A Name from Cradle to Grave

Lucy Stone holding Alice Stone Blackwell, 1858

“A proper self-respect demands that every woman may have some name by which she may be known from the cradle to the grave,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote to Lucy Stone in 1855, when she heard that Lucy had decided not to change her name after her marriage to Henry Blackwell. Lucy was the first known American woman to break that American custom.

As I have studied and written about our first American feminist forebears, I’ve become more aware than ever of how women’s ever-changing names have obscured their place in history. For example, at the age of 29, while living in Canada to evade the Fugitive Slave Act, Miss Shadd became the first black American woman to own and edit a newspaper. At the age of 45, Mrs. Cary, a resident of Washington DC, became the first black American woman accepted to law school. At a glance, it’s too easy to overlook the important contributions of someone like Mary Ann Shadd Cary over her long and accomplished life because her name changed midway.

Mary Ann Shadd, 1845-1855 (undated)

I have been writing a book about what modern feminists can learn from these early pioneers. One of the first choices I had to make was how I would deal with the naming problem. Many history books respectfully refer to people by their last names. However, many history books focus on the male experience. In my book, with its focus on women, using last names quickly proved to be confusing because most of the women I am writing about had more than one last name over the course of their lives.

I decided that I would primarily use first names in my book and I am happy with that choice. Not only does it save me from continually writing parentheticals to remind people that Shadd and Cary are the same person, but I like the casual tone using first names gives my book. Mary Ann feels like a friend to me, and I hope that my readers will see her the same way.

Sojourner Truth, 1870.

Writing about women who were enslaved, like Sojourner Truth, presents other challenges. Sojourner named herself when she was about 50 years old. Her new name was a public symbol of her newfound empowerment after a lifetime of being assigned names by people who claimed to own her. Today, Truth is famous for dictating her memoir, the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, but that wasn’t the first book she helped author. Fifteen years before the Narrative, she was the primary source for another book, Fanaticism; Its Source and Influence, Illustrated by the Simple Narrative of Isabella. At that time, Sojourner was known by the first name of Isabella and the last name of whoever had most recently enslaved her. During the decades before she chose her name, Sojourner had already lived an exciting and noteworthy life, fighting injustice by taking white people who had wronged her to court—and winning. At one point, as described in the pages of that first narrative, she escaped a dangerous cult. Out of respect for Sojourner, I have decided that my book will refer to her by the name she chose for herself, even as I talk about events that transpired while she was still called by her slave name.

All of this studying and thinking about names has naturally led me to review my own life choices with regards to my own name. Unlike Lucy Stone, I took my husband’s last name when I married at the age of 26. At the time, I thought that someday when I had children, it would be confusing if our whole family did not have the same last name. I had just finished grad school and was about to start the first job of my postgraduate career. I didn’t like that my new name would differ from the one on my diplomas but at that point, I didn’t have any public name recognition to justify going against such an established tradition within my culture.  It would be best, I reasoned with myself, to change my name now, before starting this first job, and when I finally did make a name for myself, it would be this new name.

I still remember how sad I felt as I waited in the long line of the Social Security office, one of many obnoxious errands I had to perform in the process of changing my name, thinking about all the work I was doing to erase an identity that I was not ashamed of in any way. I tried to console myself by keeping my maiden name as my middle name. It was the best I could do to preserve my name while changing it.

Now I am a mother and I know that it would not be a problem to say, “I’m April Young, So-And-So Bennett’s mom.” But at this point, I have made a name for myself, and that name is April Young Bennett. I could change the signature on my blog posts to April Young with just a few key strokes, but archived newspaper articles would still quote me by the name of Bennett and references to my peer-reviewed work would still say “AY Bennett.” Like so many women from history, my legacy would be obscured by my inconsistent name.

