Mrs. Wilson. During the Scooter Libby trial each time I heard a reference to Mrs. Wilson I’d flinch. Each time they referred to her as Mrs. Wilson it was as if someone slapped me in the face, yanked on my hair or stepped on the back of my shoe.
When my mother was forty five she became the second member of our family to earn her doctorate. My father is the other. As soon as she did, she became fiercely protective of her new title. When people called on the phone and asked for Dr. Koscher, she’d respond, “Which one?” Or she’d say, “This is Dr. Koscher” or “speaking.” The unwitting party on the other end, usually confused beyond recognition, would stumble through a response, “Uh, I want to talk to Dr. Koscher” or “You know, Dr. Koscher.” Sometimes, they’d just hang up.
Friends and acquaintances teased. Some called her “Mrs. Dr. Koscher.” Others, “The Doctoress.” People, who know better, still address letters to Dr. and Mrs. Koscher. When I saw this, I asked my dad why they keep calling him Mrs. Koscher. But really, it’s not a joke. It’s horrible.
I believe identity is paramount in our little moment of existence. And whether we like it or not the superficial names we are attached to contribute to our self-definition and social-definition. We can effect no positive change, we can have no meaningful influence if we do not know who we are or are not allowed to define ourselves.
It is still common practice for a woman to drop her (dare I say it) “maiden name” when she marries a man. Women commonly take their husbands’ last names. Children of these partnerships are usually given their fathers’ surnames. This is not news to you, I know. But it should be shocking! Women who don’t take their husband’s names are often considered “independent,” “career women,” “rebellious” or “feminist.” Those who refer to women in this way do so with a sweeping brush of negativity.
I remember telling a friend that I had no intention of ever changing my name. He looked aghast. “But how will people know you are married? What will they put in the phone book? What about your children?” While these questions seemed pretty silly to me, I understood that they mattered to him and to most people. And I don’t have answers to them, but answers can be found.
Naming isn’t everything. Language isn’t everything, but it touches everything we try to express. Every time “Mrs.” or “Doctoress” or “maiden” is used our efforts to move toward a society of equality are undermined. The slightest institutional adjustment to naming would profoundly benefit the health of our society.
I am a member of this society, a society that asks me to marry first and learn later. A society that tells me to submit to the dominance of my husband by taking his name. A society that makes a joke of my mother’s academic successes. A society that refers to Valerie Plame in the highest courts in the nation as Mrs. Wilson. A society that could have a healthy equality between the sexes and chooses not to. I am a member of this society. Please do not erase me. Please do not ask me to hide. I am Adeline xxx xxx.
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