Feminism and Maiden Names–Who Am I??

07.16.2012, 12:23 PM

I haven’t thought about my name in quite some time and of late I find myself thinking about it a lot.  I live in a new community so in part I am introducing myself often and it’s made me think anew of how a name ties us to our identity while simultaneously masking and revealing who we are.

I thought of this first when I donned my name tag at our new church community.  I am married to the pastor so most people know who I am so I didn’t really need to wear a name tag but as someone new I assumed it would be helpful, but only confusion followed.  Let me first say, that I kept my name when I married.  I’m not a celebrity so it’s not like I use my married name privately and my maiden name professionally.  I just have one name; the name I was born with and the one I’ll die with.

But in the receiving line at church I had more than one person stare at my name tag and then squint at my face and say, “Well, I thought you were his wife?”

I’d reply, “I am.” They would then look at me in total consternation that either I picked up the wrong name tag or that the office messed up my name tag.  So, I would follow up with, “I kept my maiden name.”  More confusion.

The confusion threw me.  I started to wonder, is keeping one’s maiden name in marriage no longer a straight forward and highly public way to say that I AM a FEMINIST?  (Side note: keeping your maiden name or changing it is of course not the only way to express your feminism, it’s just the most radical and public way I could think of to do so more than a decade ago.)  Do I need to launch into my stump speech?  “I kept my maiden name as way to show that I am an equal partner in marriage who is desirable and worthy in and of myself, who is loved and supported by a partner who is not threatened by my unique strength and purpose in the universe.  A female changing her name in marriage has historically been a way of showing that ownership of a woman’s existence has changed from a father’s hands to a husband’s, and I won’t stand for that.  Just as I wear a ring to make public the covenant of marriage I entered and live in, keeping my name was the only way I could think of to publicly hold on to myself.  I am woman, hear me ROAR!!”  Sadly, that manifesto was too wordy for the receiving line at church.

I was still pondering my feminist identity when our three old ran up to be held by me.  As I shuttled him around on my hip, he suddenly stopped me and pointed to my name tag.  “Why it no say, M-O-M?”  I then launched into my explanation that MOM is a relational term that applies only to him and to his siblings and although I find it quite endearing that to them A-M-Y will always be spelled M-O-M, having that term on a name tag is not needed for them and not helpful to strangers for whom I have no desire to mother.  He of course, looked at me kindly and opaquely as three-year-olds are wont to do and repeated the question, “Why it no say M-O-M?”

Lord have mercy, I thought.  This name tag is confusing to the people who don’t know me AND to the people who do!  WHO AM I ANYWAY?!?

I thought of this experience as a I read Slate’s recent review of Caitlin Moran’s soon to be released in the US book, How to Be A Woman, a memoir of her journey as a feminist where she ponders what it means to be one in today’s world.

“It’s always been seen as this binary thing with women,” Moran explained.  “You’re either going to be rock ‘n’ roll or you’re going to be a housewife.  It’s either cupcakes or crack.  I wanted both.  And I got it.”  She paused. “Well, not the crack…”  Moran’s oldest daughter…clamored into the kitchen, dressed in a school uniform of a gray skirt, white blouse, and maroon sweater, searching for her copy of The Hunger Games.  “I’ll tell you,” Moran said after the girl left, “the greatest luxury is to not make your kids as worried as you were.  I would rather my daughters be unexceptional but happy.  Though the thing is, that they are exceptional and happy.”

It sounds like an interesting read, although I wonder what it means that all writing today seems to be memoir.  I’m tired of memoirs.  Over the years, I have read my fair share of memoirs, which for the most part, when written by interesting people are interesting.  But in end of life care the majority of reading material has become memoir-dominated where people either write memoirs as they die, memoirs of their practice as a nurse or doctor of people who die, or memoirs of being a caregiver and griever of someone who has died.  Many of these memoirs are good and interesting though I take issue when they cross over from description to presecription, but what does it mean that we live in the age of the memoir?  Have we come to the point where the only truth we can speak is our own?  Is writing a memoir a way of hiding from critique since we can always defend ourselves by saying, “Well, it’s my experience?”  How do we sort out the task of telling personal story as prophetically claiming oppressed voices (think Liberation theology, the Palestinian D’Hesha dance project, Womanist theology….) and simply blogging?  (Yes, I see the irony that I write about my personal experiences and yet question the act…)

Story and name and private and public choices all seem tied up together to me and I am left with lots of questions to ponder.  How do we allow our names to reflect who we are in relationship, be that marriage or parenthood, and who we are as individuals?  What does the practice of changing one’s name in marriage mean today?  It did occur to me that for my homosexual friends who change their name or hyphenate them in marriage, that change is now a prophetic act that challenges the inherent heterosexual assumptions of the marriage rite.  What about for heterosexual couples?  In a day and age of increasing cohabitation, is it now more radical to CHANGE one’s name?  In the past few weeks I have filled out countless camp, school and doctor’s forms; all those necessary forms that follow a move.  And every time I write down my name and my husband’s I realize that most people reading the form will presume NOT that I am feminist, but that we are divorced.  I find that I have to say, “We are married, live in the same house.”   How sad that having different last names in marriage is no longer a progressive sign of gender equality but a socially accepted and presumed sign of broken relationship.

