I Can Be a Jewish Feminist and Change My Name
On an oppressively hot DC summer day about a week after my wedding, I spent several hours at the US Social Security Office to change my name. After my new card arrived in the mail, I visited the Department of Motor Vehicles in Arlington, Virginia, to update my license, my bank to update my account, and multiple administrative offices at work to complete the process. I’d entered this undertaking as Rebecca Brenner and emerged as Rebecca Brenner Graham. The decision to change my name as a Jewish woman was complex and thoughtful. I’m accutely aware of the antisemitic and patriarchal history of name-changing. However, for me, this change wasn’t anti-feminist, nor was it a slight to my Jewishness. Let me explain.
Jews in the spotlight like Bob Dylan, Carole King, and Jon Stewart have historically changed their names in order to conceal their Jewish identities, to assimilate, to be accepted. Some celebrities, including Jonah Hill, still do. But I didn’t change my name to hide my Jewishness.
However, this isn’t how some others perceived it. Last fall at an event for my academic department where I’m working on my PhD in history, a senior scholar facetiously asked if I’d “pass” now. He grew up in a Jewish community in 1950s Brooklyn. In those days, few Jews passed as “white.” He turned to another conversation before I could point out how many Americans of Ashkenazi descent now experience white privilege. The same scholar flippantly asked later in the evening whether Israel’s Law of Return would still apply to me. Of course, it would: I’m still Jewish.
My husband, Brandon Graham, has a Jewish mother and an Irish-Catholic father. His wonderful Jewish grandparents taught him to love Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda, jelly rings for Passover, and rugelach. We enjoy visiting them in their Delray Beach, Florida community of elderly Jews. We just happen to have a Scottish last name owing to Brandon’s Catholic heritage.
I share my new initials with the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the most powerful Jewish woman in American government. Every time I sign an email “RBG,” display the monogramed “RBG” tote that my husband’s Jewish grandmother bought me for Hanukkah, or tweet from my handle @TheOtherRBG, I flaunt the initials I share with a Jewish woman hero. I prefer how it sounds, how it looks, and how it includes the last name of my husband and his supportive family, without losing the name of my own.
Plenty of my feminist colleagues and friends kept their given names for good reasons. Some were motivated by established professional reputability. Others decided to keep theirs to resist the patriarchal history of the institution of marriage. Despite a few publications, I decided that Brenner Graham is close enough to my original last name. I know that the professional reputation I began cultivating as Rebecca Brenner can survive the addition of “Graham.” I’m ambitious and career driven and aspire toward professional success specifically as Rebecca Brenner Graham.
I’m thankful for the advancements that countless feminists in the past and present have made by keeping their names upon marriage. My respect for them is compatible with choosing a different path for myself. Past and current feminists choose to keep, hyphenate, and change their last names. All of these choices are valid: name-changing or not. All of these choices can be feminist.
Some have assumed that my new last name is Graham-Brenner. They presume that the only way a feminist like me can use her husband’s last name is if she hyphenates and if the second half dropped off in the natural course of conversations and interactions to shorten it. Rather than choosing Rebecca Brenner Graham or even Rebecca Graham, they presumed that I’d only select Rebecca Graham if it was short for Graham-Brenner. However, my name change upon marriage was deliberate and thoughtful; “Brenner Graham” is the name I want: for professional reasons, for personal reasons, for Jewish and feminist reasons.
Some may insist that the institution of marriage has a deeply misogynistic, sexist history. I assure you: As a historian, I’m aware. My decision doesn’t invalidate the experiences of women who overcame challenges to keep their given names. Some Jewish people might call attention to the antisemitism that they’ve endured due to their last names, especially in the current climate. My name change doesn’t invalidate their experiences of discrimination and violence, nor does it negate my own.
My new Western European last name and socially accepted heterosexual marriage are both privileges that I experience. Feminists and Jewish people don’t necessarily look one way. The assumption that a feminist won’t change her last name or that a Jew will necessarily have a last name that’s common within the Jewish community exposes stereotypes that have formed around being a woman and around being Jewish. We don’t have to accept these assumptions. We can refute stereotypes by accepting Jewish and feminist choices and identities in all their variations.
How to cite this page
Graham, Rebecca Brenner. "I Can Be a Jewish Feminist and Change My Name." 12 May 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 30, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/i-can-be-jewish-feminist-and-change-my-name>.
From personal experience I can tell you it is hard to maintain that professional identity. My name ends up various ways in journal citations and on professional meeting name badges!