Is A Woman’s Identity Based on Her Last Name?
I didn’t think about the connection to my daughters based on our last name until two months after signing divorce papers. Then I realized if I reverted to my family name I could lose my identity with my girls, who had their father’s last name. In addition, strangers might think I was an unwed mother. I know there’s nothing wrong with that, but, for me, after twenty-three years of marriage, and closer to fifty than forty-five, I deserved my social status married with children. Yet, I had to face the truth, I was no longer married. How would I announce my new last name after owning it for two decades? Perhaps, like an address change. “Dear Friends and Family, Now that I am divorced, please refer to me as Ms. Hooks. Please change your contact list from Mrs. Batchelor to Ms. Hooks.” And we know what happens with address changes: people forget to update their contact list and frequently lose contact with each other.
Still paranoid about this transformation, I imagined constantly correcting people. I’d have to deal with sorrow and grief about the divorce. And the very mention of divorce can be hostile.
Historically, society expected a woman to take her husband’s last name for convenience as a societal expectation with no questions asked, a better last name, nuclear family identity, and true unity. Also, it was illegal for a woman to keep her surname before the mid-70s. But times have changed, women keep their maiden names, hyphenated or not.
I asked my own daughters their thoughts about returning to my maiden name: Hooks. My 19-year-old said, “You’re leaving an old life behind and starting a new one.” My 15-year-old said, “I know you’re my mother and that’s all that counts.” I knew she understood that concept when one of her friends asked, “What do I call your mom? You know, the divorce.”
“Ms. Angela,” my daughter said. “Or Ms. Hooks.”
Keeping life simple for the sake of the children is one thing, how about the married woman who has established her career or needs to reintroduce herself to friends with her maiden name?
My last name is hyphenated—Hooks-Batchelor—on my undergraduate and graduate degrees, along with my first book; however, not on my writing clips and collegiate adjunct status.
Maybe I’d wait for a second marriage and adopt his name and use my family name, Hooks, for publications and future accreditations. Yet, I wonder–why couldn’t I use my first name, Angela, like Beyonce, Cher, Madonna, Oprah and Pink. Even women in the bible didn’t have last names; they were identified by tribe, occupation or place—Lydia, a dealer of purple cloth, Gomer daughter of Diblaim. Who was I kidding, I didn’t have celebrity status, and this was not biblical times. Who would call me, Angela, a writer of essays, or Angela, daughter of the Bronx? Although during my teenage years, the neighbors called me the beauty parlor lady’s daughter.
In December, eight months after considering changing my moniker, I read a quote indicating people cannot start a new life until they rid themselves of the old. That was me. Instantly, I clicked on my computer and changed my name on all social media forums. For LinkedIn, I placed my former name in parenthesis. One person emailed asking if I remarried. I politely replied, no. To avoid this confusion, I updated my Facebook status: Yes, a name change has taken place. Please note Angela Hooks, not Batchelor. And since you didn’t get a wedding invitation and I didn’t post a wedding photo, I didn’t remarry. That post received several likes and comments such as, “Welcome back,” “You Go, Girl, Ms. Hooks, love it,” and “I didn’t want to ask.”
Next, I called my lawyer, and he reminded me that my judgment of divorce stipulated the Plaintiff, me, “shall be entitled to resume the use of her maiden name.” Then I made a list of people and places to contact and inform of this change. Inside a manila folder, I placed the judgment of divorce, my birth certificate, social security card, passport, and driver’s license, stuck it in my handbag and carried it everywhere. I headed to the Social Security office to make the official change, and the moment the new social security card arrived, set off to Motor Vehicle. Each time I mentioned a name change, responses varied. Some creditors asked why. One representative said, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” The bank teller blurted “Congratulations on your marriage.” Her face soured at the mention of divorce as she tried to clean it up, with “Are you happy?” I smiled.
Church seemed the most difficult and invasive, since I’d been there five months and had not shared my personal life. The moment my name appeared on the bulletin as Hooks, the infamous question followed, “Did you get married?” Some faces frowned, others smiled at my answer. One lady said, “I’ve been married so many times, I don’t know who I am sometimes.”
However, on campus at the start of the spring semester, I encountered students who knew me from previous years, and they said, “Hello, Mrs. Batchelor.” I replied, “It’s Ms. Hooks.”
My name change will take time; I did have it for two decades. Often times I forget and call myself Mrs. Batchelor. The way I look at it, identity is who you are – not religion, community or a man’s last name.
Angela writes at angchronicles. She teaches at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, NY and studies Creative English in the Doctor of Arts program at St. John’s University.
Illustration by Christine Juneau