Marriages & Last Names, or that Time I Changed Mine

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In grade-school, as summer vacation came to a close, my body felt sun-sick and lazy. Ready for change. I wondered what everyone was like now.  New clothes, haircut, lingo. Who would I be this year? I lived in the kind of town where front yards were gaps of grass between mud-streaked toys and random toilets or bathtubs. There were kids who came back without new school supplies and  kids who came back as someone else entirely, correcting the new teacher with their new name.

Usually it was a new last name, or  what was assumed to have once been a middle name. In fifth grade, a skinny,  gummy-mouthed girl just changed the pronunciation of her name. “I’m not Tabitha anymore. I’m Tab-EYE-tha now.”

When I am at a cocktail party or networking event, a drink in one hand the other outstretched in handshake, I say my full name: Rachel Rabbit White. It brings the same sort of reaction I imagine Tab-eye-tha would. After an awkward moment of processing, people want to know what kind of parents I had. “No, my parents didn’t name me. I did, I changed my name legally.”

I changed my name, like the tradition goes, when I got married. But instead of taking Ned’s name or creating an unfortunate meld of our parents last names, we made a new one. White. Pure. Clean slate. New beginning.

It’s been estimated that about 90% of married women take their husband’s name. That’s actually more women than in the feminist-laced 70′ and 80′s. According to a study by Harvard professor Claudia Goldin, the number of college-educated women in their 30s keeping their name has dropped from 23 percent in 1990 to 17 percent in 2000. Like many gendered traditions kept alive, there’s an urge to shrug it off as: “feminism is about choice”. But the sour taste left is palpable.

Keeping your maiden name was once more than a feminist stance, it was a movement. In 1850 a suffragette in Massachusetts named Lucy Stone decided to keep her name when she married Henry Blackwell. Not without reason, Lucy Stone is is clearly a cut and a half above the homely Lucy Blackwell.

In 1921 the Lucy Stone League was founded by women devoting themselves to the “preservation of women’s names.” And they are still going with a website, that pronounces in a goofy font: “Until naming practices are equal, women will not be considered equal to men in the U.S. In fact, the measure of naming should be used as an index of the real freedom of women and girls in our society. The primary effect of the Lucy Stone League is to encourage women to keep their birth names…”

Where the Lucy Stone arguments fall, winded after a minute on the soapbox, is in the value on the family name as though it is more meaningful, as tie to something personal, uniquely you. While we share things like genetics, history and Christmases with our families, they are random. Placing blind  importance on family doesn’t hold up in the modern world, where you create your life, your family and often your name. On a more obvious note, family names are just as sexist, denoting the same old world ownership to the patriarch.

The tradition of women taking their fathers and husbands names goes back, unsurprisingly, to the bible. A google search yields that the main reasons are: to protect wealth and family, acknowledge god’s presence in the marriage and to signify a new life direction. When one  found a new life purpose, this was announced by a change of name.

One of the things I love about subverting traditions and gender roles it’s that  you can choose which traditions you find charming and which you want to reject. When I changed my name, it was changing with the interior, making my name something I felt comfortable in. It was a new life direction.

As I sat in those grade-school classrooms, in hot Septembers without air conditioning, I felt a tinge of jealousy and wonder in these kids. Where did they find the courage to stand up and say, call me _________ now.

With the Internet, we can all casually change our names. Choosing the name that feels right is for everyone, not just writers or budding starlets. Before I changed my name legally I was already Rabbit White online.  So when Ned became Edmund X White, it was a secret feminist maneuver, him taking my real name, really.

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