The Name Game

There is an interesting discussion going on over at Lauren’s place about the politics of changing one’s name after marriage. I’m not married now, but I know that if I ever do get married, I’m not changing my name. First of all, I’ve got a kickass Italian name, so changing to something from a different culture would just seem like a lie to me—it’s not who I am. Who I am is a first generation Italian-American, born to Sicilian immigrants; my name ties me to my heritage. And I’ve been this person for twenty-seven years—that isn’t going to change simply because I’ve signed a marriage license. I think I embody my name—it’s complex, melodic, and unique; this is how I like to think of myself.

My father once introduced me to a friend of his and we had the oddest exchange: I shook his hand and introduced myself, to which he replied "Annamaria, was Genovese is now…??" I was completely taken aback. I sputtered something along the lines of "Is Genovese, and will stay that way,*" and promptly excused myself. I’m not sure if he was just trying to figure out my marital status (hint: asking "Are you married?" works), but what truly shocked me is that this was an Italian man who should have known that Italian women don’t change their names! Of my literally hundreds of relatives who still live in the same small Sicilian town, I can’t think of a single woman whose name changed after marriage. Even my Zia Anna, who was adopted by my grandparents, and who obsessively mourned her beloved dead husband for fifty years, was a Genovese until the day she died.

I also can’t help but think of the feminist implications of keeping your birth name. The tradition of a wife taking her husband’s name is predicated on the concept of ownership; when women take their husbands’ names, it symbolizes a conferral of ownership from father to husband. Some would argue that this view is arcane, that no one really believes that women are merely chattel to be given from one man to another. Certainly marriage has evolved to the point where couples are seen as true partners, but then why the focus on name changing? Why do the majority of American women still change their names upon marriage? If the traditional meaning has been relegated to the past, why cling to custom? Obviously, my name was given to me by my father, who got it from his father, and so forth, so I’m not really bucking the patriarchy here, but if I am going to be tethered to a man through my name, I would rather it be the man who contributed half of who I am, the man who raised me.

And the question of name changing becomes even murkier as society finally grows up and accepts non-traditional families—gay and lesbian couples and their kids, blended families, single-parent homes; these arrangements don’t suit themselves to the traditional nomenclature. Is the married name the last vestige of heteronormativity?

I don’t sit in judgment of women who go the traditional route and change their names; it’s a personal decision, and what is right for me may not be right for the next woman. But it seems strange that the decision to keep your birth name is still such a political one.

Jen, you’re married and you didn’t change your name—care to weigh in?

*Besides, I share my name with a mob family, a chain of pharmacies, and a famous murder victim--it's too damn cool to lose!

annamaria at 9:29 AM

5 spoke


at Thursday, May 19, 2005 11:35:00 AM Anonymous Ellie Shansky-Genovese said...

I knew when I got married I didn't want to completely give up my name. As with you, Annamaria, my name is a symbol of my (half-Jewish) heritage and there just aren't that many Shansky's around. But I also wanted to recognize that my husband and I were starting a NEW family--not totally separate from our own individual families but distinctly different, one that stood on its own. I suppose that the true solution would be to combine our two names into some sort of hybrid but neither of us wanted to give up our birth names. I wanted both of us to hyphenate but my husband was reluctant to add "Shansky" into such an Italian name (Giacomo Angelo Genovese does have a certain flow). He opted to take my name as a second middle name while I chose to hyphenate. When it came to our children we were in complete agreement that they should have hyphenated names. It seems absolutely unfair that children are automatically given the father's name. Nor does it seem right to go the other way and take the mother's name. Again, short of some sort of hybrid (not a bad idea in my opinion) hyphenation seems the most fair solution. After all, our kids are a result of our union. They are not just Italian, but Russian-Jew and Irish (not represented at all in their name). Many times a well-meaning doctor or secretary will leave off the "Shansky" and file my information under "Genovese". This pisses me off because it is only the married portion of my name that is recognized. It happens with my children, too. When they grow up they will make their own decision about their name. Maybe they won't want to keep Shansky-Genovese--it is a mouthful, after all. Maybe they'll keep it, maybe they'll choose one or the other or maybe they'll pitch it and create one of their own. Whatever they decide, they will know who and where they come from and why we chose to give them the name that we did. And ultimately, the names that they inherited only reflect the ethnic aspects of their roots. We are more than Italian/Russian-- we are vegetarian/vegans, we are liberal to a fault, we are artistic and computer-savvy and so many more things that will be a part of our children's upbringing. That is the true culture in which they will be raised. When they go out into the world they will have been raised in that environment, but will become something different than that, something more. I'm not sure if a name, any name, could capture all that.

at Thursday, May 19, 2005 11:46:00 AM Blogger annamaria said...

The argument I hear often against hyphenation is that when kids grow up and get married themselves, what do they do? Do they take on an additional last name--Shansky-Genovese-Smith? But I think that's ridiculous--by that time they will be adults and can determine for themselves how they would like to be known. We might as well not give our children names at all if we are concerned about what will happen to the names we've chosen in 25 years.

Personally, I love the Shansky-Genoveses--my nieces and nephew have fabulous names! I didn't realize that my brother had taken Shansky as a second middle name, though! We really are a close family, I swear! :)

at Thursday, May 19, 2005 12:13:00 PM Blogger person x said...

There was never really any debate as to if I would change my name or not -- I am the very last in the long line of family Joneses. When I die, our family name dies, too. I mean, there are obviously a MILLION more Joneses, but none from my family tree. And I wasn't going to lay the name to bed prematurely.

The only question was the adding of Ian's last name, which I only wanted to do if he would add mine. So we could be the Jones Dinsmors (no hyphen), and it would be the cutest.

Ian's name is rather long to begin with, and already can't fit on his driver's license, so I granted him a reprieve and ended the discussion about being the Jones Dinsmors (no hyphen). Although, I'm still a little disappointed about it.

While everyone is well aware of my not changing my last name, I still get cards, mail, and all kinds of correspondence from family members and people who should just know better as "Jen Dinsmor." A little irritating, because that's not my name.

The best thing, though, is when people call the house and ask for Mr. Jones, since most of the bills are in my name. Now THAT makes me happy. :)

at Thursday, May 19, 2005 12:45:00 PM Blogger annamaria said...

I wish you went by Mrs. Jones, though. Then I could sing Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones" to you. That would be the best!

at Thursday, May 19, 2005 4:31:00 PM Anonymous Kate K. said...

I am getting married next summer and this is the big topic of discussion in my house. I am keeping my name... it rocks! It is an alliteration ( a la Jen Jones) and it is me! I think i may pull a Maggie Seaver from Growing Pains ( maiden name kept professionally) also partly because i come from family of divorce- my mom kept my dad's name so we (she and her kids) would have the same name. I like the idea of our family having one name... but who knows what will change in a year!!!!


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