Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Where everybody knows your name


"In education, in marriage, in religion, in everything, disappointment is the lot of women. It shall be the business of my life to deepen this disappointment in every woman's heart until she bows down to it no longer."
--Elizabeth Cady Stanton



Today's local paper included a story about a Vietnam veteran in Philadelphia who is looking for a Fort Worth woman he met in 1966, just before he shipped out for the war. Lenny Cohen had taken out an ad in the paper hoping for clues to her whereabouts using the information he had about her at the time.

I thought about all the things that can happen during a span of 40 years that obliterates the trail of a woman. We leave our parents' homes for college or work. We move to another town, state or country. We quit one job and take another. Sometimes...we die. There's at least a record of our death and moving geographically makes it difficult--but not impossible--to find us. It's only when we marry--and take the name of our husbands--that we rub out the last clue to our whereabouts.

If you've ever served on a high school reunion committee you'll have some idea of what I'm talking about. Ten, fifteen, twenty years after graduation, former classmates are using phone books and search engines to find us. You want to locate a guy? Look up his name. Get a friend in insurance to run a DMV check on a guy who is your age and who still has the name he graduated with.

You want to find a woman? Hmmm. What name do you look under? There's no guarantee she held onto her real name. The last time you saw her she was Genevieve Buckholtz and she was making out with Barry Urbach at graduation. Who is she now and what combination of words do you plug into Google to find her? What about the phone book? Even if she's married she's probably not mentioned in the listing. You'll be one lucky hunter if you can find her listed as Barry & Genevieve Urbach. Otherwise...you'll have to find the friend of a friend who still knows her and can offer up a phone number. Or wait until she finds you. Unless we have the presence of mind to hang onto our names, women drop like stones into the bottom of a silent, muddy lake.

In the interest of full disclosure I'll say here that I added Mr. Half's last name onto mine and I use both. Even though I never really got rid of my real name (I use both in my newspaper bylines), people assume that I did. Still...church, the PTA, people in the neighborhood just think I'm Stacy Half. I should have sent out announcements immediately after the wedding saying as much, because without any information or provocation, friends and well-intentioned family (both in-laws and outlaws) will bombard me with mail addressed to Mrs. Bryan Half (not his real last name...of course). EVEN ON MY BIRTHDAY....a day where, if nothing else, I should get to celebrate the identity I possessed when I came into this world. I mean...c'mon! The guy married me, he didn't adopt me. And no matter how many times I say it, few seem to remember.

When telemarketers call and ask for Mrs. Bryan Half I tell them that there is no woman named Bryan living in our home. You should hear the confusion that one statement causes. After witnessing years of watching me have an aneurysm each time someone referred to me in a manner indicating I was merely one of Bryan's appendages...rather than a person with a first name of my own, Mr. Half told me I should go down to the courthouse (for our 20th anniversary) and plunk down the necessary coinage to get my real name back LEGALLY!! (Imagine a country where one must pay to get a name back which was given to you at birth!)

I've given the matter considerable thought and my biggest reason for holding back was the idea that people would think we were divorcing after all this time. It's been hard enough spending the last two decades getting people to stop referring to me as Mrs. Bryan Half. Now I have to back up and tell friends and relatives that my real name (which they already knew) is the name by which they must call me. I should have had the foresight never to change it in the first place. It wouldn't have made us any less married or any less happy.

Any number of pointless observances, whether they be for religious reasons or societal, are still foisted on women today. Traditional apologists, including many religious leaders, claim that "it's the natural order of things" to abide by a patriarchal society. It's in keeping with "natural order" that cats cannot do trigonometry. There's nothing natural about one person changing her name in order to comply with the superior/subservient relationship it was meant to indicate when the practice first started.

But I wasn't thinking back in 1986. I was hard in love and anxious to move to another city with the man of my dreams. I held it together in the planning stages just enough to warn the minister that there would be no "giving away" of the bride, as though I was a prize heifer at the county fair. I was 27 years old and supporting myself. We used the term "presents the bride" though I guess semantics can't change what it means when one man hands a grown woman over to another man. Nor did Mr. Half ask my father for permission to marry me...nor for his blessing. What's the point of asking a question where the answer really won't change the outcome? I also told the minister there would be no mention of the word "obey" in any form or fashion. Homie wasn't playing that game either. So it wasn't until we turned to face the congregation after saying our vows and the minister introduced us as Mr. and Mrs. Bryan Half that I realized in one stunning moment what I had forgotten to take care of.

