It occurs to me: Submitting one’s “mother’s maiden name” is often a key identifier for banks and password-reminder prompts to prove you are who you are. It’s also a key means by which to have your identity stolen.
And isn’t that what happens, to a degree, when a woman surrenders her maiden name upon marriage? Giving up one’s maiden name is like having part of her identity stolen.
It’s as if she folds her youth into her panties drawer, puts a ring — and a girdle — on it, and becomes someone else.
Such a patriarchal, medieval custom! (Did women even change their names in the Middle Ages?)
I recently joined a group on Facebook composed mostly of strangers who share my mother’s maiden name, Gorbea. (Darn. Now it’s public.) After just a few days of sharing photos and stories, we’re establishing quick family bonds — like cyanoacrylate instant adhesives — as we discover there’s a trait that seems to run in the Gorbea clan, particularly among the men: abandonment.
“Abandon” is an interesting word. To love someone with abandon means to give it your all. Probably the easiest means of conceiving a child, too. Yet “abandonment” can be grounds for legal action. And in some families, like ours, abandonment seems an even greater temptation than forbidden fruit.
In my mom’s case, she surrendered not only her family name but the Hispanic custom of “piling on” to retain her birth name at the end. As more Latinos assimilate into the U.S., we’ll see more and more truncation of our traditions.
I did some research and, interestingly, in those places where sharia law exists, women do not customarily surrender their birth names — although they may give up most of their civil rights. According to Wikipedia:
In most Arabic-speaking countries, women keep their full birth and family names and do not change their family names to their husbands’ family names. This is also common practice for Muslim women around the world, except for South Asian Muslim women, who take a double name or adopt their husband’s. In some Middle Eastern marriages, however, the wife adopts the husband’s surname (especially in Christian households).
A marrying woman also retains her given name in Cambodia, China … well, daggone. I thought we were so progressive here in the Western Hemisphere. Or should I say “bloody hell” — because we can trace this custom primarily to the English — that empire that tried taking over the world. Today’s U.S. marriage rites pretty much stem from the contractual ceremonies of the Middle Ages.
As far as I know, I have no direct English ancestry — close enough, though, in Scotland and Ireland. There’s also a mix of the Basque region of Spain and some indigent island Indians. Where we come from surely gets muddied, with all of this name-changing.
Oh. Is that the point? To cover our tracks? (It sure makes it harder for ex-beaus to trace our movements, even on Facebook.)
There’s something beautifully symbolic about adopting a family name as part of a lifelong love pledge. Sometimes the man gives it up, sometimes the woman. Some marrieds add a caboose connected by hyphens.
Personally, I like the trend of smushing names together, as did the former mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa. His surname was Villar, but when he married Corina Raigosa they created their new surname, “Villaraigosa.” Rolls right off the tongue. Similarly, The New York Times correspondent Jodi Wilgoren and playwright Gary Ruderman had a smash with “Rudoren” upon coupling.
Imagine the genealogist’s nightmare sorting things out if we all did that. My surname might then have become “Davidea” or “Gorbison.” Then my daughters’, maybe “Byrgorbison” or “Davideane.” The options are endless, just like the recombination of chromosomes when we reproduce. Smush, smush.
Women’s movements have had limited success changing name-changing customs. According to a 2011 report in “The Huffington Post”:
The practice of women keeping their last names, first introduced in the U.S. by suffragette Lucy Stone in the 1850s, adopted by members of the Lucy Stone League in the 1920s and popularized during the Women’s Rights Movement of the early 1970s, peaked in the 1990s at 23 percent. By the 2000s, only 18 percent of women were keeping their names, according to a 2009 study published in the journal Social Behavior and Personality. Now, according to TheKnot, it’s at just 8 percent.
It makes me laugh that we call out chauvinists as “medieval” when the modern wedding ceremony is relatively unchanged since the Middle Ages. That section about “if anyone here knows why these two should not wed to please come forward …”? It has to do with consanguinity — being too closely related by blood (another research job for the genealogists) — or having killed someone, or being unfaithful or non-virginal or impotent. Nuptials were even originally performed in a bedroom, not a church.
Talk about medieval. Or … perhaps, progressive?
My one consolation: Although I tucked away my identity as Terry Davidson many moons ago, “Davidson,” along with my mitochondrial DNA, lives on each time my daughters fill out the blanks for “mother’s maiden name.”