I’ve was getting coffee with a law-school chum today, and somehow I got going on the topic of name-changing. I can think of several contexts for when an individual’s name would change: most commonly, a woman, upon marrying a man, changes her last name to his. Presumably, this has been going on for many years, at least in the Western world, and has become something of a societal norm, though more and more we see hyphenations and even women who keep their names.
The second circumstance in which we see the name-change is when an international student, often Asian, studies stateside, and takes on an American name in order to be better understood.
The third situation in which we’ve historically seen name-changing is among Native American communities. When the United States census swept through the countryside, government workers were unable to pronounce, or even find the letters to spell Indigenous names phonetically, and so they renamed people John and Charlie and George and Vernon, and gave the women the names of the men. Historically, many Native tribes operated under a matriarchy, such as the Navajo people, wherein the children took the mother’s last name – but I digress.
The point is that name-changing is something important, something historical, and something that still goes on today, and I want to examine why this is such a common American trope, and, for some people, even, an American value.
The Wedding Name Change
I looked into the history of name-changing inasmuch as marriage is concerned, and found that there are a couple reasons why women historically changed their names. The first, according to thefeministbride.com, was that when Sarah, of the Old Testament, married Abraham, she no longer existed as Sarah, but as wife-of-Abraham. The second is that the son inherited all, and having the father’s name proved he wasn’t a bastard child. This was before paternity tests.
Obviously, the second reason is far from convincing and is almost obsolete at this point in time. The first is more problematic. In the church, there’s this concept of husband and wifehood, wherein the family dynamic takes on antiquated gender roles that seem like they came out of the fifties with the husband as the head of the house and the wife as submissive (yes, this is a direct quote from the Bible – don’t believe me? I wish I were joking) –
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
That’s Ephesians 5:22-23. It goes onto say “Husband, love your wives.” Within this “submission” is the concept of “covering.” In the church – and I’m coming out of, and by coming out of, I mean to say, leaving, a very republican tradition – there’s this idea that women need to be covered by a man.
When a woman marries a man, she comes under his protection, apparently, and as such, she takes his name. It’s part of the two-becoming-one thing. And I get that. I really do. Except that, for me, this is problematic. I get that it’s romantic. Even I sit around thinking about changing my last name when I have a random, rogue crush (a rare event, in any case). I wonder what I would do – already having publications, presumably with a novel coming out at some point in the next couple years, and building a professional basis for myself as Misty Ellingburg, of course I get curious about what would happen if I had that Cinderella moment and was swept off my feet.
But here’s the thing: I sweep myself off of my own feet every single day. I’m incredibly brave and super strong and I am constantly lifting myself up. I don’t need another person to put a ring on my finger – if I want a ring, I’ll go buy one for myself. And I don’t need a prince or princess type to save me – because along with my mom and dad, my brothers and sisters, my friends, my favorite rock stars, actors and actresses, novelists and poets, and who can forget the Big Guy Upstairs, I’m my own Prince Charming. I don’t need anyone’s protection and I certainly don’t need their covering. I worry that the very idea of covering is rooted in deep, patriarchal values that are obsolete, and I wonder if women aren’t somewhat deceived when they feel a moral obligation to their religion or partner to change their names.
Furthermore, I come from the Native American culture, in which name-changing served as an act of forced colonialism, a kind of cultural genocide akin with forcing children not to speak their languages or practice their cultures. And when my students, who have beautiful, foreign names that I butcher with my American tongue, ask me to call them an American name, I think, okay, that is their choice, but I want to call them their own name, that is a part of who they are.
Yet, they’re forging new identities, too. As international students. As English-speakers in an trade-English-speaking world. So maybe my international students are becoming more than their birth names. Maybe their second name is a kind of super power, a status-booster, a symbol of the new, multi-cultural beings they are becoming.
And maybe when a woman changes her name, she is saying, look, I’ll never stop being (insert maiden name here), because that’s my past, but I’m molding myself into this new future, and this new family, and that’s okay, too.
But for me, I don’t see it happening. I remember when I was engaged, and I planned to change my name, because I really thought I had to. My mom would say I was excited to change my name, but I don’t think I was. I remember seeing my fiance writing Misty S. in his notebook at church. Misty S. Misty S.Misty S. And something in me said, No, that’s not me. I’m Misty Ellingburg. M.E. My very initials spell out me. But within this new set of initials was the idea that I was becoming a new person – someone’s wife, perhaps, in time, another person’s mother, and a whole new family’s sister-in-law, daughter-in-law, granddaughter-by-extension, and I could not be that person, with all those expectations, and the weight of that family’s past, and their needs, and their dreams, their hopes. It was burdensome, and I wanted to be Misty Ellingburg.
And I am happy to say that I still am, to this day, and even though I have sometimes-pleasant daydreams in which my name is change, I think I’ll be Misty Ellingburg for a long time. Maybe forever. Or maybe there will be a hyphenation, or we’ll both change our names. I would rather we both did. Because then it’s really two becoming one, and us both covering, and taking care of, and protecting each other, and forging that same new identity, but on equal footing, one with the other.