What’s in a name? // Rebecca Fonville

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Many things can be and are associated with names. A name can represent family, a place of belonging, identity, ethnicity, nationality, responsibility, and pride. Names may have similar meanings for both men and women, however, it seems that women have an extra hurdle. Though men also have the choice of changing their names, it is far more common for a woman to change her name upon marriage than it is for a man to change his . . . ever.

I began thinking about this topic again because of the recent election and everything that was brought up due to various diversity aspects involved. I saw several reports about Hillary Clinton’s name and how it has changed throughout the years. Of course there are emotional and personal aspects of one’s name to consider, let alone the professional and political aspects, especially for someone in Hillary Clinton’s position. Reflecting on Hillary Clinton’s political career and her name changes, it is easy to see that she may have been changing her name for political advantages. However, my concern and disgust with this is not that she may be using her name to appease voters, but that this has been a successful strategy, and in her case, has been beneficial to the campaign. Throughout her political career, she has gone by both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Hillary Clinton on several different occasions, depending on the circumstance. This alone indicates to me how important names are to individuals in our culture. When one does not take her partner’s name, that individual can be seen as opinionated, individualistic, unsupportive, untraditional, uncaring, and heartless. However, when one does take her partner’s name, she can be seen as submissive, family oriented, and unambitious. It seems that women again, are caught in a web of options that only offer losing solutions no matter what they chose.

This conundrum follows most, if not all women, even those not directly involved in politics. I have a friend who is pursuing her doctorate in clinical psychology who has given quite a bit of thought to what she will do when and if she gets married. She has come to a decision that regardless of her marital status, she will keep her maiden name professionally, and perhaps change her last name personally. As we discussed this topic, it also became clear that this method she has chosen creates built-in professional boundaries that could be viewed as an added benefit in her line of work.

Similarly, I have known women who have married after their professional careers have developed that have had a difficult time deciding what to do about this whole name thing. The women I am aware of in this situation decided to hyphenate their maiden name and their partner’s last name, in hopes that they would be able to maintain and embody both parts of themselves.

When I began thinking more about this topic, the psychological ramifications that may present themselves to women making their own choices about their names struck me. Dependency seems to be fostered in a culture and mentality that says to young girls, “this is your temporary name,” or “your true name and identity will be found in a marital partner.” These messages may not be explicitly told to girls, but I remember hearing them as I grew. I loved my last name, and cherished it, but I also looked forward to the opportunity to change it, and dreamed of what it would be. When I was married, I did not even think twice about changing my name, and was honored that I was able to take my partner’s name. However, I am certain I did not think through all of the other ramifications changing my name might have for me. Though I do not think I would change my decision, and I believe there are many lovely things that came out of my own changing of my name, I do believe that I also got caught up in the dependency mind-game the western United States’ culture can play with women, telling them that their identity is found anywhere else than in themselves.

All of this is to say, names mean important things, and perhaps different things to different people and different cultures. However, in the culture of the United States, there seems to be direct guidelines for women on the meaning of names, and even where their identity can be found. It also seems important that the options women have in regard to their name can easily and frequently be cast in a negative light, which may be close to impossible to escape. This is also an experience that is seemingly unique to a woman’s experience. There are many different ways in which women of this society have navigated this experience, and these women may have been motivated by different means. What seems important is that one is aware of the ramifications of this decision that may come, regardless of one’s choice, and what feels most congruent within one’s self.

***Side note: while writing this, I had the thought of why is a maiden name even called a “maiden name?” To me, something about the word “maiden” connotes youth. So, perhaps we should have “old maid” names as well?***

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