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.)