At times, I’ve feared that someday I could lose my name again through divorce, a problem that American men never confront. I eased this hypothetical concern by deciding that if I ever do divorce, I will not change my name again. It is too late for me to have the same name from cradle to grave, but the proper self-respect I have now demands that my marital status will not affect my name ever again.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is an advocate, mother, professional, lover of the arts, hater (but doer) of housework and seeker of truth. Podcast: Religious Feminism Podcast Twitter: @aprilyoungb

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9 Responses

  1. c7oscuro says:

    Thank you for your insights. I also think of all the nameless female characters from the scriptures. In many cases, we know there were females only because children were somehow being born. I hate how little we know of women and this is often compounded because our naming system has been so patriarchal.

  2. Laura Pennock says:

    Amen!! I changed my name when I was married the first time and changed it back when I divorced. I was opposed to changing my name when I remarried but ended up doing so anyway in the face of the patriarchy. I absolutely agree that women should not be expected to change their names. And the HASSLE!! It’s no easy thing to change one’s name.

  3. thediygeochemist says:

    When I first divorced I said I would keep my married name for the same reason you gave. But my abusive kept stalking and harassing me, and his parents’ actions were not much better. I really did try to keep that name, but it became one more symbol of the ways he wouldn’t leave me alone. I didn’t change my name back until almost 6 years after my divorce, and it ended up being a beautiful thing. No matter what happens with my marital status, I intend to keep my birth name for the rest of my life.

  4. Lizzie says:

    I love this. I didn’t change my name when I got married. At the time, to avoid making a big issue out of it, I just flippantly joked that I was “too lazy” to do it. After all, I would have to change it professionally too. I shrugged it off when the church changed it automatically — what was in a name? I half-heartedly tried one time at the dmv and was secretly relieved when they told me I couldn’t because it had to be changed with social security first. I started to consciously care when we moved to a Latin American country, where women didn’t change their names. It was fun to give my second daughter, who was born there, both of our last names, in their tradition. My other kids don’t have that piece of me and it makes me a little sad. My husband, to his credit, seems kind of proud of my name — he’s always quick to point out, when mail comes with my first name and his last name (for example, both his mother and mine refuse to acknowledge the lack of name change), that “that person doesn’t exist.” He was the one that corrected the church record when we got back to the US. I know there’s different reasons for changing or not changing it, and I’ll never judge someone who chooses differently. But I’m glad I never changed mine. I’ve given up so much through marriage (mostly no regrets); the name thing makes me feel like at least there’s some consistency throughout.

  5. Kitty Lindsay says:

    I did not change my name and it was not a problem when we had children. My daughter-in-law did not change her name either. Women are not chattel and you do not mysteriously become some other here-to-fore unknown person when you get married. A recent article suggested that you do not have a maiden name, you have a name.

  6. Brooke says:

    I’m getting married in a few weeks and the name thing is really such a conundrum. I like the idea of sharing a family name with my spouse and any future children…but I do not like the idea of being the only one to change my name. I’d prefer something more egalitarian. We are considering BOTH changing our names, so we both have two last names (he gets mine and I get his). Not sure what we’ll do should any children come along. That’s when things could get real tricky.

    • AdelaHope says:

      I so sympathize! I recently resumed my maiden name; our child carries both of our surnames, though only uses one. We have dear friends who have given their children alternating surnames. I like that idea; I expect if we ever have another, we’ll give that child my name.

      All of which is to say, change your name or don’t change your name, the choice is yours. You can deal with the conundrum of naming children later (and you can always change your name later, too, if it’s important to you). Luckily, we live in a time where a shared name is not the only way to belong to one another

    • Wondering Why says:

      I know people who have made a new surname out of them both.

      I know people who have kept their names and given their children a new surname, created out of their two surnames. Since I don’t know what your two are I don’t know if this would be feasible.

      Smith and Jones = Smones or Jomith
      or an anagram

  7. Wondering Why says:

    My wife could not wait to change her name, and loves the fact that she no longer shares a surname with her parents and siblings. Her father wanted her to keep her surname and add mine on the end. She didn’t even want to do that.

    So, as with most things – do what feels best.

    I have a cousin who kept her maiden name because she liked it more than her husband’s. I have a school friend who did the same.

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