Naming Rights

The ring I wear on my left hand honors my marriage. My maiden name—the name I’ve had all of my life—honors who I am as an individual.

J&E1985bWhen I married 30 years ago, this was an important and controversial distinction. Like many people, my parents worried that I would offend my in-laws and that our future children would encounter problems because my husband and I have two different last names.

Nonetheless, we felt strongly about this decision. He’d keep his name and I’d keep mine. For practical reasons, we didn’t choose to hyphenate. Shriner-Sakowski is just too much name!

Without meaning to, I did offend my in-laws, but they came to accept our decision. Our sons tell me that my different last name hasn’t been an issue for them. Perhaps some of their teachers or coaches assumed that my husband and I were divorced, but divorce is so commonplace that no one commented. I chose not to be offended when people called me Mrs. Sakowski. I knew who they meant and that they were trying to be polite. Often I pre-empted the discussion about names by introducing myself as “Greg’s Mom” or “Mike’s Mom.” That was all the teacher or coach wanted to know—my relationship to the kid in question. These days, I rarely have to explain the name difference.

So it came as a surprise that using a maiden name has been resurrected as an issue. Recently, a friend recounted a conversation she overheard at a coffee shop. A young couple was talking with their minister about their wedding ceremony and the minister said, “Some ultra feminists don’t even take their husband’s last names.” Huh? I can easily list half a dozen women I know who kept their maiden names. It’s not that radical.

Equally surprising was my recent experience with two different lawyers (one was settling my aunt’s estate and the other was handling my mother’s estate). Each assumed that I was Ellen Sakowski or Ellen Shriner-Sakowski. With my aunt’s lawyer, I explained several times that my real legal name is Ellen Shriner. Finally, I had to state unequivocally that I had never changed my name, and I wouldn’t be able to cash an inheritance check made out to either of those imaginary women.

But then I recalled that four young professional women I know who’ve recently married all took their husband’s names. I was surprised and remain curious. Is the gesture that was so important to me when I married irrelevant now? Does it no longer feel necessary to make that distinction? Are women’s independence and equality a given for those young women? I hope so, but I’m skeptical.

Despite my skepticism, I’m not trying to take anything away from women who choose their husband’s name. As a feminist, I believe women have the right to handle their names however they like: keeping their maiden names, using their maiden name as a middle name, or taking their husband’s name. I would never prescribe what a woman should call herself. Naming is a very personal decision.

I think of one friend who was glad to shed her father’s name when she married. They had a difficult relationship and taking her husband’s name was a way of distancing herself from her father and asserting her new grown-up identity. Changing her name was a mark of independence.

Another friend, who survived a childhood fraught with sexual abuse, invented a whole new name to mark the break from her family and her hard-won emotional health.

What really matters is whether the choice of name is based purely on personal preference rather than perceived societal expectations. As a feminist, I just hope that women today feel much more free to choose the name that pleases them than I felt 30 years ago.

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4 thoughts on “Naming Rights

  1. What a wonderful reminder of all of the conversations I have had about name changing and marriage! A friend of mine recently changed her name back to her maiden name because she had just had it with her husband’s family, and that too was a revolution. In my case, I got a real talking to, from some women I worked with, when I chose not to change my name. The option to choose is the important thing. We no longer have to take male pen names to earn the respect of reader audiences, but I know a few women writers who still choose to use first initials instead of their distinctively feminine names. This essay sparks a lot of thought and memories for me. And what a gorgeous wedding picture!

    • There are no one-size-fits-all answers to what a woman calls herself. She shouldn’t be bullied by societal expectations or other women into doing anything! You make a very good point about male and/or neutral pen names!

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