Yeah... I wince every time my birthday rolls around as I open my cards, even though our return address stamp on outgoing Christmas/birthday cards and all other correspondence bears my name (both last names) and Bryan's name on separate lines hoping someone will pay attention. Few do. So Lenny Cohen....I hope you find Sharon Johnson. I hope she recognizes herself from the description or that someone else who knew her has read the article and will try to find you. Because, dude, looking for her and actually finding her is going to be nearly impossible on a trail as cold as this one. Good luck to you. And Sharon J....wherever you are....I hope for your sake, for Lenny's, and a little bit for mine, that Johnson still your name.




26 Comments:

Blogger Lynilu said...

How interesting. I'm having a similar 'name crisis." My husband passed away a few months ago, and I want my old name back. The few people who know this aren't opposed to it, but I suspect they don't understand it, either. I'm returning to the part of the country where I grew up, and I think of myself with the name I was given as a child. My struggle is to figure out how to explain to people so they don't think I'm disrespecting my late husband after 31 years of marriage. And I agree on the cost . . . and honey, it isn't "coinage" . . . it is a bunch of the green stuff! Plus a process of several months. Just ridiculous. I read somewhere on line that it is actually legal to change your name without all that, by simply using the "new" name consistently, more or less like a common-law marriage. Yeah, I don't think that will work.

I guess after I get moved I'll check into it in the new/old home state and see what they require. Good luck to you.

7:01 PM  
Blogger aka Brandi said...

Holy cow! I was our Unofficial Reunion Stalker last year and may I just say, AMEN!

From a girl who did take her husband's name but made her middle name her maiden name, and more often than not, as she gets older (when did this change to 3rd person?) uses all 3 names.

But who knew 15 years ago?

7:45 PM  
Blogger Nilbo said...

My daughter is getting married on July 8. I have done all I can to "influence" her towards keeping the name she was born with - at least in some form.

She's told me she intends to - in some form. Now I'm going to ask some specific questions, and maybe send her here ...

7:53 PM  
Blogger Gina said...

The name change was one of the only things my normally progressive husband insisted on.

I like my maiden name much better than my married one, but mine was much too long (9 letters!) to combine without souding ridiculous or running out of room on every form I ever filled out again.

So I gave in, but I often wistfully think of my former name.

8:20 PM  
Blogger Brenda said...

When in the course of looking back at the names in my family, my mother's side, I found that in Denmark, the woman's last name was 'datter.' Well, more than that, more like, Hasdatter. In other words, she was Has Daughter. Much like how we got Hason. Anyway, you get the jist. Well, then Denmark changed the law and Danes had to take on a new last name. My great-grandparents became Fridal, which means 'Free Valley'.

Okay. Brief history lesson over and how does this relate to the topic. dunno

I would do all I could to keep my maiden name. After my divorce I took back my maiden name and in answering peoples questions as to why, I would reply, "Because that name had served me well before."

8:55 PM  
Blogger shpprgrl said...

What a story, I hope he finds her. Be sure to post an update if you hear anything. Stories like that always interest me. I use my maiden as a middle. I live in a small town and there is another person with my name here. But I really like to use my maiden too. It's my name dangit! ;)

9:32 PM  
Blogger Annie, The Evil Queen said...

I don't have a middle name so I use my madien name as kinda a middle name too. It's on my license. I considered keeping my own name or hyphenating but
A. with the military, life is hard enough, I can't imagine explain to every clerk why my name doesn't match my sponsor's, and
B. my first name is hyphenated and the two last names together would be 15 letters long. I can barely fit my married name on forms.

9:54 PM  
Blogger Ashleigh said...

Peculiarly, since moving to Holland I got my maiden name back! Quite a surprise really since I've been married twice so had three surnames so far and I'm only 32.

