The Journey of Changing My Name
Birthdays are significant. They hold memories and remind us of our age. As of late each year brings me closer to my truer self. Earlier this year I decided I’d accomplish two goals by the time I turned 56: lose weight and change my name.
Shy of a few more days, before I turn 56, I know losing that certain amount of weight, isn’t realistically going to happen.
Weight and I have had a long life of debate. Although this time around keeping the weight on has not upset me like it has in the past.
My body is my home and learning to take care of her is a lifetime relationship teaching me kindness and treating her as someone who is worthy of being respected and loved.
So, in a very tender and paradoxically way, I did reach that milestone with an ample rapport of self-love and acceptance. Even being able to write and feel the essence of that sentence is an accomplishment.
My second goal was to return my current last name to my birth surname. I resist calling it my “maiden name” because of the damsel in distress vibe I’ve always felt it conjured up.
Nevertheless, I set myself a plan of action and started the name changing process this past week and of course, that triggered a sequence of soul events that burned off layers of shame that even I didn’t realize were there.
Shame is hidden and when exposed it doesn’t quite know what to do with all that visibility. So, I turned to writing for companionship and support through this process.
The Name Changing Journey
History has consumed Herstory so well, that not once but several times I was pulled under by an invisible raging patriarchy that instilled in me to dismiss my surname as soon as I was married. The first time was in my very early 20's. I fully believed I had finally achieved what I had been primed and conditioned to be — a wife.
What was missing from this societal and familial dream was the house, the white picket fence, and living around the corner from where I was born.
Pressing my eyes closed, I can still see the mirage that was supposed to be my destiny.
It never felt real.
Instead, I thought I was being the family rebel as well as courageous to follow my new husband to live in a different state, 8-hours away from where I was raised and support him while he got his graduate degree. My career and further education were put on hold.
No one noticed that I was supporting us.
If we ate out, he was given the bill. When we signed up for utilities and our first apartment — his name was first. I was taught, all too well, that the man of the house ruled, and that fear was first to love.
Yet changing my name, back then, to his — left me confused. Nonetheless, while I slowly got accustomed to his last name, it felt as if a piece of me was missing. But, I pushed those doubts and feelings away because I was grappling with a new life, new office work, no friends, and a violent new husband all the while my phantom former last name haunted and taunted me saying, “What did you do? You fool! You gave up the one piece of you that was real.” The voices often became unbearable.
Clearly my name changes have been mixed. On one hand, relief that I had achieved the Club of Couplehood and therefore a dignified social acceptance. The knowing look couples can give each other. The inside jokes that aren’t funny to anyone else, but people politely smile and laugh just because you are married… And, in general, the unspoken deference about partnership.
And on the other hand, I’ve shared an inner sore spot of contention — why do women need to acquiesce and go through the arduous process of changing their name? Everything from a driver’s license, social security, memberships, credit cards, utilities, and a dozen other policies and procedures while the man frequently doesn’t recognize what a privilege they have to remain independent. In general, they get to carry their name on forever.
I sincerely don’t know how not to process deeper emotions, thoughts, and feelings without going into a perfectionist, researching, full-heart-wearing dive. Therefore this led me to wonder about the origins of why women often changed their last name when they get married.
Law of Coverture
In the ninth century English law and shortly thereafter American law decided that women when married would take their husband’s name and the two were treated as one entity. Suffice to say, the woman’s autonomy was dependent on her husband and her ‘maiden name’ was no longer of use.
The Law of Coverture, as it was called, states, “the wife’s separate legal existence disappeared as far as property rights and certain other rights were concerned.”
Under this law, wives could rarely own property with exception to those who implemented this right prior to marriage. In addition, they could not file lawsuits, be sued separately, execute contracts, and husbands could do whatever they pleased with her property without her permission. (Lewis)
In my research, I found this other quote by Sir William Blackstone, written in 1765 rather startling:
“By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything; and is therefore called … a feme-covert (a married woman)….”
That’s a damn long time for society to be condition into believing ‘this is the only way.’ Women have been oppressed, negated, and treated as a possession because it eliminates the female’s contribution to a marriage by slowly erasing her — starting with her last name.
