"What's in a Name?"

Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the essay’s subjects.

Most people make the presumption that my mother is Mrs. Webb. When my parents were dating, my father made the same presumption about her and their nuptial plans. But my mother was born a Zvara, and she told my father she had every intention of remaining like that. From what my mother tells me, my father was not happy to hear this and asked her why she didn't want his name. To her, it was very simple. 

She was Dana Zvara. Her name was a representation of who she is. She felt no need to change it according to some archaic practices. Why should she have to redevelop her identity because she wanted to marry someone? I have held the same philosophy for my lifetime. 

My mother loves being a Zvara too much to give it up to be an artificial Webb. She's proud of what her name means, though not literally, as it translates to something like 'tomfool' or 'ne'er do well.' It's a mark of her grandfather's immigration from Slovakia and his wishes for his posterity to have a better life than they could have if he stayed. 

It's a mark of the American Dream, and she is proud to be a product of it. For my mother and myself, 'Zvara' is synonymous with hard work and grit and has been so ingrained in our identity. Why should she have to change?

The English tradition of the surname started in the 11th century as a way to combat the confusion of having more than one person with the same first name. Sensible. The Doctrine of Coverture arose when the belief that marriage tied a man and woman together. As was seen by the English court system, they needed to be united under a single surname. Thus, the tradition of the woman taking the man's name upon marriage was established. A natural conclusion, given the esteem with which men were regarded and the absence therein for women. 

Though Coverture has been abolished in England as well as the United States, it remains a widely held belief in our culture that women assume the identity of their husbands. Historically, when a woman was married, her legal identity and rights were 'covered' (hence the name 'coverture') by her husband, nulling her legal status. Because she was not legally a person in her own right, she could not own property in any capacity, control her body, make decisions for her children that her husband did not first approve, keep her own salary, sign legal documents, or receive an education without her husband's consent. 

To be clear, I have no qualms with the institution of marriage. I think it can be a beautiful expression of love with one's significant other. What I do take umbrage with is the notion in heterosexual relationships, that women should have to alter their mark of identity to permanently reflect their husband's.  

'Permanently alter' may sound like an exaggeration. Still, there are several obstacles that women who change their name must deal with. Perhaps the most important, women would need to update their social security card. If they don't, their tax refund will be delayed, and the amount of money they receive in social security benefits will be reduced. Women would need to update their insurance, their payroll, their driver's license, bank accounts, creditors, doctor's offices, attorneys; the list goes on! Women would need to change nearly every facet of their public lives to mirror their husbands, removing any trace of the 'Ms.' from their permanent record. 

I remember being in middle school and chatting with my friends about our future spouses. I found that it was common practice for my friends to talk excitedly about whom they liked, pause, then sigh longingly, saying, "Mrs. John Doe."

After these conversations with my friends, I felt compelled to join the apparent reverie of surrendering our names for some unclear purpose. It seemed that they couldn't wait for the day that they would be called anything but what they are. It was so strange to me, though not entirely foreign. I remember watching television shows centered around teenage girls. Without fail, there was always mention of the name change that comes with marriage. My Spotify playlists are littered with classic, catchy, anti-feminist hits, like Dusty Springfield's "Wishin' and Hopin'."

All you gotta do is hold him and kiss him and squeeze him and love him

Yeah, just do it

And after you do, you will be his

You will be his

You will be his

While not specific to the intricacies of name identity, this cultural lyric is a nod to the implicit connotation to ownership upon marriage. The line 'you will be his' is repeated three times, reinforcing the idea that women are treated like commodities and not people. It's a belief that has been so ingrained in our culture, the dehumanizing notion that women are property upon marriage, and the fact that society continues to glorify the rendering of a woman's surname to that of her husband is nothing less than outrageous. For years after my parents' wedding, my mother was chastised for the simple act of maintaining her identity. I can recall incidents from my childhood with school and medical forms where there was confusion over my mother's relation to me because I have my father's surname. 

Often times, that is the argument made in favor of changing a woman's last name. It makes for a stronger family unit, certainly a more identifiable one. But at what cost? A name is intrinsically related to an identity. By erasing the mother's name from a child's identity, it chips away from the significance of the mother and her family from posterity, until the name is lost entirely. It places a stronger emphasis on the identity of the father because that will be the name that continues. 

We are born with a clean slate. Circumstances beyond our control may inhibit our abilities to do what we want. Still, in our societal conscience, we believe in limitless possibilities. With that clean slate, we are given a unique name, known in our small corner of the world. Given to us by our parents, they may be used as an honor to their family, someone they admire, or a similar cause. They reflect our culture, our family, our traditions. And that's just our start in life; we can shape how our name is perceived based on our actions and accomplishments. A person carries their name with them throughout their life, changing its meaning with everything they do and everything they don't do. Virtuous action becomes associated with name: the name Washington, for example, is implicitly seen as righteous and even powerful. And of course, it works in reverse. Abhorrent action influences how names can be seen. One could be the most upstanding citizen, but if their name is Hitler, they will be perceived differently and have to carry the weight of a name that they had no control over. Despite this, a name is the most commanding mark of identity and sense thereof that someone can have. 

My mother asked my father why he wouldn't change his last name to Zvara. Before he responded, my mother said, "Every reason you have for keeping your name is every reason that I have for keeping mine."

There is such hypocrisy in the surname tradition. If men aren't expected to change their names, why should women?