Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why I didn't challenge our naming conventions when I had the chance to do so

Recently, I had to explain to my 7-year-old daughter why she was to address her new teacher as Ms. White (not her real name).  We were sitting around the dinner table discussing Back to School Night, and my husband was praising "Mrs. White."  I corrected him politely, "I think she should be called Ms. White."  He looked at me puzzled.  After all, I had no trouble in taking his name when we got married, right?  And I don't object vehemently when people address me as Mrs. Vanegas.  That's right, I don't.  But I would prefer to be called Ms.  He raised an eyebrow.

In our decade-long marriage I never mentioned to him that I thought Mrs. Vanegas was strictly reserved for his mother (she, by the way, prefers to be referred to as such).  Oh, well.  He knows quite well of my feminist views, so there should be no surprises there.  He was still perplexed, because to him it seemed I had no problem wearing his beautiful Latin last name as if I were born with it.  But my decision in abandoning my maiden name had little to do with abandoning the old honorific "Missus." 

The alternatives before women are, as you know, few: you may keep your maiden name, take your husband's last name, hyphenate, use your maiden name as a middle name, and couples may even make up an entirely new last name from their two unmarried names.  I have heard of couples who both decided to hyphenate their names, and salute them for this choice, although, in the end, it would yield ridiculously long last names.  There is something endearing in taking our husbands' name, abandoning our fathers' last name and tribe, and joining the new tribe, a new life, as a new entity.  It is quite an accomplishment to find a life-long partner, and we all love to celebrate weddings and anniversaries.  Being called a member of his family was especially important for me, because I moved to this country to spend the rest of my life with him.  So, there: I had plenty of justification in taking his last name (and I didn't have any to keep my maiden name, which I never particularly liked).

Still, I crave to be remembered as my own self, not as somebody's wife or mother.  My mom, a professional woman, and second-generation feminist, never took my dad's name, and was quite annoyed when they called her the wrong name in my school.  I wanted it to be easy for my children's teachera, yet I would, in exchange, expect them to address me as Ms., and not Mrs.  If our name is a matter of our identity, that is where I definitely draw the line.

I am not alone: even in traditional societies, for example, in Italy, women are remembered and memorialized by their maiden names on their tombstones. Scottish women, when widowed, reverted to their maiden name, as this article tells us.  And, according to The Emily Post Institute, Ms. is the default form of address for women, regardless of marital status, in the U.S.  I rest my case.


Yazzyjazzy said...

One thing to think about is what if a couple decides to get a divorce? A woman that has taken her husband's last name has to again change her last name, notify the world of her new e-mail address, and have to go through the painful embarrassment of still being tied to her ex-husband, while the man's name always remains the same.

Although you are right in saying there is something comforting about taking your husband's last name, I would strongly prefer not to give in to this tradition. In fact, I will propose to my future husband the following three options for a last name for BOTH of us and our future children: mine (to break tradition), a hyphenated last name, OR a brand new name altogether that we both come up with.

Yazzyjazzy said...
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Bijorn Turock said...

The symbolic nature of shedding your father’s last name and taking on that of your husband’s does not seem to carry with it the same connotations that it once did in older traditions. Today, many women take on their husband’s last names simply because it is easier to deal with. Not only for them, but also their children as well, which you seem to have highlighted already. Thus, it seems to me, that strong positions taken on either end of the spectrum no longer really serve any purpose, mainly because of the lack of value that is associated with them.

2elle said...

I don't really have strong feelings towards either changing or keeping my last name, but I don't really get the point of calling someone "Mrs." as opposed to "Ms"... especially when there is no distinction between a "Mr." before and after he is married. Maybe at one point it was justified as a term of respect, but on some level I don't like that there is distinction in addressing a married versus a single woman, yet no such distinction exists for a man.