“A proper self-respect demands that every woman may have some name by which she may be known from the cradle to the grave,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote to Lucy Stone in 1855, when she heard that Lucy had decided not to change her name after her marriage to Henry Blackwell. Lucy was the first known American woman to break that American custom.
As I have studied and written about our first American feminist forebears, I’ve become more aware than ever of how women’s ever-changing names have obscured their place in history. For example, at the age of 29, while living in Canada to evade the Fugitive Slave Act, Miss Shadd became the first black American woman to own and edit a newspaper. At the age of 45, Mrs. Cary, a resident of Washington DC, became the first black American woman accepted to law school. At a glance, it’s too easy to overlook the important contributions of someone like Mary Ann Shadd Cary over her long and accomplished life because her name changed midway.
I have been writing a book about what modern feminists can learn from these early pioneers. One of the first choices I had to make was how I would deal with the naming problem. Many history books respectfully refer to people by their last names. However, many history books focus on the male experience. In my book, with its focus on women, using last names quickly proved to be confusing because most of the women I am writing about had more than one last name over the course of their lives.
I decided that I would primarily use first names in my book and I am happy with that choice. Not only does it save me from continually writing parentheticals to remind people that Shadd and Cary are the same person, but I like the casual tone using first names gives my book. Mary Ann feels like a friend to me, and I hope that my readers will see her the same way.
Writing about women who were enslaved, like Sojourner Truth, presents other challenges. Sojourner named herself when she was about 50 years old. Her new name was a public symbol of her newfound empowerment after a lifetime of being assigned names by people who claimed to own her. Today, Truth is famous for dictating her memoir, the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, but that wasn’t the first book she helped author. Fifteen years before the Narrative, she was the primary source for another book, Fanaticism; Its Source and Influence, Illustrated by the Simple Narrative of Isabella. At that time, Sojourner was known by the first name of Isabella and the last name of whoever had most recently enslaved her. During the decades before she chose her name, Sojourner had already lived an exciting and noteworthy life, fighting injustice by taking white people who had wronged her to court—and winning. At one point, as described in the pages of that first narrative, she escaped a dangerous cult. Out of respect for Sojourner, I have decided that my book will refer to her by the name she chose for herself, even as I talk about events that transpired while she was still called by her slave name.
All of this studying and thinking about names has naturally led me to review my own life choices with regards to my own name. Unlike Lucy Stone, I took my husband’s last name when I married at the age of 26. At the time, I thought that someday when I had children, it would be confusing if our whole family did not have the same last name. I had just finished grad school and was about to start the first job of my postgraduate career. I didn’t like that my new name would differ from the one on my diplomas but at that point, I didn’t have any public name recognition to justify going against such an established tradition within my culture. It would be best, I reasoned with myself, to change my name now, before starting this first job, and when I finally did make a name for myself, it would be this new name.
I still remember how sad I felt as I waited in the long line of the Social Security office, one of many obnoxious errands I had to perform in the process of changing my name, thinking about all the work I was doing to erase an identity that I was not ashamed of in any way. I tried to console myself by keeping my maiden name as my middle name. It was the best I could do to preserve my name while changing it.
Now I am a mother and I know that it would not be a problem to say, “I’m April Young, So-And-So Bennett’s mom.” But at this point, I have made a name for myself, and that name is April Young Bennett. I could change the signature on my blog posts to April Young with just a few key strokes, but archived newspaper articles would still quote me by the name of Bennett and references to my peer-reviewed work would still say “AY Bennett.” Like so many women from history, my legacy would be obscured by my inconsistent name.
At times, I’ve feared that someday I could lose my name again through divorce, a problem that American men never confront. I eased this hypothetical concern by deciding that if I ever do divorce, I will not change my name again. It is too late for me to have the same name from cradle to grave, but the proper self-respect I have now demands that my marital status will not affect my name ever again.