Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Name Changer: Identity Theft, or is it Just Marriage?

When my friend from college got engaged several months ago, I had one question: what are you doing with your last name?

The answer may reveal through which side of the prism of feminism she happens to be looking, but my motives are less esoteric. I just want to know if I’ll need to update my Christmas card list.

What she does with her last name is none of my business, and I realized after I asked that I actually have no opinion. Change it. Keep it. Hyphenate. Invent. I can see arguments for any choice, and see no harm to the world, her happiness, her career, or womankind, if she follows the traditional route and takes her husband’s last name.

And, let’s face it, what else is a woman supposed to do with all the free time after a honeymoon if not spend it waiting in line at government offices trying to officially change her name? The DMV is a great place to write thank-you notes and there may even be a sixteen year old who’d love to look through the wedding album.

My view on this subject has mellowed, to say the least. I may be cynical; I may be spoiled; I may be part of what Katie Roiphe called in her 2004 Slate Magazine piece, the “shallow, satisfying, lipstick feminism,” which says you can actually use any name you want, whenever you want, and “have it both ways”.

I am definitely part of the stay-at-home-mom revolution; a realm in which taking a husband’s last name is a vocational advantage. Few call me Mrs. Vander Schaaff, though. The five-and- under set has opted for the more biologically blunt title: Heidi’s Mom.

Being identified primarily through one’s relationship to her husband, or children, is one of the many self-abnegating predicaments women have fought to overcome.

Lucy Stone gained fame for this fight about a century and a half ago when she married an abolitionist at age 37 and kept her maiden name. Since then, The Lucy Stone League has gone through many cycles of relevance, forming and disbanding in the 1920’s, the 1950’s and finally once again in 1997. It’s still in existence, and the website explains why: the “absence of Name Choice Freedom at marriage and in the naming of children communicates a major sexist message to those who have changed their names and to those whose names are affected by this sexist tradition (i.e. virtually all of us). That message is:


As women thinking about our status in this country, and the work for equality, perhaps we all have individual issues that move us. Nothing gets me more upset than the portrayal of women in movies and television—ageless beauties, perfected under a surgeon’s knife, paired with men who have neglected themselves and their emotional growth since puberty. Show me a Jud Apatow movie and I’ll show you me hurling a copy of Ms. Magazine at the screen.

But, out of curiosity, I checked on the National Organization for Women’s website, to see if the issue of keeping one’s name is tops on their agenda. No. But here’s what is: Abortion Rights/Reproductive Issues, Violence Against Women, Constitutional Equality, Promoting Diversity, Ending Racism, Lesbian Rights, Economic Justice.

Perhaps economic justice is linked with keeping one’s name. And, certainly, there are professional, philosophical, sentimental, and practical reasons for doing so.

But, the trend is moving in the other direction.

Roiphe’s article in Slate cites a study done by Harvard professor, Claudia Goldin. Goldin looked at birth records in Massachusetts and concluded that the number of women in their 30s keeping their name had dropped from 23 % in 1990 to 17 % in 2000.

I’d like to know what it is in 2010. It could be even less.

When I posed the question about names on CityMommy, one woman recalled what a younger friend said. Keeping your maiden name is considered, “ 90’s.”

Does this mean women are clinging to more traditional customs and will move backwards in the fight for equality? Or does it mean that thanks to the risks taken by the women who kept their names, the statement of doing so is less noteworthy, or perceived as less relevant in the fight against the particular disparities seen today?

A Dutch study released this past April was interesting to me, not for what it claimed to prove, but for the rancor it elicited in the comment section after the article. The New York Times story described the study as essentially this: researchers gave college students hypothetical job candidates (all women), some they were told had kept their names and others had taken their husband’s. In circumstances that show no resemblance to real life or American employment law, the Dutch college students were more likely to hire the women who had kept their names, and pay them more than the women who'd changed their names.

Does this haphazardly prove what many of us have observed anecdotally: a lot of women who are on long-term career paths keep their names? There are probably advantages and rewards for doing so.

But, just because Jennifer Aniston never became Jennifer Pitt doesn’t change the fact that she graced GQ’s cover last year wearing only a Brooks Brothers tie, covering her breasts like a puppy waiting for a milk bone.

I think this issue is understood by many women today to be personal, in the true sense of the word. There are unique reasons why a woman and her spouse make the choice they do in relation to their last names. They are not trying to change the world; they just need to get their stories straight before ordering checks.

When I said my views on this subject have mellowed, I should add that I used to think I’d keep my own last name.

But, on the afternoon on May 2, 2001, something happened to me that changed my mind. I was riding the crosstown bus on 86th street, on my way to get frozen yogurt with a friend. I had a purple yoga matt tucked under one arm, and a pink purse under the other, and as I waited near the stairs on the side exit of the bus, the women in front of me fell backwards, on top of me.

