Friday, September 12, 2008

(Pt. 1 of 3) On Missing Genealogies, Or How I Learned I Was Ugly

Part One: My Name

Genealogies and lineages are among the casualties of sexism. (And, even more devastatingly, racism: just consider how African families were chewed up and spit out by the American white slave-owning economy. But that deserves its own treatment, and right now there’s something I need to write/think through, for myself, about sexism and female genealogies in my family.)

Most anyone with half a clue about feminism knows about missing female lineages. Thanks to ideas about male authority in the family, they have disappeared, been made invisible. There is no last name connecting me to my maternal grandmother Dorothy, for example; no signifier that I carry on something of her in the world. The last name she was born with, was baptized with, was not part of what she gave to any of her three children – neither the one whom she adopted, nor the two whom she bore. Her husband’s last name was what got passed on to them, marked them as belonging to a family – his family.

That last name became my mother’s last name at birth; and with that name she was baptized. It did not become part of her legacy to me. Although it did not vanish when she was married, it got relegated to a middle name, a polite “C.” that appears atop her resume and in her publications.

The last name I was born and baptized with – my father’s family name; or rather, the name of my father’s father’s father’s father’s etc. – is somewhat ironically the only name I've ever shared with my mother. It's one I have tried to cling to, but in an awkward and ham-fisted fashion. Actually, when I was first married, I took my husband’s last name; I thought it the unselfish Christian thing to do. I insisted that the issuance of my new married name be part of our wedding ceremony. If marriage was going to supplant baptism in such a concrete way, then by golly I wanted the supplanting to happen in church! I also made it clear to all and sundry that I at NO point wanted to be referred to as “Mr. and Mrs. Husband’s Full Name.” Our marriage was an hour and a half old before this wish was violated for the first time, and in a very public way.

In the weeks and months that followed our wedding, it became clear to me that the world had suddenly decided to treat me as (in Carol Tavris’ words) Assistant Person to my spouse’s full and unquestioned Person. Meanwhile, I found out in short order that I was pregnant with our first child, despite our intention and effort not to conceive for at least a year. I felt like I’d been taken over by hostile and alien forces. Where had I gone – me, the person I’d been for as long as I’d had any self-awareness, and believed myself still to be? Who was this wife/mother person that everyone seemed to be talking to instead of talking to me?

And so I began to reconsider the willingness with which I had given up the name that had been mine since birth.

I tried two last names. I tried hyphenating. I retracted the hyphen. My husband took my last name, so that we each had two last names. I tried to go socially by my birth/baptismal name, but at that point the horse was out of the barn.

At this point, what seems to have happened is that most people use both last names in writing, and studiously avoid using my last name in person. It still feels unsettled, unwieldy, and ill-fitting.


Mim said...

I was having a conversation last week with friends about family identity. I find I think of myself not as a Father's-last-name, but as a Maternal-grandmother's-last-name. There's something very special about being able to gather 4 generations of us in the one place still - my almost 98 year old grandma, my mum, myself and my almost 10 year old daughter.

estherar said...

I use my married name socially and my maiden name professionally. Which means that half the time, I can't remember what my last name is!