Saturday, March 21, 2009


Carolyn G. Heilbrun, in Writing a Woman's Life, talked about the power of naming. Men, she said, have always done all the naming, and left women without the power to name and define ourselves and our lives. This is true in very concrete ways, for example, as we obtain our surnames from our fathers first, and then our husbands. If we marry more than once we may have three or more names in the course of a lifetime, names that have nothing to do with who we are in the way that, say, a Native American's sequence of names over her lifetime describes her character or deeds she has performed.

Even the names in our society have names. There's your maiden name, if you are a woman, and your married name. Both describe us not in our own terms, but in relationship to men. But then what do we want to be called? It's a similar problem to the one Malcolm X faced in ditching his "slave name." After a few hundred years it is impossible to know what your name would have been, should have been, had slavery never happened. So he just went with the X. Women would have to go back about 2,000 years to find our "real" names, because even your mother's name was a man's surname before her, and her mother's, too. For that reason, settling for keeping your maiden name despite marriage(s) just isn't going to cut it.

Having one name gets us out of that box. And since a woman with a made-up name like, say, Wind Horse, seems kind of silly in mainstream America, I picked a good old English place name befitting my genealogy. Better yet, it sounds like a name either a girl or a boy could have been given, so it doesn't have the gendered expectations attached to it that a "Sally" or a "Joseph" would. That fits me, as I'm a little androgynous.

It will have to do until some mentor, some spiritual adviser, gives me my Indian name.


1 comment:

Sonia said...


cool post. I think about this a lot.

Even though I refuse to marry, I want to keep my father's name. After going through the same thought process, I decided to transform my patriarchal name into a matriarchal name, bestowing it on my bastard children and instructing my daughters to do the same with their own. hopefully my sons, if any, will mind me and take their wives' names. if we start now, this system could really go somewhere.

and also, from your excellent point-maybe daughters should be encouraged to add a fourth name when they come of age, around 15? something that defines them in their opinion, or some aspect of themselves they are particularly proud of, or a wish for their womanhood. or just something they like. then, at 15 or whenever, they could choose what to be called as an adult woman.

I had a couple friends who did this of their own idea at age 12. one still goes by her new name, the other dropped it. I never did it because I liked my name, but I think it's rad. a great exercise in self-definition.

be well,