Consciousness Raising

Mo and I are legally married. However, I never took his last name, instead I kept mine in all of its monosyllabic-Germanic-confusion inducing-glory. It's my name and I happen to like it. Not to mention that I have spent 30-odd years building an identity around it. To be honest, I was always ambivalent about marriage. I envisioned sharing my life with someone but it wasn't ever important to me whether or not we were a legal union. As one of my heroes, Joni Mitchell sang, "We don't need no piece of paper from the City Hall, making us tied and true..." but a legal union was important to Mo and so off to City Hall we went for that piece of paper.

And in hindsight, I'm happy we did it. I love Mo very much and it was wonderful to celebrate our love with everyone close to us. We had a beautiful private ceremony with the city clerk and a few family members and close friends at our actual wedding. Then the following year on our anniversary, we had a big party at a neighborhood bar.

Mo's surname though never interested me and he was fine with that. In fact he respected my right to choose whether or not to take his name. Although excited to share a life with Mo, I just wasn't willing to give up what I had already created on my own, with my own name. I thought about hyphenating both our names like so many of my friends, but adding any more syllables and a hyphen to boot just wasn't appealing. Plus he wasn't interested in adding my name to his, so we just kept them as is.

I have always prided myself on my independence and my identity. I went to an all woman's college where on the first day I was given the latest edition of "Our Bodies, Ourselves". At a reception with the Dean later that day, she read us the poetry of Adrienne Rich and emphasized the importance of being a collective of women, not girls, but women. I joined the woman's group on campus, marched in countless "Take Back the Night" rallies, went to marches on Washington to protect women's reproductive rights, signed petitions to stop the stoning to death of women in the Middle East, had brunch with Gloria Steinem who was also our commencement speaker. I surrounded myself with liberal, progressive women and men who felt that women's issues were a basic human rights issue. I married a man who views me as his equal and who is not above helping out around the house that we share and who respects me and my beliefs.

So, now I'm here where there hasn't been the same kind of Woman's Movement to shape the consciousness of the culture. I admit to writing this post out of some frustration. After a third trip to the bank to try to get my name added to Mo's bank account, we've run into more obstacles. Because we do not share a surname, we have to produce our marriage certificate, so back to the bank we go for a fourth time. Even after providing them with our marriage certificate they will still list me as "single" in their files because I do not have any identification with my "married name" on it. When I attempted to explain that I never changed my name and that I will not ever have identification with Mo's last name on it, the teller just raised her eyebrows and said, "As I said, we'll just use your maiden name for now until you get some identification with your married name." I was surprised by her total disregard for what I was saying. I thought if my name were going to cause a stir anywhere, it would have been at the Immigration Office. But they never even questioned the different surnames and issued my Alien Registration card with my name in tact. I even brought this card with me to the bank which the teller took and photocopied as I.D. But I guess here, as in the States, the Banks trump the Government?!!

I give most people credit in that they try to refer to me by the proper name even though Mo's is much easier to both remember and pronounce. And I try to be patient. I wonder if I need to be more flexible. I wonder if I'm being selfish. I wonder if it's my "first world privilege" showing itself. I wonder if in the larger picture it matters whether or not someone puts a Mrs. in front of my name. I wonder all of these things while trying to be patient and gracious but I just can't help but cringe when I'm called by the wrong name. We have lived happily for 7 years with Mr. and Ms. and I like it that way.

I understand that this country has been marred by illegitimacy. There are so many people, particularly women, who are looking to legitimize their existence. Many official documents and government benefits can only be obtained through paternity or marriage. So having that proof such as a shared surname, provides the woman with a certain amount of status and security. She is not just a "baby mama" or a "matey" but she is someone legitimate and deserving of a proper place in society. It is a lingering effect from a culture built upon slavery and colonialism. But if Jamaica really wants to move ahead and be competitive in a wider global community, a broader view must be taken. The women I have met here so far are very independent and self sufficient. Many female professionals are choosing to hyphenate their surnames although I don't know them well enough to ask whether their legal documents contain both names. So I find it odd that these formalities still exist in the bureaucracy. The same bureaucracy in which most of the employees are women (with hyphenated names)! Mo saw a firetruck pass him the other day with a woman suited up on the truck! We would never have seen such a sight in Brooklyn for all its other liberal views! It is also quite common to see female bus drivers and female road construction workers. So again, I'm confused by the persistence of such archaic customs of delineating everything through the male. I really want to have a good old fashioned consciousness raising where we come together as women to highlight our strengths and work towards positive change. The mainstream culture here is still one that objectifies women through song lyrics, billboards and ads painted on local establishments. I feel like I must stick to my gut which says, "I'm a Ms.!" and join with others who feel the same way so that we can begin turning the wheels of change.


Mme. Counselor said…
An amazing thing to be faced with issues of your own culture’s past battles in a new context- you must be one frustrated Ms! (Your post reminds me of our first day together in school!)
I’ve never intended to change my name, and I doubt I will when I marry. However, since becoming engaged, I have found myself fascinated by the choices people (men and women) make on this issue as well as the reasons behind those choices. So I am also fascinated by your post on how your choices are being received in a new context!
Even when the consciousness has been raised, I think that sometimes people still react badly to when another person makes a choice different from their own. To hyphenate, to take a name, for him to take yours, to make a new combined team-name (a favorite of mine but not practical given that my career is established) to make last names into middle names… the choices go on and on. And inevitably someone will judge your level of commitment to your career, to your spouse, to your kids, yada yada. It is such a touchy thing, even when the choice is wide open.
In a new cultural context you are stuck confronting all the time, an exhausting and frustrating state of affairs. I am sure you are doing an able job to try to respectfully raise consciousness, even if it does not lead to proper banking records!
For myself I think I am planning to maintain the status quo, keep my name but let what others call me be a matter of convenience and context; if at his job functions I am called Mrs. Hisname (as happens sometimes after 5 years together) I don’t correct it, and if he is Mr. Myname (which also happens) he doesn’t either. But don’t even dream of sending me a card as Mrs. Hisfirst Hislast!!! Look out!
Rae said…
I was remembering our first day of school too when writing this. Your mother's words were echoing through my head, "You are a Ms.!" Again, here it all boils down to status. A married woman is a legitimate woman and to not take her husband's name is just beyond the common thinking...why would you want someone to think you were just some common "baby mama" and not a wife?!! It is going to take a lot of persistence and explaining and education to make people understand that there are other options out there. (I too like the new combined team-name idea or both partners incorporating both names.) But you are right, no matter what the choice, someone inevitably will judge your loyalties and commitments. It is an interesting challenge, but I think women here need to understand that the man (who may be absence even if you are married) is not needed to have a valid/legitimate identity.