Friday, 21 October 2011

What’s in a family name?

I grew up thinking my name was just that, my name. But lately I’ve been wondering, is my name really just a name? And moreover, is my name really my name, that is, my family name? To begin with, it’s not the name of my parents. It’s not the name of my mother and my father; it’s only my father’s name. My mother might have taken my father’s name but it wasn’t hers when she was born so it isn’t really her family name. In name she has no share in my origins; she has no share in giving me the heritage of her own family name.

Her family name was her birth name, or her maiden name, “the surname that a married woman used before she was married” (Oxford Dictionaries 2011). But as the term ‘maiden’ indicates, “an unmarried girl or young woman” (OD 2011), her maiden name wasn’t supposed to be hers for long – once she would become a woman, she would no longer be a ‘maiden’ and therefore linguistically able to carry a maiden name. So what happens to a woman who ceases to be ‘a girl or young woman’ but still carries her maiden name? That is, what happens to me and my family name?

Traditionally, it was never meant to be mine past the stage of ‘maidenhood’. As I passed from ‘young woman’ to ‘woman’, I was historically expected to pass from ‘Miss’, “a title prefixed to the name of an unmarried woman or girl” (OD 2011), to ‘Mrs’, “the title used before a surname or full name to address or refer to a married woman” (OD 2011), that is, from one family name to another family name. Changing family names, being passed from the linguistic ownership of one man to another, indicated the change from ‘maiden’ to ‘woman’, and with it the change of a woman’s place – her identity marked by her new family name.

Men, of course, did, and do, not undergo the same linguistic journey. They are always men – whether young, married or old, their one title, ‘Mr’, and one continuous surname says they are not subject to change, whether in name or identity. Actually, as Joyce Penfield argues, the two go hand-in-hand: “[n]othing is more personal and more closely related to identity than one’s name” (Penfield 1987, 118), so giving up one’s name means, in effect, giving up one’s identity.

But why do women still choose to give up their family names? Why do women still choose to give up a part of their identity? Family names were, and are, predominantly the names of men but not of women; they indicate(d) the ownership of women by men, and no other separate identity. It was, and is, men they link throughout the generations, and not women. So if we, as women, linguistically see only men, it comes as no surprise that we might feel our family name does not really belong to us, that is, ourselves, our mothers, our female family history, but to them – that our name is not our name, and therefore not a real part of our own identity.

However, despite the patriarchal past of my own family name I cannot help but feel attached to it. It has become my name, it’s what I’m called and therefore, to a large extent, who I am. I have been brought up to respond to my name, to associate myself with my name – why would I suddenly respond to any other? Why would I suddenly associate myself with any other family name? My name is part of my identity, so if on paper I cease to exist will I not also cease to exist in reality? Like my mother, who even though she is a woman in her own right, sends letters not in her own, but in my father's name.

So what’s in a family name? It tells us to this day which human beings really matter. While it might not be something we can immediately change, we can continue to challenge the concept of the family name – by keeping our name as our name. It might not lift the historical weight from our shoulders but for the future it allows us a more equal linguistic say. As the example of my mother shows, if we let go of this central part of our identity, we might just forget our very own existence. And if we don't acknowledge ourselves, who will?

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