Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Fair maiden's names? 

There seems to be a revived debate about maiden's names in several blogs at the moment (here, here and here, for example), in reaction to an article by Katie Roiphe. The original article, I think, is pretty careless and pretty reactionary. Roiphe mentions a lot of the discussions going on about what options women can go for when marrying, but ends up concluding that the falling number of people keeping their maiden names means the battle's been won and people no longer need to think about it. It's often convenient to take a husband's name, so why not do it?

Perhaps because it's convenient, as Matthew Yglesias suggests (see second link above). As long as women choose to take their husband's, or indeed their father's, name just because it's convenient, they don't really seem to be making a meaningful choice. They're simply succumbing to external pressures. In this particular debate I don't have any fixed opinion on what a woman should do, except that whatever she does she should make a careful decision about it and what it means in relation to her identity.

My mother kept her maiden name because she was working in radio at the time and because she wanted old friends listening to her to be able to recognise her and get in touch (I suspect there must also be some satisfaction in knowing that those who weren't friends will recognise you too); because most of her friends were keeping their maiden name; and because she didn't like the sound of her name joined to my father's surname (besides, Mrs. Cotterill to him was his mother). She didn't see much in the way of feminism in the choice, since - as the old point goes - it's just choosing one man's name over another.

I have both names, which always led friends at school to ask why I had a male middle name (as I got older, people stopped asking, I guess from 'manners') - I told them it was so I'd have a name ready and waiting for when the gender re-assignment operation came through, and that shut them up. But the maiden name battle's certainly not been won - I was regarded as odd for having both parents' names, even at my hippy junior school (where several others were the same); and at my secondary school my first year form tutor always treated my mother very oddly when meeting her, as if doubting her honour and would, I think deliberately, often forget her surname...

So, were I to marry, I'd think seriously about keeping my maiden name as something symbolic, just as a step along the path for breaking down that 'convenience' barrier. On the other hand, it seems strange to have both of my parents' names, and not the name of my partner. Three surnames, or whatever, is obviously too much, and the option of choosing bits of them would probably make me sound like some space age robot, or an STD (Coupteroyd and Colloyland being two possible configurations). But I would like to make some suggestion that I was as connected to my 'family of choice' as my family of birth, to my future as much as to my past and formative identity...

I don't attach much importance to questions of posterity - as I don't intend to have any children, and if I did then passing my genes onto them is surely punishment enough; I needn't inflict my name on them too. My choice would probably be to take one name at one time and one at another; my father's at the post office, my mother's online, and an invented name when I'm on the run from the law, for example. Doing just this has proved very convenient for internet contact, where going under my mother's name (for instance in signing up to things which might prove to be firms of axe murderers come to track me down) has been routine for many years. But as with any 'pseudonym' there are, and would be, problems when different areas of my life coincide. I've had enough problems with explaining to people why I appear to have two surnames that these days I just go with my father's.

So maybe convenience is a factor after all...

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