Sunday, March 21, 2004

What's in a name?

Katie Roiphe writes in Slate:
"...it may also be that the maiden name is no longer a fraught political issue. These days, no one is shocked when an independent-minded woman takes her husband's name, any more than one is shocked when she announces that she is staying at home with her kids. Today, the decision is one of convenience, of a kind of luxury—which name do you like the sound of? What do you feel like doing? The politics are almost incidental. Our fundamental independence is not so imperiled that we need to keep our names. The statement has, thanks to a more dogmatic generation, been made. Now we dabble in the traditional. We cobble together names. At this point—apologies to Lucy Stone, and her pioneering work in name keeping—our attitude is: Whatever works."


Now, aside from my knee-jerk response (I'm part of that "dogmatic generation," I believe) to her knee-jerk feminist bashing (what would she rail about if not for us?), I'm inclined to agree with her. That is, inasmuch as the "we" she refers to as having "fundamental independence" is limited to women of a certain class and educational background like her own (I'm part of that group too). I wouldn't say that for me, the politics of my decision to keep my birth name (I hate "maiden") were incidental, in fact quite the opposite. Because of my feminist politics, as well as the fact that I had begun to publish and develop a professional reputation before I got married, my husband and I never really considered my changing names. When our son was born, we had a brief conversation about what his name would be, and when it became apparent to us that it meant a lot to my husband to give our child his name, that's what we did. Once he started school, my son asked me why I didn't have the same name as he and his father did, and I told him I didn't want to change my name, and that was that. (Well, that's not entirely true . . .I did flirt briefly with the idea of changing my last name to my son's middle name in a moment of annoyance with my father, but that passed.) At the same time, when his teachers and friends and friends' parents refer to me as Mrs. W---, instead of as Dr. G---, I rarely correct them because in this context (as Roiphe's essay seems to suggest) it is incidental, my independence isn't imperiled, and it is sometimes just more convenient. Once I get to know people, I do clarify my name, and no one has ever seemed to care, one way or another. But I do think that Roiphe's acknowledgement (or rather, begrudging concession) that feminists who did fuss about this, and who insisted on their right to retain their own names and the privileges that come with the recognition of independent female personhood, should be recognized and appreciated by those of us who are their beneficiaries.

(cross-posted at Distracted)

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