The Power to Name Myself
“The Lord God said, ‘it is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.’ And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts; but for Adam no fitting helper was found. So the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the Lord God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man.”
- Genesis 2:18-22
I have been aware of the power of names and naming since childhood. My mother always struggled with her name. As a researcher and writer, she published under her professional name; as a feminist, it was important to her to maintain her own identity, apart from her husband’s; as a mother and wife, she felt pulled to present a unified family unit with one last name. The result was that she used her name in different combinations depending on context, though she always resisted Mrs. White. In truth, I didn’t know what her legal name was (was there a hyphen? Both last names? Did she drop her middle name in order to accommodate her maiden and married names?). I had to ask my dad recently, when my fiancé and I were filling in the information that will be incorporated into our ketubah.
In addition to my mom’s struggle with her own last name, I had a struggle of my own. My parents decided to name me Hannah – pronounced as kind of an Anglicized version of the Hebrew Chanah, with the same vowel sounds but a soft H. I remember constantly correcting teachers and new playmates. “No,” I would say, “I prefer Hah-nah,” emphasizing the correct vowels. I understood why my mom held onto her original last name, as I called it. It’s the name her parents gave her, and it connected her to them— which, in truth, is part of what I love about having a first name with a slightly unusual pronunciation. It links me to my parents.
When I became engaged last year, my fiancé asked if I would change my last name. I thought about it, remembering my mother’s dilemma. As a young girl imagining my wedding, I always thought I’d be like my mom and keep my last name. But now that I am actually getting married, mere days from now, I’ve been thinking about the power of names and the signal I send to the world by sharing a last name with my husband.
Planning my wedding without my mom, I’ve been thinking about the ways that I can honor and include her memory in this important moment in my life. A small part of me wonders, would she be disappointed in my sense of feminism because I have decided to take my husband’s name? And, by changing my name, will I be severing an important link to my family?
Ultimately, my mom struggled because she felt like she couldn’t really chose between existing social norms and her own expectations. She didn’t want to be like one of the birds in the sky or the wild beasts, passively named but not a partner in the process.
Changing my name is a choice that I can make. I can keep my name if I want, or change it, or come up with something entirely different. By deciding to take my soon-to-be-husband’s last name, I am naming a particular moment in my life, my transition from single to married. I am changing my name, not because that is what I am expected to do, but because I am signaling a unified partnership, as we are both helpers to each other. Adam isn’t naming me, like the birds and the beasts. I am claiming the power to name myself.