In the end, I wonder ultimately about how our choices that are reflected in public identity and name endure.  I first thought about the public and enduring choice of keeping my name in the cemetery.  I have spent a good deal of time in cemeteries and looking at grave markers I realized that one day, my children, grandchildren, and great-children will visit our graves and they will have to explain why my last name is different from their father/grandfather/great-grandfather’s.  I hope that that occasion will be an opportunity for them to talk about gender and how the relationship between us was one of strength and equality and that keeping my name was a way of publicly acknowledging that belief and holding myself accountable to it.  I, of course, will have no control over what story they tell, but I hope that my life and choices speak for themselves and are merely reflected in my name.

I realize that this post has been a bit rambling, but I wonder what others are reading or thinking about concerning marriage, names, being a feminist in today’s world?

7 Responses to “Feminism and Maiden Names–Who Am I??”

  1. La Lubu says:

    Nice post! I’m not married, but have noticed for many years that people who know me through me daughter name me as “____’s mom”. I live and work in an informal world, so I seldom hear/use my last name (then again, it’s not an English name, so there’s probably folks who avoid using it because of mispronunciation/misspelling worries…even though to my eyes/ears it’s a simple name). Keep in mind that not every culture changes names in marriage, and the number of immigrants to the US will have as much to do with the name-keeping practice as feminism. (traditionally, people of Sicilian background follow the Spanish practice of keeping one’s name. That practice fell by the wayside with the second gen, but….it has dawned on me that if I married and kept my name, I’d be following a very traditional practice!)

    I don’t find I have to do anything to announce I’m feminist. People assume I am, even before knowing I have a nontraditional job. Or maybe they don’t really assume I’m feminist as much as I’m assumed to be a take-no-mess woman, which kinda/sorta can translate as “feminist”.

  2. fannie says:

    Nice post, Amy.

    One thing I appreciate about being in a same-sex union is that many of the gendered assumptions surrounding marriage- such as name-changing- aren’t imposed upon us. As a feminist, I think one of the benefits of same-sex marriage and civil unions is, and will continue to be, subverting the gendered expectations.

    What does it mean when, say, my lesbian friend takes her wife’s last name? And what impact does that have on the societal expectation that it will always be a man’s last name that is taken and “carried on”? When my gay friend is a married, stay-at-home father, what does that do to the assumption that it is usually (and should be) and woman/mother who stays home and raises children?

    I suspect these scenarios are quite threatening to many male traditionalists. When they claim that same-sex marriage is destroying Real Marriage And Family, I always hear in that claim an anxiety about the destruction of male privilege.

  3. Amy Ziettlow says:

    On Facebook I had several fascinating comments. One that offered that she kept her last name and because she is the last of her father’s line, she and her husband decided that their children would have her last name, which has created some confusion concerning whether or not these are his children and whether they are divorced and so on. Another commented that midlife widows in this day and age are also often presumed to be divorced which has exacerbated the loss to some extent. A good thought on how changing a name relates to a love lost. She also offered that she prefers the term “birth name” to “Maiden name,” which I must concur. Maiden name just makes me giggly. Another commented that she kept her name simply because she’s lazy and so feels guilty when people presume she’s a feminist. I would consider all the women who have commented to be incredibly strong women and yet so different. Fascinating.

  4. annajcook says:

    I recently participated in The Last Name Project, a series of posts by folks on married names, co-hosted at the blogs from two to one and The Feminist Mystique. My post can be found here and the index page (linked above) offers many more thoughtful installments.

  5. Amy Ziettlow says:

    Anna, thanks for sharing the link to The Last Name Project–I got totally addicted and spent a lot of time reading yesterday and was quite moved by the diversity of voices. A beautiful project. Thanks for sharing your story there, and I hope that this does not sound morbid, but I was thinking of how should you and your wife decide to have and share a headstone, you could do something really beautiful and meaningful with the shared middle name. Nowadays they will even engrave in the actual handwriting of the person so you could use the template you both created.

  6. annajcook says:

    @Amy, you’re welcome – I’m glad you enjoyed the stories! Regarding a headstone … well, it might be a little morbid but morbid thoughts aren’t always bad ones! I just finished reading a beautiful piece in Here Come the Brides! by Patricia Cronin about the mortuary sculpture she created for the plot in Woodlawn cemetary where she and her wife will be buried. (My favorite detail is the way the two figures are playing footsie!)

  7. R.K. says:

    Too late for more comments?

    If so, okay. I’ve taken a long “vacation” from this blog, but I have a number of thoughts related to this subject which covers much broader questions. (And no, I don’t hold that a child must be given or must take their father’s surname).