National Post

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Saturday, April 10, 1999

For A Better Or Worse Name
Should marriage mean having to go through life as Patty Pottie?

Patricia Pearson
National Post


Illustration by Isabel Klett

You may have noticed that it is growing fashionable again among educated, professional women to take their husband's last name in marriage. One Washington pundit wrote recently that wives who insist on keeping their own names are simply engaging in a "display of insecurity."

Well, it's an interesting thought. Call my preference for staying Pearson a sign of insecurity if you like, but my husband's last name is Pottie, and going through my life as Patty Pottie has about as much appeal to me as wearing a dunce cap to a ball.

Besides, I already have a name, as I see it, and my merger with my husband is symbolized in other ways, such as that I -- and no other woman -- get to wear his boxer shorts when my undies are in the laundry.

Also, of course, we have wedding rings, and a joint chequing account, and a toddler with our blended DNA and her very own talent for tantrums, which my husband and I suffer through in tandem. So I tend to think of myself as fully and demonstrably merged.

The question of what a woman ought to do with her name upon donning a wedding gown has more than one answer in our culture, with some answers being highly inventive -- such as a couple whose surnames were both colours, which they changed to the hue that those two colours created when mixed -- and other answers involving hyphens, or an ungainly split between husband and pen name, or indeed, the use of an alias.

If you're getting married this summer, and balk at being called "Mrs. His Wife," as the Washington pundit refers to herself, perhaps you might consider the customs of other countries.

The Burmese, for example, have no last names, which makes these sorts of feminist quandaries irrelevant. Madonna could marry Boy George, say, and not a single Burmese eyebrow would rise.

The Indian province of Kerala is a matrilineal culture, with property being passed down from mother to daughter. Thus, the men who marry in Kerala adopt their wife's name, and may or may not resent it -- I couldn't find any reference to the debate in a scan of The Times of India.

Elsewhere in southern India, women keep their father's last name when they get married, whereas their husbands have reversed names. My husband and I, if married in Rajasthan, would become Patricia Pearson and Pottie Ambrose, which I would call a much better deal for me.

In northern India, on the other hand, it's more common for women to take their husband's name, although not always.

Whether the men and women from these different regions of India pooh-pooh one another as lacking in self-esteem for their respective naming customs is an interesting matter, and all Post readers who know the answer are invited to raise their hand.

In Ethiopia, a woman takes her father's first name as a life-long moniker. If I were Ethiopian, my name would be Patricia Geoffrey, and my daughter would be Clara Ambrose, instead of Clara Pottie, and marriage wouldn't alter that one way or the other.

Most Ethiopian names are either from the Bible or have a concrete meaning, such as "flower" or "he who is feared." Since tracing one's lineage backward means stringing words together ad infinitum; this means you could even form an actual sentence -- and instead of having a family coat of arms or other visual symbol for lineage, get a phrase such as "flower who is feared." The system is probably getting a bit mucked up by new generations of Ethiopians, mind you, who emigrate to Israel or Canada and marry men with such names as Arnie.

But the basic objective is to convey blood lineage in one's name, rather than husband-love, which is also true for women in Singapore and Taiwan, who keep their paternal surnames.

The Mexicans have managed to evolve a highly complicated naming custom, wherein a woman grows up with her father's last name followed by her mother's last name, which in my case would be Pearson Mackenzie. When she marries, she loses her father, adds her spouse, and moves her mother to the middle: Mackenzie Pottie. The famous muralist Diego Rivera's full name was Diego Maria Concepcion Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodriguez, which goes to show you how difficult things can get there.

Partly for that reason, Mexican women generally prefer to go by their first names only, as in Dona Flora, or Dona Sofia. Maybe that's what I should have done. I was born in Mexico, so I could appropriate the convention and walk around demanding to be called Dona Pat. Why not?

Or I could hyphenate it, and show respect for both my lineage and my husband. Okay, from now on, I'm going to sign all documents "Mrs. His Wife-Dona Pat." Whaddya think?

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