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What's in a name?

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According the Oxford dictionary, maiden name means, "the surname that a married woman used from birth, prior to its being legally changed at marriage." We have no such term for men, but then men are rarely asked to change their names, give up their identities or become someone's property upon marriage.

Recently I conversed with a middle-aged man who was clearly embarrassed by the fact that his wife had kept her surname. He went to great lengths to explain to me that his wife kept her "maiden" name because she had established her career using that name. Not jeopardizing a profitable career for the sake of a name is one way men uncomfortable with their partners keeping their birth name legitimize, and live with, the decision. 

My response to this fellow was simple, I kept my name because why would I want to be anyone else? Or more importantly still, why would I want to give up my identity and personhood for the sake of marriage? Shock registered on his face when I said this because he mistakenly assumed that I had at one time changed my name, given up my independence and forfeited my individuality for the sake of a man.

In my more flippant moments I have been known to point out how prudent my choice of keeping my birth name was because when I divorced my husband I had no additional paperwork to fill out in order to reinstate my identity. I mean, surely you want to begin your single life again as your intact self and not cling to the vestiges of a persona created for you by an outdated pseudonym.

I prefer to refer to my name as my birth name or simply as "my name." I have been Doreen Nicoll since the day I was born and I will be Doreen Nicoll until the day I die. Quite frankly, it never ever occurred to me to give up my identity at any time in my life -- certainly not because I chose to marry.

The argument was once presented to me that using my birth name would cause my children unending confusion and unnecessary grief. How would my kids know that we were a family if we didn't all have the same surname? Well, I had every confidence that I would have exceptional children and they proved me right. Three are adults and two are in their late teens and not a single one suffered at all because I kept my name, my individuality, and personality intact. My decision instilled in my children the need, and the right, for each person to think for, and be, themselves. 

Usurping a woman's name and identity upon marriage is a very effective way of erasing both her individuality and sense of self. It announces to the world that she is owned by her spouse. In its extreme, individual women become completely annihilated when referred to exclusively as "Mrs. John Doe" or "Dr. and Mrs. John Doe." This effectively renders the woman invisible and powerless within the very relationship that should foster mutual love, respect, and equality.

I feel no need to use a prefix before my name, but if pushed into choosing one I always opt for Ms. I continue to be shocked when I attend school functions for my children and hear female teachers being called Mrs. I thought, as a society, we had moved away from using the prefixes Miss and Mrs. These seemingly innocuous terms convey far too much information about a woman to members of the general public who really have no need or right to know about her marital status.  

When I think of all of the incredible women who brought home Olympic and Paralympic medals for Canada, I hope they take the time to consider what they will be giving up if they choose to take their husband's name. However, if these wonderful women choose to keep their birth names then it's not good enough to simply say that they did so because they had pre-established thriving careers. Instead, it would be wonderful for each woman, and her partner, to state clearly that she kept her birth name because that is who she is and always will be. Period.

I do have one regret. I should have given my daughters my last name rather than their father's. In hindsight that would have been a fair compromise -- our two sons get his last name and our three daughters mine. I understand that the last name I would have conferred would still have been from a male descendant, but it would have been my last name and that would have set a precedent. But, it was the 1990s and I conceded to pressures -- I had a hard enough time keeping my own name. Instead, I bestowed my last name to my daughters in the form of their middle names.

Not long ago, I was in the congregational hall of the Barton Stone United Church in Hamilton, Ontario. On the wall was a plaque in memory of Allan Gillan (1938 -1965) and his wife Lynda Bell (1945-1965) both of whom were lost at sea on November 13, 1965. It struck me how progressive and rebellious the 1960s still seem. Even a couple as young and inexperienced as these two could see that marriage should be a mutual journey lovingly entered into by two individuals who treat each other respectfully as equals.  

As we keep hearing, this is 2016. Time for women to be themselves from cradle to grave!


Image credit: flickr/walterpro

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