In Holland, women either keep their own name when they marry, or hyphenate it - whether its too long or not is irrelevant. So, I'm Mrs Ash Maiden Name-Other Half.

It's strange after 16 years of not having used my maiden name to suddenly have it back as I don't feel like the person I was when I had my own name anymore. Maybe that's the true purpose of the name changing - to make the wife lose her identity completely.

When I explain to Dutch people that we abandon our maiden name when we marry they seem alarmed that someone could do that.

(Sorry, I couldn't comment with my own blog link so used my blogger ID!)

10:30 PM  
Blogger CISSY said...

My husband also was insistent on the name change when we first married. But that was 21 years ago. Since then I've had two major "name" changes. The first one was the pronounciation of my name, which is not an "English" name and had been really mispronounced for so much of my life that my parents relented and guessed they must be wrong on the "English" pronounciation. I took my real name back when I was 30. Then, after returning to college and finding my new profession, I quietly eased into using my maiden name as a middle name (no hyphen) on bylines, then business cards and finally just life. I had to stifle a giggle, when my husband was introduced at a dinner as "Mr. (insert my maiden name here.)" He said he'd lost his identity. Yep. I know the feeling.

11:25 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

I'm getting married this summer and just posted about being not sure what to do abou the name game.

4:49 AM  
Blogger grvgirl said...

I am getting married in August and have made it clear to my fiance from the beginning that I am keeping my name. I am not being adopted- I see no reason why I should change it. I never thought it would be an issue until we announced it to his friends who apparently are appalled by the idea. One even went so far as to tell me not to tell his fiance that I was keeping my name because "she's already a hater!"
Thank you for the refreshing post reaffirming my decision and making me realize there are others out there like me.

6:17 AM  
Blogger wordgirl said...

See, here's what I don't get. How can any man demand or insist that a woman do something that he himself could not do?? If the whole "loss of identity" thing is their reason for objecting to it (and we know that it is), why is it okay that we lose ours??

7:15 AM  
Blogger toyfoto said...

I've done a good deal of thinking about this topic over the years, but I haven't come to any conclusions.

I kept my name when I married, but people still call me by my husband's name. It bothered me immensely until my daughter was born and I realized not having the same name as her was a little sad for me, even though I am committed to keeping my indenty, my father's name that has become my own.

I keep thinking why it is we feel that we disappear? We don't dissappear at all. We are still there, but perhaps just not waiting to be found by anyone who feels nostalgic. These days I've been trying to remember that my life has evolved as it has for a reason. People come and go like seasons. Every day hands us a new opportunity to move forward, forge new friendships and learn something new about ourselves and each other.

There are no easy answers, that's for sure. Of course, then I must wonder, if men changed their names to ours ... what would happen?

It was the quickest conversation I ever had with my husband. When he told me he was a little hurt that I wasn't taking his name and I asked him to consider the idea of taking MINE. ... Silence. No more discussion.

7:16 AM  
Blogger mothergoosemouse said...

I think I would object to Mrs. Kyle Goosemouse if he treated me as if I were subservient or beneath him in some way. Or if he had insisted that I change my name to Julie Goosemouse.

That said, hardly anyone addresses me as Mrs. Kyle Goosemouse, and I kept my maiden name as my middle name, and I actually like being Julie Goosemouse.

I don't understand men's insistence on the name change. Just as I don't understand men's obsession with having a son to "carry on the family name". The days of clans and chiefdoms are over; we are all unique individuals with the freedom to go our own way.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Tink said...

"The guy married me, he didn't adopt me." Quote of the Day.

I always joke with Hoop that we should splice our last names together. I even use the spliced version on the answering machine.

My Mom and Papa Bear chose an entirely new last name when they married, which I think is really sweet. He did it to prove that he was willing to sacrifice too.

I understand (and encourage) women who want to keep their own last names. I'm not one of them though. It's for no other reason than I don't think my identity rides on it, and I don't think my father is deserving of that gift.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Arabella said...

Wordgirl, you've done it again. This is an incredible post.

