The name is the name of the game

Why is a woman changing her name still an issue in 2008?

When I got married three years ago it didn’t occur to me to change my name. I figured that debate was done and dusted, at least for most reasonable people, and I didn’t actually care what the unreasonable people thought.

In the run-up to our ceremony, I was surprised to find that friends and family and acquaintances and the occasional stranger were interested in what I intended to do. I said, ‘Nothing.’ It costs money to change your legal name, you have to get a new passport and credit cards, and change your bank account details, and tell your doctor and optometrist and I didn’t fancy my husband’s name enough to go to the hassle. No offence intended.

But there was more to it than that. While I had never had any special affection for the name Black—I had always wanted a more lyrical multi-syllabic surname—I became protective of it as I left my 20s. My father had died, my Black nephews lived in the United States, there weren’t many of us left in New Zealand, or at least not of our strain, with our Scottish/Maori heritage, our crippling inability to make small talk and our deficient sinuses.

I didn’t want Dad’s name to come to nothing. And so I stuck by it, monosyllabic bland-fest that it is. I haven’t thought much about it since. It is a non-issue in our household.

The other day the man who married us rang to say that his wife (who did not change her name upon marriage) saw an article in a recent Next magazine written by someone calling herself Eleanor Black Watkin. Surely it wasn’t me? Um, yes, I have been experimenting, I replied. ‘Eleanor, you don’t have to do that,’ he said, meaning, I assume, to reassure me that I was a significant individual in my own right and that my husband didn’t give a hoot whether I took his name or not.

He was right on both counts, of course, and it was a trifle embarrassing that I could not offer a well thought-out explanation for the name change, like I’d suddenly turned ultra-conservative or uncovered an embarrassing Black forebear (of which I am confident there are many) from whom I wanted to distance myself.

The truth is as bland as Black. I added Watkin to my byline when we were living in California. I got a job at a magazine where, in the spirit of team bonding and maximum time-wastage, the editor-in-chief handed round manuscripts to all members of staff to comment on and sign off with our initials.

There was an Emma Brown in our workplace, an intern. Her handle was EB so I would have to be known as something else, explained the production editor, as she stood before me with a clipboard and impatient pen. EBW had a nice EB White flavour, we agreed, so I adopted it. Before I could whistle, my new name had appeared on the magazine’s masthead and for consistency my stories also were written by this Eleanor Black Watkin person.

So I would have two writing identities then, I thought—the Kiwi one, and the international one. How chic.

Then a friend took over the editorship of Next magazine and asked me to write a couple of pieces for them from California, and EBW made her New Zealand debut without much thought on my part. When we returned home earlier this year I kept writing the occasional piece for Next and stuck to the new name to avoid confusion. I wrote a couple of stories for Mindfood and the Washington Post, same thing. Then we launched Pundit and I realised I’d rather be known as a Black than a Black Watkin on my own website. Not sure why, exactly, but I felt that if it was my publication I’d rather use my inherited, legal name. And so it has been.

I don’t have a problem with women who want to take their husband’s names, by the way. It seems to me that the advantage, and curse, of living in these times is choice. We have so many options. Who am I to tell you that you can’t adopt your partner’s name, or your mother's, or start calling yourself Bibbity Bobbity Burlap Sack? Having said that, I do agree with the Lucy Stone League, named after the first American woman known to have kept her maiden name after marriage, that women who change their names get absorbed into their husband's family histories and lose their independent identities. And that is not something I want for myself or my future children.

According to the Oakland Tribune, one of many publications to note the retro-swing towards women taking their husbands' names in the late 90s and noughties, "The number of women in The New York Times' wedding announcements keeping their surnames was 2 percent in 1975 and had reached 20 percent by the mid-1980s. Then the trend stalled. Among women in the Harvard class of 1980, 44 percent retained their surname, but in the class of 1990, only 32 percent did. According to Massachusetts records, the percentage of surname- keepers among college graduates in that state was 23 percent in 1990, 20 percent in 1995 and 17 percent in 2000."

So it turns out that I am bucking a trend, which is pleasing, and honouring a fabulous woman who, in addition to her suffrage work, was a slavery abolitionist. And so the matter is clear again, until we have children and I end up being the only member of my immediate family to be called Black, surrounded by a passel of Watkins.