Historical surname change in Chile for women representation

Parents in Chile will now be able to give their children the surname of the mother in first position. But it may only break the male domination of surnames superficially, for which tradition remains strong.

On May 9, 2021, Chile promulgated a new law allowing the change of the order of family names. As such, children will now be able to bear the mother’s surname first and the father’s family name second.

The President Sebastián Piñera announced the modification along with the First Lady, the Minister of Women and Gender Equity, Mónica Zalaquett, and the Minister of Justice, Hernán Larraín during Chile’s Mother Day celebrations.

This law contributes to the cultural change that we are promoting in terms of equality between men and women” says Ms Zalaquett, 16 years after the law was initially proposed to Congress.

Adults will also have the possibility to officially rectify the order of their surnames once if they want to.

In Chile, like in Spain and many Spanish-speaking countries, children inherit their surnames from their father’s and mother’s. Unlike many countries where only the father’s name is passed on, Chile’s structure offered more visibility to the mother in the child’s identity. However, it was only imperfect for gender equity as only paternal surnames eventually remain as a legacy. In fact, instead of the father’s surnames, the grandfathers’ family names are always given to the grandchildren.

Chilean babies will soon be able to have a surname from their mother in first position
Chilean babies will soon be able to have a surname from their mother in first position | Liv Bruce

Surnames may now be inherited from the grandmothers

Until the new law comes into effect, the child’s first surname in Chile is by default the father’s surname. The second one is the surname of the mother. As a consequence, the mother’s first family name was already given by her own father, the grandfather of the baby. So, in the end, whether they are boys or girls, they all end up receiving the surnames of their grandfathers. The main difference from countries where children only receive the father’s name is that the visibility of the mother’s surname lasts at least for one generation.

The new Chilean law therefore allows to interchange the order of the surnames. It has 2 consequences. The first consequence is that the mother’s surname can be the first one given to the child. The second consequence is that, if this child has children, they will now inherit from their grandmother’s surname.

Both parents would need to agree on the order of names. If there is no agreement, the father’s surname will come first, acknowledging the primary rule is still the father’s surname. The law will only come into force 4 months later, to give time to find the judicial procedure to make the change practical. Cumbersome administrative procedures can make families reluctant in making the change. Nonetheless, it may not be enough to change customs quickly.

Slow change of traditions in other countries

In France, the law providing flexibility in choosing the surname was approved in 2005. Yet, in 2014, 83% of the surnames were still the ones of the father, according to the INSEE, the French statistical institute. In the case of a married couple, 95% of the children inherited their father’s surname. When the children have a compound name, which was only 1 child in 10, the surname of the father came first for 78% of them. And when the child uses the mother’s family name, the father actually didn’t officially recognize the new-born for 9 babies out of 10.

In Spain, the mother’s family name could be passed on first since 2000. And between 2010 and 2017, despite multiplying the numbers of babies who bear their mother’s family name first by 3 in 10 years, from 870 children in 2008 to almost 3,000 in 2016, they still accounted for less than 1% of new-born every year. In 2017, the government removed the father’s surname as the standard first name, marking a new step in the gender equity. Concretely, when both parents can’t agree, a judge would rule the decision and would likely decide by alphabetical order. Yet, a year after the new regulation, the number of children bearing their mother’s family name first hadn’t increase.

So, in the end, regulation may induce the change but it is up to the population to give birth to a societal transformation.

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