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What’s in a name?

Apparently, a lot.

By Spenta Cama

I always knew I’d keep my name no matter whom I married. But that makes me more of a trendsetter now. A study in the spring 2004 Journal of Economic Perspectives reports a decreasing trend since the 1990s of college-educated women keeping their surnames upon marriage or after a child’s birth. Claudia Goldin, a Harvard professor, and Maria Shim, a 2001 Harvard graduate, observe that a woman is more likely to take her husband’s surname when her father-in-law is prominent. She is less likely to take her husband’s name if her father-in-law is in the arts or academic professions.

Women who marry later and establish their careers often keep their names. I married my college sweetheart at the age of twenty-five in 1996, the time the transformation of women keeping their surnames happened. It was during law school so I had not yet “established” a career. I happen to like the way my name sounds. It just fits together. Salman Rushdie liked it enough to make “Spenta Cama” a main character in The Ground Beneath Her Feet. I could never imagine being “Spenta Kennedy” or have any other last name, no matter how legendary. My husband knew I would keep my name and said he didn’t mind. I teased him a few days after our engagement with a line from the movie Forget Paris. Imitating a character whose identity is known only through her husband, that of “Mrs. John,” I said that now I could be “Mrs. Adam.”

But I don’t want my identity dependent on my spouse. Lucy Stone, a pioneer feminist and crusader for women’s suffrage, didn’t either as the first woman in the United States to keep her name after marrying in 1855. I’m Spenta Cama first, then Adam’s wife. Not taking Adam’s last name doesn’t mean I love him any less, though you wouldn’t have known by my family member’s reactions. My cousin remarked she was surprised at my decision since family is so important to me. But just because I was getting married, was the family I came from any less significant? And of course I got the what-will-happen-when-you-have-kids question. I said I’d deal with it when necessary. My father, a traditionalist at heart, still addresses correspondence to us using “Mr. and Mrs.” with my spouse’s surname. I told him if I ever became a Supreme Court Justice, wouldn’t he prefer that I carry his name and be Justice Cama. Although such a professional accomplishment is unlikely to occur, he smiled and nodded. But his letters still arrive with “Mr. and Mrs.” as do many from others.

It’s funny the extent society places on traditionalism and convenience. Going against the grain creates confusion and can even provoke anger. When my brother’s wife decided to change her surname to Cama, but use her birth surname as her middle initial, the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles could not handle it. She explained the name she wanted on her driver’s license and was told, “We don’t do that in America.” The procedure for a name change is so convoluted that kits are sold on the Internet to streamline the process for Social Security and the IRS. My sister-in-law’s experience made me realize the bureaucracy I circumvented simply by keeping my name.

When I called contractors for work estimates on various house projects, I couldn’t help but smile when an electrician addressed the estimate to “Mr. and Mrs. Cama.” So that’s what it feels like. Service providers I phone about our accounts often call me “Mrs. S____” since the bills are in Adam’s name. Newspaper columnist Ellen Goodman once wrote that taking the time to explain she is a “Ms.” and not “Mrs.” depends on how high the water is in the basement. I adhere to that philosophy. When I’m referred to as “Mrs. S____” I go along with it, though that’s my mother-in-law. When I’m called “Mrs. Cama,” I think of my mother. Yes, I give in to bureaucratic pressure, too, even though I’ve kept my name. I’m sure the service provider doesn’t want to hear that I’m “Ms. Cama” since s/he didn’t think to address me with “Ms.” in the first place.

The Harvard study does note that some women who maintained their surnames at marriage subsequently adopted their husbands’ surnames after having children. Once Adam and I decided on first names prior to our son’s arrival two years ago, we tackled the issue. To his credit, we had an open discussion. We contemplated the possibility of hyphenating the child’s last name, but then only our kids would have a name in common. And of course, bureaucracy reared its ugly head. How does one fit a hyphenated surname on an SAT form? What happens if that child marries someone with a hyphenated name? So my son ended up with four official names on his birth certificate— his first name, middle name, my surname, and then Adam’s surname— a mouthful by many people’s standards. We followed suit for my daughter's recent birth, too. But I did this knowing that they will be identified only by their first and last names among friends and by society. Their legal names, however, include their full family line.

Every woman should have the freedom to decide whether a name change is for her or not, independent of societal and familial pressure. We all keep our individuality regardless of the name we carry. Isn’t that what we should focus on instead of society’s comfort of dictating who we should be?

mmo : March 2005


Spenta Cama is the mother of Feroze and Zahra. She practices law, but would much rather be a full-time writer.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the MMO or its staff.
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