As Many Names: The Middle Name Gender Divide
Kmillicam’s post about Gender Bias in the Book of Mormon, and the DoM podcast that inspired her post, got me thinking about other ways that language is used to distinguish women from men, and one way we do this is through the use of middle names, or lack thereof.
When I was born, my parents decided not to give me a middle name. They did the same for my sister three years later, but both of my older brothers have middle names: my dad’s name for my oldest brother, and another favorite boy’s name for my other brother. The reason they changed tradition with me, they always told me, was that when I was married I would use my surname as a new middle name. Unfortunately the use of my maiden name as a middle name, and I have been questioned why my parents gave me a boy’s name as a middle name because my old surname is also a boy’s first given name (like Scott).
I am often fascinated to learn people’s middle names, as it seems to say something new and exciting about them. I always loved learning the meanings behind names, and with a middle name there was more of the story explained, an ancestor or parent’s friend they were named after, or a name that stood as a symbol for something the family considered important. Or, just a beautiful-sounding full name that rolled off the tongue particularly well.
This is something I thought about often growing up. I had to think about it when filling out forms for school or the doctor, or when filling out the bubble sheets for a yearly standardized test. It was brought up each year when teachers learned our names. It was something brought up in conversations with friends. Middle names were talked about in extended family settings.
To be honest, when I thought about it, I always felt a bit under-dressed without a middle name. Part of the reason is that my first name–Alisa–was so hard for people to pronounce. Over 70% of strangers will pronounce my name the same as they would Alyssa. My third grade teacher called me Alison the entire year. I had a doctor who mistakenly called me Ali. It’s just a complicated first name as far as readability goes. Because of this, I went by the shortened “Lisa” from 4th to 6th grade. I had always felt that if I had a middle name, one that was easier for people to read, I could use that name instead of my difficult first name. Instead, I felt like I didn’t have a choice. My best friend and debate partner in 6th grade was a boy who went by his middle name mainly. I envied that flexibility.
Perhaps my parents were just following trends. There were three other girls my age in my ward. Granted, they were all born in the months after I was, but none of us had middle names. It wasn’t until the four of us went to elementary school and were exposed to girls outside of our ward that we learned it was possible for girls to have middle names. Also, I eventually learned that my mother had a middle name, but it was the maiden name of her mother (which is also the first name for a boy). So maybe my mom’s middle name never meant much to her, as she had three names (middle, maiden, and new last name) that were all male-first-name-sounding surnames.
Because I spent so much time thinking about this though, I couldn’t help but feel the contrast deeply between what my brothers have, and how I was given less. My one brother who has a son had the privilege of naming his first son by his middle name, thus being able to name son after father but avoiding the confusing “junior” issues when they share the same first name. Middle names are a great way of honoring ancestors, and I would miss out on that if I continued the tradition of not naming daughters with middle names.
Fortunately, I that will not be the case should I have a daughter. She will get a middle name, or two. The reason why is because I wouldn’t want my daughter to feel like she is less of a person–less compared to a son–until she becomes married. While I hope that my son will find a partner of his choice and get married, and I would hope the same for any daughter I would have, I would not want to call out that the expectation is greater for a daughter than a son by something like a disproportionate naming system followed by an explanation that because she would get married and assume a new name, her name will at one time finally become whole. For many reasons, some religious, some familial, some cultural, and some biological, I felt deeply growing up that I would not be complete until I were married. My lack of a middle name in anticipation of my marriage was just one of these messages that told me the standard was different for me than for my older brothers.
Margaret Atwood said, “The Eskimos had 52 names for snow because it was important to them; there ought to be as many for love.” Perhaps we ought to be giving our daughters as many names as our sons. I know I will be.
How about you? If you are female, were you given a middle name? What do you think about your middle name? What do you think of waiting until marriage to use a maiden name as a middle name?