The man ahead of her was dressed in a blue Hawaiian shirt (looking remarkably like Shaggy on Scooby Doo), the women who fell, a dead ringer for Dionne Warwick. The man behind me, well, let’s just say he looked like an ex-boyfriend.

It was a classic strategy: Dionne Warwick falls, Shaggy in the bright shirt makes a fuss, ex-boyfriend behind me lifts my wallet.

A few minutes later, while filing a report, the police told me the three were probably working as part of a Nigerian network of thieves stealing wallets and packaging kits of stolen identity.

I’d been mugged a year before and knew the drill of cancelling accounts and starting over.

But, these thieves were aggressive: they re-opened accounts, wrote hot checks, and applied for new cards.

A thousand dollars at Victoria’s Secret, nearly $2,000 at Staples, $100 at Toys R Us and a drug store, and hundreds spent at stores all over the south.

Fortunately, I had a desk job at a news organization and a slightly obsessive compulsive personality. I spent hours over the next several months faxing letters and documentation to undo the damage these parasitic thieves were doing.

Eventually, they moved on.

And, so did I.

In the fall of that year, when my boyfriend pulled out a ring and asked me to marry him, I said yes.

And, when I had to decide about my last name, all I had to do was look at the three-ring binder filled with police reports and form letters chronicling the history of my identity theft.

Was I willing to leave that behind? My family name? My history? The name on my diplomas?

You betcha.

So..... what is my friend going to do with her last name?

Keep it.

And, add her future husband’s. No Hyphen.

It is 2010, after all. We lipstick feminists can still have it both ways.


Houston! said...

I am proud to be a 90s feminist that kept my name. I don't mind that everyone at my children's school (except for the one teacher that also kept her name) calls me Mrs. Harding. And most of my older relatives address mail to Mr. and Mrs. Harding. But, since my father was an only child with all daughters, I'm glad Houston made it this far! This is a great piece. I have gotten into so many fights with people about the name changing thing. I am of the belief that it matters. I have said to people who are my dearest friends, "I will not respect you if you change your name." Luckily, most of them have listened to my close-minded advice :) And, most of my current friends were married before they met me, so I know they would have listened if I had been in their lives then. I believe you should keep your name (not you, Lunch Box Mom, I know your story well). But, everyone else should keep it! Sisters unite!

Kari Forwood said...

I took my husband's name. I did consider hyphenating, but my name would have sounded like I was going for a walk to gather kindling (Strohl-Forwood). So I opted to keep it simple and didn't really think about it until after I was married and after I spent all that time changing my name on all of those documents.

I remember it clearly, I was on summer break from teaching, painting our new bedroom. I was listening to Tori Amos' song "Mother" and there was a line about "leaving the light on ... I can remember where I come from" and I remember feeling like I had lost my identity. Would I forget where I came from? For twenty-nine years, I had been Kari Strohl and then there was a wedding and then... I didn't know who I was. I was married and had this foreign ending to my name and it felt lonely. It was the last thing I expected to feel - I loved my husband and was ecstatic to be married to him. Still, it was disconcerting. Eight years later, I am still happily married and happily adjusted to my new name, but I will always remember the weirdness of it all.

Rachel said...

Another of my favorite blogs, Baby Name Wizard, has a post this week on name changing, too--

Getting Married and Changing Your Name. No, the Other Name.

Darla Dixon, Artist said...

Maybe a new system could be established, where all the letters of each co-spouses' names are mixed up - maybe use an online randomizer or alternate the letters. So if the co-spouse A's name is SMITH and co-spouse B's name is JONES, their kids would have the surname SJMOINTEHS. Glad I could help.

Rebecca said...

Hi, I'm loving your writing.
Feminism plus a tradritionally patriarchal institution like marriage often equals . . . a headache. There's so much at play, isn't there?
My husband and I made the choice to take one anothers' names. So we are BOTH Mr and Mrs. Blank Blank. It feels fantastic but all clerical workers hate us. For one thing, our name is incredibly l-o-n-g. For another, they are baffled by my husband's name change.
I guess we're all just trying our best, here. :)

Angie said...

This is such an interesting topic, and one I've been fascinated with since long before I got married (and changed my own last name).

I consider myself to be an unapologetic feminist. When it came time to decide what to do with my own last name, I thought about the generation that came before me. My mom's friends with a bunch of 60s and 70s feminists. At my parents' 25th anniversary, one of her dear friends announced that she was taking her husband's last name... after almost 25 years of marriage herself. My mom has said that she has regretted changing her name from time to time, but that all in all she likes sharing a name with my dad.

Ultimately, that's what I decided. A spouse is the only family member that you get to choose; all the rest are given to you by chance. So I felt like sharing a last name - and sharing one with my future children - was a very public way for me to truly show my commitment. I like having the same last name as my husband, and as my kids.

I do, however, despise "Mrs." - and really, really despise "Mrs. J--- O'K----" - I took his last name, not his first.