What’s in a (last) name?

Our family was playing a game called “Truth Be Told.”  The point of the game is for one person to ask a question (pulled out of the card box) and write down his or her answer.  Everyone else writes down what they think the reader would say.  The reader gives all the answers, and everyone else has to guess the real one.

Dear Husband drew a card that said, “Truth be told, the worst thing about being a girl is…”  (Yeah, I know.  Just by itself that question is horrible.  Don’t get me started.)  DH, our son, and I all wrote down things related to feminine beauty.  DH wrote “uncomfortable clothes,” I wrote “high heels,” and our son wrote “long hair.”  It did strike me as funny that all three of us suggested things that I personally find bothersome.  Anyway, our daughter had a different take.

She wrote, “Having to change your name.”

We asked her what she meant.  She explained that it was exactly what I suspected, women are expected to give up their maiden names when they marry.  Apparently, this is not something our daughter is keen on.  I suppose that this doesn’t really surprise me, although I didn’t know that my first grader was considering things so deeply.

Apparently, my daughter is more of a feminist at age six than I am at 36.

It’s taken me a long time to stop viewing feminism as the enemy of Christian faith, at least in some sense.  Obviously, I’ve always believed that women should have equal pay for equal work, and I have never had any problem with women serving as elders, leaders, and pastors in the church.  I certainly think (and teach my daughter to think) that girls are every bit as good as boys and should have no limits on what they are allowed to do.  But my one hold-out has always been the issue of maiden name vs. married name.

A long time ago, I accepted the idea that a woman might keep her maiden name for professional reasons or because she was divorced.  But I otherwise couldn’t fathom wanting to keep one’s maiden name just because one wanted to.  When my daughter made her statements, I had to examine why I was so averse to the idea.  I uncovered two basic reasons.

First, some (not all) of the women I’ve known who kept their maiden names were rather self-righteous about it.  They made arguments about how taking her husband’s last name is a sign that he “owns” her, and it’s a barbaric tradition.  Which, when you think about it, doesn’t make a lot of sense.  After all, whose last name is a woman’s maiden name?  Probably her father’s.  Does that signal, then, that her father still “owns” her?  Not only that, but I fail to see how it’s any indication of the kind of relationship I have with my husband.  Considering that, I came to my second realization.

I finally understood why I had wanted to take my husband’s last name—and, consequently, understood why my daughter (and perhaps other women, too) might want to keep their maiden names.

When I got married, I couldn’t wait to shed my last name.  It had been, to me, and endless source of grief since childhood.  I had spent years having peers taunt me by altering my name into rather rude nicknames.  It was embarrassing to have an unusual-ish last name.  I might have gotten over it, but once I reached college, our family came apart at the seams.  My mother took back her own family name.  I, too, wanted all traces of that name wiped clean.  The name didn’t bring honor, it brought shame.

So I became part of my husband’s family.  I considered it a privilege to share his name, to be part of a family so full of love and faith.  I am still honored to be called by that name.  I suspect that this is what my daughter feels, too.  She sees her last name as part of her, a part that signals to the world that she is a part of us and we are a part of her.  I hope that the legacy we leave strengthens her resolve to bear that last name with dignity.

Because in the end, that is what a family name should be.  Something which reveals to the rest of the world a little piece of who we are and who we love. I always thought that perhaps I would go back to my maiden name if I ever publish anything.  I think now that I won’t, for a host of reasons.  Should I choose to write under another name, I will use my mother’s family name.  It’s a name that holds deep meaning for me, a name that symbolizes something I aspire to be.

As I came to understand why I did choose to take my husband’s name, I also understood why someone else would not.  And, like all things, a woman should not have to defend her choice of last names, no matter what she decides to do.  I suspect the reason I felt defensive, and perhaps the reason some women sound self-righteous, is that we’re all so used to defending ourselves—even among each other.  We should not have to do that.

My daughter may change her mind when she gets married.  Or she may not.  It doesn’t really matter.  Knowing her, she won’t settle for any man other than one who will respect her choice, no matter what she decides.

