What’s with all these marrying women taking their husbands’ names? My November column.
The form was straightforward. Mother’s name. Father’s name. Baby’s name. Sitting in my bed in the maternity ward, I took pen in hand and solemnly performed my first official act as a parent. The hospital lady pointed to “Horowitz,” frowning.
“This is your name?”
“And this is your husband?” She touched the word “Christensen.”
Her finger hovered accusingly over the surname I’d filled in for our daughter.
“Aren’t you afraid people will think you’re not married?”
The possibility had occurred to us. It was one of several arguments we’d rejected when we so carefully considered our child’s name.
In Judaism, names are powerful stuff. When Avram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, they formalize their partnership in God’s covenant with two little letters. Throughout the Torah, people and places are constantly getting named – and thereby defined. Why can’t we know God’s name? Because we can’t know God.
A friend recently mentioned someone’s “magic” name. She meant “Hebrew.” There is something magical about Hebrew names. They call us to the Torah and tell God we need healing. They link us to loved ones we never knew, and send a signal to other Jews. In my public elementary school, calling Judy “Yehudit” was like sharing a secret handshake.
And like all magical things, Hebrew names can be dangerous. My parents gave their children Biblical first names and secular middle names; I’m Ruth Alice. In the 1950s, so soon after the Holocaust, those secular names were like amulets. If I ever needed to “pass,” I could go by Alice, and still feel like myself. Presumably, I would drop the “Horowitz.”
That’s not likely to happen. I could have shed the “Horowitz” when I married David Christensen. But I kept my name. And I would have done the same if his name were David Cohen.
As a feminist, I recoiled at the custom of a woman giving up her name and taking her husband’s, while he kept his. The tradition suggested she was ceasing to be herself and becoming his property, while he remained essentially unchanged. Keeping your name asserted that you were remaining your own person. It marked the marriage as a union of equals.
But wasn’t keeping your own name, well, un-romantic? And didn’t your “maiden” name (loaded term) suggest you belonged to your father? Maybe, but why perpetuate sexism?
In college, my friends and I threw around arguments late into the night, sprawled across the beds in somebody’s dorm room. We were convinced that by the time we were grandparents, names would no longer designate women as secondary. The only question was how best to retool the tradition.
A popular compromise was the hyphenated surname. But what would the next generation do? Pretty soon, names would become too unwieldy to fit on the hospital lady’s form. Plus, hyphenating couples usually put the woman’s name first. By the time children came along, the maternal surname became a middle name, and was dropped. The best solution, I was convinced, was for the couple to choose a new name. That way they could maintain their equality, identify their union, and celebrate their new, married identities through the time-honored ritual of name changing.
As it happened, David was no more interested in changing his name than he was in me changing mine. As for children, when we looked around at friends who had kept their names, we noticed that in 99 percent of cases, the kids got the father’s name. To counter the trend, David favored naming our hypothetical offspring “Horowitz”. That worked for me. Especially when I imagined how weird “Christensen” would look on the forms when I enrolled said issue in Hebrew School.
Have people wondered if David is our children’s father? Some. But so what? Sophie and Sam have had to answer more questions about their name than most kids. But those conversations have provided teachable moments. And that was pretty much the point.
I have only regretted our decision once, when my Vermont shul was debating policy around intermarried families, and the atmosphere grew contentious. I would have enjoyed pointing out that the young woman tutoring the b’nei mitzvah students and the young man sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah were Christensens. But that’s for a different column.
When Sophie got married last summer, she and her fiancé were as convinced as David and I that a wedded woman should keep her name. Surprisingly, though, few of their peers seem to share this view. Sure, lots women have good, specific reasons to want to take their husband’s names. But that doesn’t explain the trend.
What became of the post-sexist world we envisioned? Has it been swept aside by an anti-feminist backlash? Do people believe we’ve progressed to the point where feminism is moot? Are we seeing an upsurge of neo-traditionalist romanticizing? Maybe I’m missing something. I hope all these bright, independent young women don’t believe that names don’t matter.