Sunday, May 02, 2010

Deny thy husband and refuse his name

Right after I got married, I flew out to Utah to present at a conference, where one of my old professors introduced me and my talk by saying, "This is a former student of mine, Hannah, wait, I guess I don't know: what is your last name now, Hannah?"

I didn't realize it at the time, but after I told the audience that I hadn't taken my husband's name, they probably judged me as less caring, but more independent, more ambitious, more intelligent, and more competent than a woman who had changed her name; they probably also wanted to pay me $1,172.36 more.

I don't object to this characterization, especially, and certainly not to the extra pay, but they've got me all wrong here. I kept my own name at marriage, yes, but it's not a principled stand or statement of anything--except, perhaps, of confusion and indecision.

I've thought a lot about the name issue, in my life; this isn't a creepy-girl-obsessed-with-weddings thing but a creepy-girl-obsessed-with-names thing. (I kept a notebook, as a child, of good names for horses, should I ever suddenly come into a stable of thoroughbreds. And yes, I freely admit to a creepily-obsessed-with-horses thing.) I always basically came to the same conclusion: I wouldn't keep my own name on feminist principle. (My own name is originally my father's name, after all; as far as I can tell, it's patriarchy all the way down.) I also wouldn't automatically take my husband's name, though, but make my decisions on he basis of the name itself: anything starting with an H is out (no alliteration), vowels are similarly taboo (no homologous glottal stops), and nothing cutesy or rhyming. (This is an onomastics issue, not a feminist issue, I thought.)

So then we come to Mike's last name: it starts with an N (yes!), doesn't rhyme (yes!), and is, by all accounts, perfectly unobjectionable, apart from its presence on the list of 1000 most common surnames and, despite that, a worrisome tendency to be misspelled. (I'm looking at you, Mom.) I fully expected myself to take his name, right up to the day we went to the courthouse for our marriage license, when, suddenly, I couldn't do it. I had spent so much time thinking of the sounds of a new name that I had all but ignored the symbolism: could I really give up this person that I had been my whole life to become this new, mysterious Hannah N, especially in the midst of all my other life turmoil? Could I really deal with having such a common last name? And while I like the symbolism of a married couple having the same last name, why did I have to be the one to change? How could I balance my identity as an individual within the couple if I let my name be subsumed into his?

(Okay, so maybe it's a little bit a feminist issue.)

And so I followed the path of least resistance, keeping my own name; I figured that this was a decision and revision that a minute (and $320, in Alameda county) could reverse, but, frankly, I'm not inclined to pay the fee anytime soon: my own last name is more distinctive, which is useful, professionally speaking; I've been perfectly happy as Hannah P for 25 years; I kind of enjoy confusing people at church with our different last names; and I definitely enjoy telling people that I kept my own name because my husband's last name is "boring." (Mike's comeback: "She hasn't earned my name yet." Well played, Mr. N. Well played.)


Heidi said...

I've been mentally messing with the idea of posting about my own name game for a while now. And after reading this, I think I'll just copy-paste.

I know we're not the same person, but when it comes to this topic...we're almost exact on the reasons/feelings/etc.

Thanks for the post!

sassparilla said...

i love your blog.

Jennifer said...

If my maiden name hadn't sucked so badly I may have considered not changing it, but as it was my entire life I was looking forward to getting a new less sucky last name. Even if no one can spell it right.

Diane said...

How do you spell Mike's last name? Why can't all those "N" people agree on one spelling?

Minnie said...

I completely echo your reasons for not changing your name. Why would I change it to a popular name when I like my name and can have fun confusing people?

JB said...

I could be wrong, but I've gotten the impression that most women who keep their own name do so not just as a desire to declare how feminist they are. I kept my name for a mix of reasons, starting with the fact that I was too lazy to change it in the first place and later didn't want to anymore.

What I read in an article about a study in The Netherlands is that women who keep their last names are likely to have done so because they have a good career going or have been published professionally and they want people to be able to find them and continue working with them.

The study done in The Netherlands also showed that women who took their husband's last name did behave differently, too.

It felt like a big change to me and I could believe I might have changed in some ways because of it.

I'm one of the many who didn't officially change my last name, but I don't mind if people in my not-professional life call me by my husband's last name. And he doesn't get offended when people who know me call him Mr. Benet.