What's in a Name?
March 17, 2013 - 1:52pm
Jill Filipovic's recent Guardian column on the politics of changing one's name on marrying drew a strong response, both in the comments to the article and in other blog posts.
Many commenters seemed to feel accused of being bad feminists if they chose to change their names, and some of the anti-change writers did sound the teensiest bit judgmental of their more traditional (in US terms) sisters.
The issue is so loaded, I think, because our names are among our most personal attributes. It is hard for some women to imagine anyone voluntarily giving up her birth name in favor of some man's name. She must be coerced, the thinking goes.
But it is so much more complicated. What if your father was abusive, and your husband and in-laws are warm and loving? Do you still have to bear your father's name or be branded a tool of the patriarchy? What if you have struggled all your life with people mangling your name, and have the choice to easily switch to one that will make your life simpler? What if you are part of a gay couple, and want to declare your family solidarity? Are you obligated to hang on to a burdensome name or stay symbolically isolated to satisfy some abstract principle?
I grew up disliking my name. I didn't feel particularly Irish—my father's family had disowned us because my mother wasn't Catholic, whereas my mother's mainly WASP family embraced and supported us. Plus, there was that pesky apostrophe, the bane of my early-computer-form school existence. People always insisted they knew how to spell it, and then spelled it wrong (no, there is no "ugh"). To rub salt in it all, there was a popular cartoon skunk when I was a kid, named Odie Cologney, and clever schoolmates bestowed that nickname on me (O'D=Odie, get it?).
My husband's name, by contrast, was spelled phonetically, had no negative associations (I liked his family) and bore no embarrassing cartoon associations. In an equitable world, I might well have chosen to take his name.
But I am ornery, and the fact that everyone assumed I would change my name (this was 1975) had the effect of inspiring me of dig my heels in and insist on my own name.
Which I have come to appreciate. It has a rich history, in which I take part, genetically if not culturally. I have also come to know several of my paternal relatives now that the older generation has died off, and we share surprising personality quirks, as well as a communal nose; I like acknowledging that bond through my name. And I like the fact that people I went to grammar school and brownie camp with have found me, easily, through Google and Facebook.
None of these are reasons why anyone else should make a similar choice. And I think that is the point—it needs to be a clear, unpressured choice, for everyone.