I genuinely love not only my husband, but my husband's name, and I, too, have made it a part of my name and use my maiden name as a middle name. And, yes, I had to go to court in order to do this (AND pay up). And, still, sometimes I feel as thought I've disappeared. Yet, I do want all of us to feel like we're part of the same family and have a name in common when we hopefully have children someday. I don't think there's any real solution for a woman. For me, the three-names solution is the best that I've found.

8:42 AM  
Blogger grvgirl said...

It terms of solving the name problem with children, I plan on having my name be my children's middle name. That way both names are incorporated without giving the child an extra long hyphenated name.

9:45 AM  
Blogger mama_tulip said...

This is such an interesting post.

God, I hemmed and hawed over whether or not to take Dave's last name. I LOVE my given name and I always have. It just fit, it had a great ring to it, and when I married Dave his long, Italian last name seemed to just ruin my first name. I didn't take his name until about two weeks before I delivered Julia, when someone pointed out to me that people would think I was her stepmother.

*sigh*

11:40 AM  
Blogger Nap Queen said...

I was reading all your comments and thinking the same thing you were: "How can any man demand or insist that a woman do something that he himself could not do??"

THANK YOU!

I did not change my name for that very reason. My husband didn't care one way or another, and if he HAD INSISTED that I change my name, I would have RESISTED even more.

What surprised me was how all my smart, successful girlfriends were astonished that I wasn't going to change my name and in fact, were a tad pissy about it! "How could I not change my name" they asked? Very easily, I answered.

I work with a guy that hyphenated HIS name when he got married. I think that's so cool.

2:41 PM  
Blogger daysgoby said...

I was twenty-nine when I got married - that's twenty-nine years of having my last name. It's my identity. It's who I am. I hyphenated my last-his last (and now sound like a bad Dutch comedy)legally for Immigration purposes. He was a little surprised I didn't automatically want his name, but seems to have adjusted well. The children have his last name, although I really regret not giving my daughter my last name as her middle. If I have a third, that'll be it.
Oh, my four year old asked me why my last name wasn't the same as Daddy - I just told him that Mommy had a different name when she grew up.

5:14 PM  
Blogger cameo said...

chris and i were watching some morning show today, and they were giving away some wedding thing. anyway, this couple they showed had sent in a video proudly claiming they were going to be "Mr. & Mrs. James A. Sneed!" and it pissed me off! so began a conversation with my feminist husband where we both pondered the notion of men taking their wives last names. HAH! and how we both thought the idea of a woman becoming 'property' (which is why the name thing began in the first place) is sick. and why are women so eager to lose their autonomy? anyway, ironic i go bloggin today and read this.
incidently, with my first husband, i hyphenated. with chris, i stayed with my maiden name. which is still my dad's, but hey.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Rock said...

I'm a guy and I've been shacking up fpr upteen years. She has her name and I have mine. It's fine.

3:05 AM  
Blogger Mary said...

Wonderful post! When I was divorced in 1990, I received permission from the court to resume using my "maiden" name. I did. It was only a slight hassle changing social security and driver's license, credit cards. But, so worth it. When asked why I changed back to my birth name, I said that changing to Jones signified that I married Mr. Jones. If I divorce him, shouldn't I change it back? Just seems logical. I never had any problems with schools or anyone thinking I wasn't my children's mom. You do start to disappear when you get married. The first act is changing your name. Then it's being referred to as Mrs. Jones all the time. The wife of John Jones. He gets to be who he always was. You get to be his Mrs. Then you have kids and you become Janie's mom. If you aren't careful, you will lose pieces of who you are. You must hang on to and foster your identity in the world.

5:54 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Why not simply add your name to his.

That's what My wife did.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

I hate that after I leave my initial comment, I still need to use the word vertification each time.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Robeena said...

Oh, I love this! I hyphenated and I know that when my entire name shows up on mail or packages, it's probably due to someone thinking, "Oh, she'll get all pissy if we don't." I like my maiden name better than my husbands name, and he was only a little miffed for a short while when I told him that the name change wasn't going to happen. He understood that he could just as easily change his, and he didn't want to, although we did seriously consider smooshing our names together into a hybrid.
When I lived in Texas I saw many women who would even sign their names on checks as "Mrs. John Doe" and this would burn me right up.
Agh- I'm repeating what others have said. I agree!

8:54 PM  

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