As one hailing from the Deep South, where a divorced lady often still observes the quaint custom of resuming her maiden name as a sort of middle name–Sally Smith divorces James Jones and becomes Mrs. Smith Jones in backwater regions of my dear Mississippi–I have observed with horror and fascination the effect of feminism on surnames.
Just as the plethora of Justins and Samanthas and Ashleys tell us something about the parents who bestow these names, so does a woman’s use of her maiden name.
Writer Katie Roiphe, an iconoclastic feminist often attacked by less iconoclastic feminists, has an amusing essay on ‘The Maiden Name Debate’ In Slate.com. (and picked up on Arts and Letters Daily, the daily paper of the chattering classes).
Roiphe recounts that the move for women to retain their maiden names started in the 1850s with the suffragette movement. Members of the Lucy Stone League followed the lead of their founder, Lucy Stone, who hung onto her maiden name after marrying abolitionist Henry Blackwell.
Ms. Roiphe quotes some one of the era saying, ‘Many moral hotel clerks are troubled at the assignment of rooms to the traveling Lucy Stoners and their husbands.’
The maiden name debate was revived by feminists in the 1970s.
The political wife of today tries to have it both ways:
‘By shunting their old names into a prominent middle-name status, aspiring first ladies can signal to red states that they defer to their husbands while winking at the blue states that they still have their own names. (Or in Teresa Heinz Kerry’s case, their other husband’s name.) Of course, the entire debate over keeping one’s name is only an issue for a small portion of the country, since roughly 90 percent of American women automatically assume their husband’s names upon getting married. But for this educated, vocal segment of the population, the thorny question of what to do with one’s maiden name persists.’
Many women adopt their spouses’ name also, according to Roiphe, can have it both ways today:
‘And then, of course, the beauty of contemporary name changes is that you don’t have to formally decide. You can keep your name professionally and socially, change your name for the purposes of school lists, or airline tickets, or your husband’s presidential run–in short, you can maintain an extremely confusing relation to your own name (or names). There is, at least for me, an element of play to the whole thing. There’s something romantic and pleasantly old-fashioned about giving up your name, a kind of frisson in seeing yourself represented as Mrs. John Doe in the calligraphy of a wedding invitation on occasion. At the same time it’s reassuring to see your own name in a byline or a contract. Like much of today’s shallow, satisfying, lipstick feminism: One can, in the end, have it both ways.’
Ms. Roiphe is the daughter of novelist Ann Roiphe. Her father is Dr. Herman Roiphe, a New York analyst. I don’t know her marital status.