Monday, 30 November 2015

What's in a Name?

It hugely disadvantages women that, part way through our lives, most of us change our name. We may do this more than once. I married when I was 38 and already had publications and a career in which I was widely known by my birth name. I did try to use my husband's lovely and distinctive name for a while but people kept on reverting to my old name and, temperamentally, I think I was averse to losing the deep connections to my roots.  A bank manager told me not to worry - I could compromise and 'have as many names as I liked so long as I did not use any of them fraudulently!' So, for quite a while, I struggled with the attempt to have a 'professional' name and a 'family' name. It didn't really work. On one memorable occasion I went to speak at a conference just after moving house. At the reception desk I attempted to register but to my embarrassment I couldn't remember which name I had booked under or my new post code or whether I had told them I was a vegetarian! The receptionist looked at me very strangely! So, after experiences like this, I reverted to keeping faith with my birth name. I suspect that, had we had children, their arrival would have been the point at which I would have given in and conformed to the use of my married name.

One of the pieces of advice given to me when we married was that to change my name would mean that I 'lost' all my publications to date. In fact, I realise, I would have lost much, much more. For example, I recently thought of a school friend. I wondered what she's doing now. I knew that she'd done some research so I looked for her online. Nothing came up and I realised that I do not know her current name.   Women lose contact with each other. They become invisible to colleagues, they disappear off friends' radar, work radar and even out of history when they change their name. They are denied the power of continuity of identity.

There's been a petition doing the rounds recently inviting support for mothers' names to be recorded on marriage certificates beside fathers'. I'd go further and encourage women to keep their birth names when they marry. Norway has a tradition that women do this; male children then take their father's name and female children, their mother's. This is one way to avoid the loss of identity that many women face on marriage. It would also do away with the dilemma of what happens about your name if a marriage ends.

All this matters, I think, because in western society personal identity shapes an individual's life very profoundly. To look into someone's face, to know who they are, to hear their words, to see their nuanced feelings and to appreciate something of the continuity of their story is vital in allowing them full participation in economic, community and social life. (Just think, today, of how the press are trying to get at Jeremy Corbyn on the grounds of the consistency or otherwise of his political beliefs!)

Here's a list of famous women you may not immediately recognise by their surnames yet they used these names for substantial parts of their lives:

Barbara Betts,
Marie Sklodowska,
Elizabeth Stevenson,
Mary Bourke,
Angela Kasner,
Golda Mabovitch,
Joan Anderson,
Eartha Keith,
Eva Duarte,
Margaret Roberts,
Dorothy Crowfoot,
Indira Nehru,
Margaret Jackson,
Agatha Miller,
Theresa Brasier,
Audrey Ruston

But you will instantly recognise the ones who did not change their names:

Joanne K Rowling, 
Florence Nightingale, 
Marie Stopes, 
Barbara Hepworth, 
Nicola Sturgeon, 
Harriet Harman, 
Judi Dench, 
Betty Boothroyd, 
Enid Blyton,
Shirley Bassey

Names are not a trivial matter. They are highly significant. Don't give yours away too easily! Among the list of women who changed their name, it's probably due to their first name you have recognised them. This is the case over much of history - we know the few women we know by their familiar name and this in itself cuts down the number of women we can recognise without confusion.


  1. Thank you for this. My spouse struggles with this, she has a work identity, her name prior to our marriage, which she retained as we worked together in the military, a place where separate identities are quite important. Now not such a need as I have retired, but her professional name is on all work documentation, even her bank account. We will be changing them when she retires in 2018. Until them, she will be double named.

  2. Thanks for your comment and best of luck with the changes ahead. It helped me that I was able to think things through and make adjustments in the light of deliberate choices.