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6 thoughts on “What’s in a (last) name?

  1. We had some tough conversations about this one when we got married. S. had a similar “but I hate my last name” feeling; I felt utterly, existentially squicked at the idea of my spouse’s identity being over-written by mine. Hyphenating was the right compromise for us, and I like that we both had an identity change to mark our new life together, even if it means that my signature on credit-card receipts has become an increasingly abstract glyph over time.

    Every once in a while, I have a conversation about the merits of this approach and someone will say, “But what will your kids do when they get married?” And, of course, the answer (should we ever actually have children who then decide to marry) is, “whatever they damn well like.” Talk about your First World Problems, and as if there weren’t a number of potentially elegant solutions a creative and egalitarian couple could come up with.

    But to put on my Feminist Hat for a minute, I think there’s something bigger-picture to the common thread in our stories: women are often encouraged to hate their names. (Of course, you’ve noted some additional factors complicating your own relationship with your birth name, which I don’t want to come off as glossing over.) Or, if not hate, then at least see them as disposable, because the cultural background radiation is so strong in the assumption that you’ll give it up someday that women pick up early on not to get too attached to their own surnames. Note that this is so deeply-rooted as a given that even in the egalitarian future of Star Trek, where we’ve jettisoned money, prejudice, and nationalism, this is still assumed to be the norm. (Really, guys? “Keiko O’Brien”?) I can’t tell you how many women I’ve talked to whose feelings about their last names range from indifference to ambivalence to disgust – while men, of course, are taught early on to value and treasure their names – even, mostly, the ones who get teased about them! – and take pride in them as a legacy to pass on.

    So of course the women you’ve talked to who have kept their last names sound self-righteous – they’ve had to dig in their heels in the face of a whole lot of blindered cultural thinking about what they ought to place value on. It’s sort of immaterial that those are the names they probably ot from their fathers – the point is that those are their own names, the ones they grew up with, and they’ve chosen to take the same pride in them that’s conceded to men as a matter of course. And they may have had to stick to that decision in the face of anything from bafflement to outright bullying, so a little preemptive defensiveness on the subject is more than understandable.

  2. Until having a daughter with that opinion, I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. It always seemed to me that last names were just one more thing women could use as a weapon against each other. I never liked the feeling that some (not all) women who chose to keep theirs had a kind of disdain for us plebeians who wanted a new one. I didn’t think deeply about why I was so desperate to have a new one. But now that I have, I actually like the idea of women keeping theirs, or husbands taking their wives’ names, or hyphenating, or choosing something completely new for both. (Though I admit I would never have hyphenated mine–can you imagine? Kind of a mouthful.) I’m proud of my daughter for having her own opinions about these things, whether this is forever or just for the moment.

    I hear you about men being taught to be proud of their names. I know a lot of men like that, who were taught from a young age that “a Smith behaves in this way!” I hope that we are teaching both our kids that the power is not in the name, but in the person behind the name. I don’t want to use that phrase for either of them.

  3. Hey, your hyphenated name wouldn’t have had any more syllables than mine! Though neither rolls off quite as satisfyingly as “Nielsen Hayden” (another pairing where both partners made the change, though they rather confusingly omitted the hyphen altogether).

    Names are weird and complicated. They have power, and at the same time we sometimes fetishize strange things about them – as in your last-paragraph example, where the name comes bundled with a set of assumptions and associations and social codes that may or may not be doing the named any good. So we should be cautious in what we value about them; but they’re important, too – being called what you choose to be called is one of the basic, maybe fundamental, factors in human dignity.

    Also: That daughter of yours is one sharp cookie.

    • Heh, she sure is. She has no plans to take crap from anyone. This morning, she was completely rude to her brother, but she was in the right in their argument. I still had to tell her to tone it down, but I made sure that he knew he was out of line. (He apparently told her women can’t be pastors. Gee, wonder where he got that? Not from us, obviously.)

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