Thursday, June 4, 2009

Stoner of Another Kind

Forget Cheech & Chong, Up in Smoke, and the days when many boomers were “tokin’.” I hardly knew the word stoner or the middle word of my generation’s slogan: Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

Recently, though, I found out that I’m a
Lucy Stoner. That’s a Stoner of another kind. A Lucy Stoner is someone who practices the radical idea Lucy Stone put forth and lived in 1856. She chose not to take her husband’s name in marriage.

Little did I know how much this same decision, which is so right for me, would bother other people. In fact, it has been bothering people since 1974. That was the first time I married and decided I’d forego the custom of changing my name. I’ll never forget, when keeping my name came up in conversation. People would actually refer to me as “one of those.” It was hurtful and alienating to have such a personal choice riddled with assumptions and separation by people who barely knew me. Worse yet, they seemed to decide, on the spot, that they didn’t want to.

I’ll admit, my original motivation was feminism. I was grappling with a new vision of women, and I was angry at past wrongs by men in society-at-large and in my personal encounters. I was in my twenties, that period I call psychological adolescence. I felt powerless, and I felt that giving up the core of who I am—what I am called—was like Delilah cutting Samson’s hair. I tend to err on the side of too much merging, and to become Mrs. Him seemed like a sure path to losing Ms. Me.

I am not alone in these feelings, although those with the courage to act on them are in the minority. Ninety percent of American women take their husband’s name in marriage. I was delighted to learn of the
Lucy Stone League in my research for this post, which advocates name equality:

“A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should take hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost.”

–Lucy Stone

Name Customs in the US and Other Cultures
Many people don’t realize that a woman is under no legal obligation to change her name upon marriage in the United States. It’s simply a tradition. If you decide to go for it, has a good summary of the legalities involved in name changes, which most often are accepted without paperwork in the States. However, in reality, changing your name is a real chore. Just imagine the number of credit cards, library cards, bank accounts, and frequent buyer cards that need updating. These are just some of various entities, personal, professional, or legal, who know you by your original name. It is complicated enough that has advocated a centralized name change service. WikiHow has a wonderful article for those who decide otherwise: How to Tell People You’re Keeping Your Maiden Name. Consider the irony of one of their bits of wisdom in light of woman who started it all:

“Traditions are not set in stone.”

While assuming the husband’s surname at marriage is the custom in most English-speaking countries, it is by no means the only game on the globe.
Naming customs vary widely, my favorite being in some Russian and Slavic countries where the bride and groom declare which surname they will use during the wedding ceremony, often not the same one. Even if she uses her husband’s name, a Russian woman adopts a feminized version that makes their names not quite a match. In a split with the normal male-centered approach, Chinese family names are often formed (begin) with a sign that means “mother” -- a way of honoring their moms long past.

Some countries, like Belgium and Canada, require women to retain their maiden names on official documents, what we might call their “legal” name. Many use their husband’s name socially.

This was a surprise to me: Islam requires that Muslim women do not change their family name upon marriage, as this might suggest a transfer of property ownership. Under Islam, the woman retains her family name and identity as per Islamic law. (From Wikipedia Naming Customs, cited above)

A Decision Complex, Personal and Symbolic
Like many things I do, the reasons behind keeping my name are multi-layered and complex. Some of them were buried so deeply, I’ve had to excavate to dig out my core feelings and motivations.

The Power of Symbols: As I discussed in my post,
Identity Crisis, I strongly identify with the symbols within my name. Paying attention to symbolism is my main spiritual navigation system and larger curriculum for learning. This alone would be reason enough to hang onto my name for dear life.

There’s another reason: my identification with my adoptive family. They gave me their name. I am who I am largely because of them. There is something primal and hard to erase about being born “back then” of an unmarried couple and without what society considered a “legitimate” name. It has made being a Mason a gift I don’t take for granted and don’t want to give back.

When I found my birth family, an acquaintance asked me if I planned to change my name back to my true original, the one I had for three weeks before adoption. I thought she was crazy! I could not even imagine such a thing. Twenty-three years later: I adore both my birth and adoptive families, and there’s no doubt that both nature and nurture formed me, but when it comes to the person that evolved into Joyce Mason, my sense of stability draws on the love and roots in that household that still has a name hold on me.

Toward True Name Equality
I believe we need to honor a woman’s decision—or a man’s-- to be called whatever name s/he wants. (I recall a couple I knew in the ‘70s. He took her name because his was very ethnic--hard to spell and pronounce. Hers was simple and all-American. It worked for them.)

