A friend from high school, one of only two I’ve kept in touch with, recently joined Facebook and sent me a friends request. She’d been Googling other friends from long ago, and it suddenly occurred to me that if anyone who knew me 20 years ago or more was looking for me, they’d have a hard time finding me, since anything I’ve done Google-worthy is listed under my married name. Because it’s always fun to hear from old friends, I’m listing my maiden name as a tag on this post so it will show up on Google searches. Some of my smarter married friends have Facebook pages that use the “Hillary Rodham Clinton” or “Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy” format so old friends can find them, but that didn’t occur to me when I registered with Facebook. My (very few) academic publications back in the days BC (Before Children) appeared under the three-name format, but I haven’t bothered with that degree of formality for years.
It just dawned on me that I happened to choose two Democrat First Ladies as examples of the three-name format. Is this a left/right thing? I have no idea what Laura Bush’s maiden name was. Or Barbara Bush’s or Pat Nixon’s, for that matter. On the other hand, Michelle Obama only uses two names, and Rosalynn Carter and Bess Truman were just Rosalynn Carter and Bess Truman, so I guess it isn’t. And Eleanor Roosevelt, who seems like the type to have gone the three-name route, didn’t, but that was probably because Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt would have sounded odd.
Around ten years ago (in the mists of time BC), I delivered a paper at a conference of the Association of Ancient Historians, and I recall a conversation with several other women there about maiden vs. married names. One of the younger ones (I was still one of the younger ones back then) and most of the older ones had, like me, taken their husbands’ names, but most who were my age and younger had not. Outside academia, it tilts the other way: most of my friends my age, and even most of those who are younger, do use their married names, though a significant minority do not.
In practice, the divide isn’t strictly ideological. I have friends who are staunch Republicans and have kept their maiden names (one of them even has children whose surnames are hyphenated blends of her name and his) and very liberal friends who took their husbands’ names when they married. In theory, however, it tends to be, and the hard line feminist ideologues insist that it ought to be. In a 2004 piece for The Nation called “Sex and the Stepford Wife,” Katha Pollitt wrote:
Women have learned to describe everything they do, no matter how apparently conformist, submissive, self-destructive or humiliating, as a personal choice that cannot be criticized because personal choice is what feminism is all about. Women have become incredibly clever at explaining these choices in ways that barely mention social pressures or male desires. How many bright little essays have I read by young brides who insist that giving up their names is just the sensible, logical, mature, modern, feminist thing to do, the very proof of their marriage’s egalitarianism? Probably they actually believe this. And yet, were it not for those social and masculine pressures, it is difficult to imagine that women would make some of the “personal” choices they now truculently defend.
With words like “truculently” Pollitt depicts the woman who opts for tradition as an intellectual child, someone who doesn’t really understand what is good for her. But is it really outside the realm of possibility to say that changing one’s name upon marriage does have a certain logic, especially if the couple is planning to have children?
Let’s say Mary Anderson marries John Baker, remains Mary Anderson, and insists that her daughter be called Mary Anderson-Baker. Young Ms. Anderson-Baker grows up and marries Tom Carter-Davis, the product of right-thinking feminist parents who gave him both of their names, and they name their daughter Mary Anderson-Baker-Carter-Davis. This young lady marries Fred Evans-Feinstein-Garcia-Hu, and their daughter is Mary Anderson-Baker-Carter-Davis-Evans-Feinstein-Garcia-Hu… Where, in theory, does it end? Doesn’t there have to be some point, an arbitrary point, perhaps, but a point nonetheless, where the name-combining simply cannot go on?
I understand why my friend whose children bear both parents’ names did what she did. As a female only child with a strong sense of history, she did not want to see her family name end with her. I respect her choice, and she in turn didn’t tell me I was a dupe of the patriarchy for taking, and giving my children, my husband’s name. Hyphenated British aristocrats are testimony to the fact that there were quite a few couples even before the advent of feminism who saw fit to join two family names together.
As a teenager, I planned on circumventing the problem altogether by simply marrying Harrison Ford and, like Eleanor Roosevelt, being able to have my cake and eat it too. It didn’t work out that way, of course, and although I lost my last name, at least I don’t have a husband who’s eligible for Social Security.