One can imagine how women were shunned over the centuries if/when a woman left her husband. To only then be treated as an outcast, without collateral and destined to live her life alone because a divorced woman had no way to survive.
Shockingly enough it’s only been about 45 years since women were ‘allowed’ to have a credit. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1972 (effective October 28, 1975). Basically, it was created to stop the discrimination for giving credit on the basis of sex and marital status.
What if women were given equal rights centuries ago, and didn’t have to give up their name and didn’t have to succumb to a man?
Where would women be now, if we weren’t shamed, shunned, and dismissed by staying single, or if we did choose to marry, we maintained our individuality?
And while on the topic what about same sex marriages and the atrocious, bigoted judgements aimed at discriminating that love is love?
There’s a slight trend of change and “today, an estimated 20 percent of American women opt to retain their birth name after marriage — actually a lower percentage than in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, many women saw keeping their birth name as an equality issue — a repudiation of any vestiges of coverture. For today’s brides, however, the choice is often practical or rooted in professional identity.” (Reid)
Partner/Companion vs. Husband/Wife
The first time I heard the term ‘partner’ was by an acquaintance and I assumed she meant her business partner. It never occurred to me that she was referring to an intimate and romantic relationship.
Years later, another friend used the word, ‘partner’ and once again, I assumed this time it meant a colleague.
Neither friend implied this was someone they loved. Also, the term partner, wasn’t in my awareness or vocabulary or personal experience to see a significant other as a ‘partner’ — someone who shared equally in a relationship, who was respected and kept their individuality.
I found that remarkably awe inspiring and with all due respect and recognition ‘partner’ is derived from the LGBTQ community. My sincerest ‘thank you’ is extended for this non-gendered and respectful term.
Another word to define an intimate relationship other than spouse, husband or wife, is companion.
Webster defines companion as one that joins or accompanies another, whether on a journey or in the journey of life.
How beautiful it would be to say, this is my companion and knowing we are journeying, equally and together in this life.
And a more poetic definition of companion, is when I readthe words of Gabriel García Márquez:
“…Madly in love after so many years of sterile complicity, they enjoyed the miracle of living each other as much at the table as in bed, and they grew to be so happy that even when they were two worn-out people they kept on blooming like little children and playing together like dogs.”
Back to My Story
The afternoon of my recent name change, I got overwhelmingly emotional while waiting in a small courthouse room, shifting my uncomfortableness and nervousness in the church-like pew seating and noticing everything but in particular, the circles of my journey with my first name change and now; and a deep knowing this is the right time and the last time.
The judge and clerk were kind. The lawyer calling out names to represent those with driving infractions — and me waiting until the room was empty and the clerk audibly whispered to the judge, “we have one more.”
Misty-eyed and touched — described me well. I asked for two copies of the court order and carried each in a separate hand. This held me.
Gratefully, I wasn’t shamed by being asked in a derogatory manner, why the name change? I was respected and received a warm congratulations.
It felt like go forth with your name and stand tall with who she is and what she’s been through and has become. Follow the intuition of staying close to your heart and what truly matters. Speak your mind to the uncertainties. Be a strong, centered, sensitive female voice. A name is one part of you and the rest of you is built on self-esteem, worthiness, your creativity and intelligence born from a seed ‘lifetimes’ ago. Your biggest companions are Nature, your soul, and writing.
Lewis, Jone Johnson. “Law of Coverture.” ThoughtCo, Feb. 25, 2019, thoughtco.com/coverture-in-english-american-law-3529483.
Liz. “Women and Credit — A Brief History.” Direct Lending Solutions, Dec. 29, 2018, directlendingsolutions.com/women-and-credit.htm.
Márquez, Gabriel, García. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1967.
Reid, Stephanie, J.D. “History Behind Maiden vs. Married Names.” Seattle Bride Magazine,
Romack, Coco. “Who Gets to Use the Term ‘Partner’?” Broadly, Sept. 18, 2018. broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/ev7xpp/who-can-say-partner-queer-straight-nonbinary.