Friday, 21 November 2008

Fun With Names

I have a terribly important job doing other people's grunt work. It's a combination of copying things from one place to another and dashing round like a mad thing because a piece of paper has gone missing. As you may imagine, this isn't so taxing for the brain cells, so my mind likes to go somewhere else while my fingers type and my legs dash and my hair goes frizzy. A reasonable chunk of my daily work involves inputting employment tribunal cases to a database (it was actually all my daily work today - grrr, argh, bloody people calling in sick), and I've developed a tendency to invent lives for these people based on where they live, what they've chosen as their email address, the reason they're suing. Of course, sometimes I just laugh at their names. My juvenility has been well-documented here.

Names interest me. Beyond the base level "who would call their child Tangy?" and "hehe, Mr Vincent-Squibb" (I apologise to any Tangys or Vincent-Squibbs that may be reading - this is my problem, not yours), it brings up a lot of gender questions. Often solicitors do not put an honorific on their forms. This leads to many bemused discussions among us grunt-workers: is this a man's name or a woman's name? Is this a male or a female Alex? Is R Jones a Richard or a Rachel? And this, in turn, leads me to wonder why on earth we need to know. I mean, we ask the questions of each other because it affects what we type in - is the salutation Mr Jones or Ms Jones, all that stuff. But why is that necessary? Why do we need to know someone's gender in order to send them a form letter? What, in all seriousness, is the point?

It seems strange to me that in this day and age, we haven't developed a gender-neutral honorific or salutation. It shouldn't, I suppose, since the world hasn't really come round to "Ms" yet. My ex once told me off for putting "Ms" on a form because "that's for divorced women". My mother likes to tell me that "Ms" is ridiculous. No more ridiculous than having to surreptitiously inquire about female colleagues' marital status because I'm not sure how to refer to them in a letter. No more ridiculous than realising you know exactly which women in the office are married but have no corresponding knowledge about any of the men. It's bloody stupid. At this juncture, I'd like to throw in a complaint about "Miss". I hate being called "Miss". It makes me feel eight.

Women have a tricky time with this stuff. Whatever we choose to call ourselves, we will be judged on it. Some people think they can suss out our whole personalities from whether we choose Mrs or Miss or Ms. And then, inevitably, we have to look at the whole surname thing. This is a difficult one to bring up, as any opinions on the subject are bound to piss someone off, and with good reason - names are an intensely personal thing, and we don't want to feel we're being judged negatively when we've done what we feel is the right thing for us. With that in mind, I'll tell you which corner I sit in.

I always assumed, fairly complacently, that I would take my husband's name when I got married. Firstly, I don't like my surname very much, secondly, it wasn't something I thought I had much choice about, and thirdly, I'd heard all those practical arguments - what about the kids? This is clearly the best option for them. During my relationship with my ex, I spun right round (like a record, baby, right round) on this issue. I remember telling him I'd take his name. I assumed I would for several years. Then, when we got officially engaged, my mind started rebelling. That's not my name. I said so to my friends, and all of them laughed at me, but the more I thought about it, the clearer it became. That's not my name. Part of this, I'm sure, was my writer's obsession with symbolism - I couldn't stand the implication that I would be leaving my family, which has always been wonderful, loving and supportive, and becoming part of his, which has never been any of those things. I told my ex, either both of us change or neither of us do. We take a new name or we keep our own. And if we keep our own, then have children, they aren't getting your name. I thought perhaps my stance might soften after we broke up, imagining that it was in large part due to problems with his family, but it wasn't and it hasn't. I do like my symbolism, and I will not change for a man who will not change for me. Simple as that. My mother says I should hold off on making any decisions like this, in case the man I marry has a really nice surname. So what? I bet we could pick a better one.

You hear a lot of arguments for changing versus not changing versus hyphenating versus taking a new name, and the only ones that bother me are the ones that hinge on women as a monolithic group should do, as opposed to what's best for the arguer individually. If your name isn't a big deal, fine. If you wanted to take his name, fine. If you would never in a million years want to share a name with your husband, fine. But don't tell me that name-changing is something wives should do for their husbands. Don't tell me that women who do change are tools of the patriarchy. You think the concept of name-changing is bizarre, fine. You think women who do it are bizarre, not fine. I don't feel like any of us have the right to stomp around telling other people how they should refer to themselves, which is why I will never, ever marry a man who demands I become Mrs Hisname, for any reason. Don't tell me what my name is.

On a global, political scale, this issue doesn't matter that much to me, although I am dying to see a reduction in the various stigmas attached to women's choices in this area, and to men's choices to do anything besides keep their names and have lots of mini-Theirnames. I cannot muster up the indignation to criticise a woman for what she wants to call herself. It's her damn name. But at the same time, on a personal level this is intensely important to me, maybe irrationally so. It is strangely vital to me that you, whoever "you" may be in this scenario, cannot tell me what my name is. It must be something I have control over. I must not become a Jones or a de la Garza or a Snott-Pickling simply because of who I fall in love with. It makes no sense. My name, of all things, must be my decision.


Sian said...

Kris and I have discussed the name thing. I was very against changing my name at first, but he said it would mean the world to him, so I agreed, on one condition - I take my current surname as a middle name, and so does he. He's fine with that.

I completely agree that it should be up to the individual woman. I've read comments online that imply I should feel like a bad feminist for wanting to take his name - but isn't feminism supposed to be about freedom of choice?

Jen said...

Feminism as it relates to names is an interesting one - clearly taking a man's name is not the most feminist choice available, but no woman is going to make the most feminist choice every time. It just makes me cross that anyone thinks they have the right to tell someone else what she should be called. I don't understand why anyone would care. It really gets on my nerves. All this probably means I'm going to end up falling for a serious traditionalist and have to have endless arguments about it: "How can you say my name is more important to you than it is to me? What is WRONG with you?"

Great, now I'm fighting with my imaginary future husband...