What’s in a name?
I always knew
I’d keep my name no matter whom I married. But that
makes me more of a trendsetter now. A study in the spring 2004 Journal
of Economic Perspectives reports a decreasing trend since the
1990s of college-educated women keeping their surnames upon marriage
or after a child’s birth. Claudia Goldin, a Harvard professor,
and Maria Shim, a 2001 Harvard graduate, observe that a woman is
more likely to take her husband’s surname when her father-in-law
is prominent. She is less likely to take her husband’s name
if her father-in-law is in the arts or academic professions.
Women who marry later and establish their careers often keep their
names. I married my college sweetheart at the age of twenty-five
in 1996, the time the transformation of women keeping their surnames
happened. It was during law school so I had not yet “established”
a career. I happen to like the way my name sounds. It just fits
together. Salman Rushdie liked it enough to make “Spenta Cama”
a main character in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. I could
never imagine being “Spenta Kennedy” or have any other
last name, no matter how legendary. My husband knew I would keep
my name and said he didn’t mind. I teased him a few days after
our engagement with a line from the movie Forget Paris.
Imitating a character whose identity is known only through her husband,
that of “Mrs. John,” I said that now I could be “Mrs. Adam.”
But I don’t want my identity dependent on my spouse. Lucy
Stone, a pioneer feminist and crusader for women’s suffrage,
didn’t either as the first woman in the United States to keep
her name after marrying in 1855. I’m Spenta Cama first, then
Adam’s wife. Not taking Adam’s last name doesn’t
mean I love him any less, though you wouldn’t have known by
my family member’s reactions. My cousin remarked she was surprised
at my decision since family is so important to me. But just because
I was getting married, was the family I came from any less significant?
And of course I got the what-will-happen-when-you-have-kids question.
I said I’d deal with it when necessary. My father, a traditionalist
at heart, still addresses correspondence to us using “Mr.
and Mrs.” with my spouse’s surname. I told him if I
ever became a Supreme Court Justice, wouldn’t he prefer that
I carry his name and be Justice Cama. Although such a professional
accomplishment is unlikely to occur, he smiled and nodded. But his
letters still arrive with “Mr. and Mrs.” as do many
It’s funny the extent society places on traditionalism and
convenience. Going against the grain creates confusion and can even
provoke anger. When my brother’s wife decided to change her
surname to Cama, but use her birth surname as her middle initial,
the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles could not handle it.
She explained the name she wanted on her driver’s license
and was told, “We don’t do that in America.” The
procedure for a name change is so convoluted that kits are sold
on the Internet to streamline the process for Social Security and
the IRS. My sister-in-law’s experience made me realize the
bureaucracy I circumvented simply by keeping my name.
When I called contractors for work estimates on various house projects,
I couldn’t help but smile when an electrician addressed the
estimate to “Mr. and Mrs. Cama.” So that’s what
it feels like. Service providers I phone about our accounts often
call me “Mrs. S____” since the bills are in Adam’s
name. Newspaper columnist Ellen Goodman once wrote that taking the
time to explain she is a “Ms.” and not “Mrs.”
depends on how high the water is in the basement. I adhere to that
philosophy. When I’m referred to as “Mrs. S____”
I go along with it, though that’s my mother-in-law. When I’m
called “Mrs. Cama,” I think of my mother. Yes, I give
in to bureaucratic pressure, too, even though I’ve kept my
name. I’m sure the service provider doesn’t want to
hear that I’m “Ms. Cama” since s/he didn’t
think to address me with “Ms.” in the first place.
The Harvard study does note that some women who maintained their
surnames at marriage subsequently adopted their husbands’
surnames after having children. Once Adam and I decided on first
names prior to our son’s arrival two years ago, we tackled
the issue. To his credit, we had an open discussion. We contemplated
the possibility of hyphenating the child’s last name, but
then only our kids would have a name in common. And of course, bureaucracy
reared its ugly head. How does one fit a hyphenated surname on an
SAT form? What happens if that child marries someone with a hyphenated
name? So my son ended up with four official names on his birth certificate—
his first name, middle name, my surname, and then Adam’s surname—
a mouthful by many people’s standards. We followed suit for
my daughter's recent birth, too. But I did this knowing that they
will be identified only by their first and last names among friends
and by society. Their legal names, however, include their full family line.
Every woman should have the freedom to decide whether a name change
is for her or not, independent of societal and familial pressure.
We all keep our individuality regardless of the name we carry. Isn’t
that what we should focus on instead of society’s comfort
of dictating who we should be?
mmo : March 2005