The Power to Name Myself

Hannah White.

“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.

Topics: Marriage, Motherhood
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Did anybody ask your husband if he was changing his name? Or if he is going to continuing working after the wedding...or after having a baby? Until the day that those questions are part of the social norm for men, we are not equal and naming isn't really simple or fair.

I so agree with you that you can choose your name, and that is what defines feminism to me. Choice.

After a short marriage in the mid-80's, one in which I hyphenated my last name, I went back to my "maiden" name. This experience made me realize how important my name was to me. I made a vow never to change it again.

And then I met the man I was meant to be with, my "bershecht." After we became engaged, I mentioned that I would keep my own name. He was a feminist sort of guy and I never believed he would give a second thought to this pronouncement. I was wrong. He stressed that he wanted to have one family name for us and our future children. My easy going fiance, amenable to most anything I suggested, really had a problem with this. We argued for three days about it. When I finally decided to let go of this, realizing that he was more important to me than my name, it was like the light finally went on.

My husband's mother died when he was only eight days old. He grew up in a foster home, the same one all his life. And he called his foster mother "mom." But his name was different than that of his foster mother, father and sister. I never knew this bothered him. And I was so busy holding onto my own name, that I never considered this until the struggle was over.

I asked him if this was the root of his wanting me to take his last name. "Yes" he said and then told me how as a young boy he was often asked why his name was different than the rest of his family's and how much he dreaded that question. He said that it was hard to admit that he was "only" their foster child, and not their "real" child. He grew up feeling "less than." He wanted his children to feel nothing "less than" fully belonging, without ever a question raised.

With that information, it was so easy to give up my last name.

And so twenty two years ago, I changed what I thought I never would. And I can tell you with all my heart that when I took my husband's name it was my choice, my pleasure, and it was my joy.

Why do women, or brides-to-be, have to change their last names? Sharing one last name among a family is a good idea, but isn't there an option that men, or husbands-to-be, change their last names? If women always have to change their last names, it isn't fair.

In Japan, separate last names among legally married couple is not allowed, but men can change their last names to their wives' last names, though more than 95% of married couple choose husband's last names.

I share my husband's name, even as I spend my entire professional and personal life fighting for women's equality. Some feminists would see this as some kind of sell-out, but I don't agree. This issue has never been my battle. Why? Because I don't see my maiden name as "mine" any more than my married name is "mine". They are both names of men who, in certain aspects of social and legal doctrine, own me. Neither name is mine. In retrospect, my husband and I talk about how perhaps we should have created our own name, something totally different (and easier to spell and to pronounce than our current one). But we've been married 21 years so that's a bit late.... . Plus, today, when there are so many women whose last names are different than that of their children, it has created a whole different kind of disenfranchisement for women, where the women are like the 'exception' to the family, the one a bit outside and unrecognized as part of the unit. It's a whole other set of problems... Anyway, I agree that there are many more aspects to this issue than one singular feminist view. And I would suggest to the writer to save her agonizing for other more important battles

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How to cite this page

Pearlman, Hannah. "The Power to Name Myself." 8 May 2013. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 19, 2024) <>.