An independent, close friend of mine chose her husband’s surname as much more solid than her original. Her maiden name’s meaning is not a positive affirmation for her. Another woman told me she felt self-confident enough that she would not lose herself; so, she didn’t mind using her husband’s name. Heaven knows it’s easier in a culture where the vast majority do. Sometimes I honestly wish I could, just to make it easy on myself. I don’t mind at all when relatives assume or call me by my husband’s surname or address cards Mr. and Mrs. Tim has 58 first cousins. I have barely met some of his relatives. They only know me as his wife and due to distance, that’s likely to change. In this context I’m happy to be flexible …

… but in the world and in my closest relationships, I need the name that resonates my true self. My vibration. It’s also the name I “made for myself” in several professions. I’m proud of it.

I adore my husband, and I don’t think what I prefer to call myself has anything to do with how bonded and loyal I feel toward him. He would tell you I’ve passed that test many times. Like any other happily married couple, we are two people who share one love. There’s an invisible force field binding us together that I doubt any man, woman, or naming device could put asunder. Still, he’s a man with pride, also sensitive to culture and “what people think.” He has balked numerous times at being called Mr. Mason, when people automatically assume we share the same surname. When it happened last and he got irritated, I couldn’t help but say, “Now you know how it feels.”

Frankly, it’s a pain to have to explain that I do not use my husband’s name. The pain comes from people’s assumptions. We all know the old saw about when you assume, it makes an ass out of U and me. Still, as a sensitive soul who both needs to be me and needs to belong; I often feel the sting of the asinine.

The alternative doesn’t work for me. My husband’s name is great—on him. It belongs to him, and it sounds good on him. Women celebrities have retained separate surnames from their husbands as the norm. No one thinks twice about it or forgets who belongs or belonged together: Burns & Allen, Bogey & Bacall, Stiller & Meara.

I was so relieved when Maria Shriver, another Lucy Stoner, became the First Lady of California. Who could blame her for not wanted to be or spell Mrs. Arnold Schwarzenegger? I also don’t blame her for not wanting to give up her identity as a member of one of America’s political dynasties on both the Kennedy and Shriver sides of her family.

There is approximately the same percentage of Lucy Stoners in the married population as people who are gay in the population in general—10 percent. All we “minorities” want is for people to know that we are more like you than different from you. The parallel is hardly far-fetched, because there are those who think a woman who keeps her name is a threat to the institution of marriage itself, the same argument used against gay marriage. With the US divorce rate at 50 percent for first marriages and increasing with episodes of serial monogamy, I can’t help but observe that heterosexuals have managed to botch it up all on our own. I doubt that the small percentage of gays in the population, even if they all chose to marry, could do our statistics much worse. Same with “subversive” name keeping.

Self-expression and diversity are assets to treasure, ones we have in abundance in the American culture regardless of economic fluctuations.

I am in no judgment of others who choose to be a Mrs. and even bask in the honor.

I simply ask for the same understanding—not to be Ms. understood.


Photo credit:


PopArtDiva said...

The only reason these days for any woman to change her name is because she WANTS to!

Our names are such a part of us and changing it upon marriage seems to me like giving up your "self" to become just a part of something else - which is fine if that's your choice.

I guess I'm a Lucy Stoner too but there has always been a secret desire in me to change my last name just to see if it would change my life, lol.

I solved the issue when I became PopArtDiva, The Martini Diva and the Normal Challenged Artist. Now my brands are my names and identities.

Interesting post and information, thank you.

Eileen Williams said...

I, too, got married in 1974 but I guess I wasn't as far sighted and courageous as you. I did change my name and, even though it's now been 35 years, it still seems strange sometimes. I don't fit back with my maiden name anymore, yet I'm not a full-fledged Williams either. As always, you got me to thinking!

Joyce Mason said...

Thanks for weighing in, Eileen. When a person has had a name for that long, it's hard to consider anything but keeping it, unless a strong call to change it sets in. On the doesn't-quite-fit feeling, I forgot to mention in the article that I have had friends who have changed their names completely! I mean first, middle, last. It's been a bit hard for me to adjust to first name changes, but I always do in the end. Several of my friends who married more than once got tired of the name changing, but like you, didn't feel their maiden name fit anymore. They decided to look at other family names, choose one, and stick with it. Several are now known by their grandmother's names or a name they chose that was meaningful for other reasons. Of course, you have an informal second last name. I always think of you as Eileen Feisty, LOL!