stop having children (which is ESPECIALLY crucial if you are whxte, which most Eastern Europeans are. I’m sorry, but there are too many whxte people in this world in the first place, and by reducing our presence, we can leave BIPOC a little more space to breathe).
Eastern Europeans specifically might consider changing their names altogether, to do away with their inherently gendered nature; they could even have their names legally changed as to remove the last name and can use the other parts of their names. Or, we could replace Eastern European last names ending in -i/-y and -a with gender-neutral alternatives, ending in -x. As we have seen progressive Central and South Americans replace the binary and repressive Latin(a) and Latin(o) with Latin(x), perhaps we can see changes to Eastern European last names that would look the same. So, for instance, a man, Mr. Kowalski, married to a woman, Mrs. Kowalska, could lessen their role in upholding the Slavic cispatriarchy by replacing Mr. and Mrs. with the gender-neutral Mx, abandon their self-conceptions as gendered entities and choose alternative genders outside of male/female for themselves, and then change the last name to simply Kowalskx. Sure, such names as Mx. Kowalskx might not roll of the tongue quite so simply as their repressive counterparts, but I think the inconvenience of learning to pronounce a new name is very insignificant compared to the inconvenience that gender oppression poses for gender-marginalized individuals.
With one letter changed to an x at a time, we can truly liberate our languages from the shackles of tradition and oppression, resulting in more just languages by all and for all. And even the letter x, the least used and most neglected letter in the entire alphabet, is finally being presented with an opportunity for its sound to be heard more fully as well. When we change our language to evolve with the times, everybody — and every letter perhaps as well — wins.
— a. j. morgan-kelly//decolonize. liberate. resist.