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Naming Assumptions
September 8, 2010 - 10:00pm

For women in the academy, one’s name is akin to a passport which under no circumstance must you tamper with. Your reputation as a scholar is attached to your name, which when subjected to a Google search, may yield only a few or a substantial number of hits depending on if it is correctly remembered or spelled. Unlike men, marriage pressures women to decide whether or not to make this changed civil status a separate “name reality” from their professional one. It is a tough choice to make.

Within my age and professional cohorts, I am a statistical outlier. First, I wanted a name that reflects a connection to my husband, a fact that some of my more liberal colleagues find counterintuitive. I also wanted my maiden surname spelled out to honor my local roots. Upon marriage in 2003, I conveyed this individual name preference in an official form to my university and government pension authorities. That I continue to receive communications in various permutations--“Dr. Arcala-Hall”; “Dr. Alcala(sic)-Hall”; (medical) “Dr. Hall” suggests that my form possibly got sucked in a black hole (read: lost) or simply fell on deaf ears (read: ignored). Why is this is so? I blame feminism-infused university administrators on a crusade to hyphenate female faculty members’ names for this debacle, as well as spelling-challenged bureaucrats who mistake my maiden name for that of a more famous former Environment Secretary (Dr. Angel Alcala). As for the confusion between a medical degree and a Ph.D., “doctors” more often conjure men with stethoscopes rather than a female, book-wielding scholar like me. In the Philippines, my battle with bureaucracy and convention over my married appellation is like Don Quixote challenging the windmill. It is at times exasperating and downright comedic.

Adding to my woes is the fact that I have an obviously foreign surname, which never fails to draw unusual attention in our neck of the woods. Often, the reaction I get from colleagues range from “Why are you not in America?” to “When are you going back to the US?” indicating the built-in prejudice of Filipino wives of Americans whose only end-and-be-all is to get a green card. In several foreign fellowships I had applied for, I was “flagged” and asked to “prove” my intent to serve my home country given that I am married to an American. On the positive side, my name card tickles curious minds: the military General who spent some time grilling me about how I met my husband and why we chose to live in the Philippines; residents of a remote upland village dismayed by a motorcycle-driven woman (!) who came to interview paramilitary members rather than dispense medical services (easy to assume with someone named “Dr. Hall”); or a colonel from Mindanao surprised by me, an obvious local, coming to do research (she was expecting a blond woman, perhaps). In my area of research which is civil-military relations, I often have to dodge concerns that my husband is into covert operations (again, a natural assumption amongst many Filipinos whose limited encounters with Americans are either those in uniform or retirees).

It gets more complicated. Spelling out a middle name in the Philippines invites further speculation about your familial and ethno-linguistic origins. For a married Filipino woman, the maiden name is not a statement of sacrosanct individuality, but a window to a vast network of real and imagined connections. It opens doors, makes getting interviews a whole lot quicker and builds instantaneous trust, which a foreign surname simply could not muster.

These brushes with bureaucrats over my name will likely continue ad nauseum, but now I carry it with a grin and an unfailing patience. After all, I am one of only three Political Scientists in the entire country with a foreign surname and the only one in my entire university who insists on not being hyphenated. Uniqueness has its many rewards.

Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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