In the name of the mother

By Shelley Bridgeman

Shelley Bridgeman wonders what is in a name? Photo / TRANZ
Shelley Bridgeman wonders what is in a name? Photo / TRANZ

I was a feminist back in the 1980s. It wasn't a particularly deep brand of feminism. From memory it involved adopting the title "Ms", being ever-vigilant for signs of male oppression - oh, and resolving not to change my name if I got married. And that's why, despite 17 years of marriage, my birth name remains intact to this day. To cap it all off, our 7-year-old daughter has my surname too.

As far as I can tell, that makes me something of an aberration. While it's fairly easy to find mothers who have kept their own name, most of the time their offspring share their husband's surname. Surely that is to feminism what a decaf soy latte is to coffee - not quite the real thing. But I digress. Let's return to me feeling like some sort of relic from another era.

While my cohort at Victoria University in 1983 had mouthed off about symbols of oppression and men's quest for domination, all it took was one sparkling diamond symbol of oppression and a frothy meringue-style frock and most of them ended up changing their names with gay abandon. I must have been out of the room when that pact was made - hence my seemingly unique status today.

The process that led to my daughter having my surname was a slow burn, something that built up over several years. In 2000 and 2001 I was writing strongly worded opinion articles for the New Zealand Herald. Many of them had a broad, feminist slant. They had titles such as: "How Ms can master the modern world", "Does no one want to know why it's mostly men behind bars?", "The women who let their men hide behind their skirts", "Who will trust men to take over birth control?" and "Time women took a stand on burdens of housework". You get the picture.

At the time I'd been married for seven or eight years and I had never once used my husband's surname. This was a matter of principle, something I refused to move on. In fact, at our wedding dinner when I stood up to address the guests, my core message was that I would not be changing my name. I was unwilling to subscribe to the subtext that somehow my gender made my name less important, more expendable. The not-so-subtle corollary was that it made me less important, more expendable too. It was a patriarchal tradition and I wanted no part of it.

So imagine my dismay when in the midst of all this staunch feminism, our household occasionally received invitations and letters addressed to Mr and Mrs His-Surname. Well, that was red rag to a bull. If possible, they'd be returned to sender or else we'd clarify the correct names when we replied. Yet neither passive nor passive-aggressive responses seemed to do the trick for two particular people who refused to call me by my name. They preferred to call me by my mother-in-law's name.

Two things really rankled about this. Firstly, while many women who retained their name would, if it was convenient, occasionally use their husband's name, I never did. Had I once used or answered to my husband's name, I would probably have forgiven others for using it too. Secondly, because of the nature of my writing at the time I had a wee bit of a profile. People knew my name. It was familiar to them. Shopkeepers and complete strangers often recognised it. So when people who personally knew me couldn't get my name right, it was tempting to interpret their persistence as contrary, rude or just plain ignorant.

My discomfort over this only intensified. I remember saying to my husband: "We've been married 10 years and they still don't know my name. This is just ridiculous." That was when I realised that if we gave our baby my husband's surname then I would forever be referred to incorrectly. I envisaged the long list of people who would unwittingly offend me. It would have started in the delivery suite, continued with paediatricians, Plunket nurses, speech therapists, kindergarten teachers, school teachers, other parents ... Goodness knows where it would have ended up.

So I made sure it didn't start. I was adamant that our daughter wouldn't have my husband's surname. I even suggested making her surname "Bennett", which is the gender-neutral name we've used when making restaurant and taxi bookings for the last 20 years but my husband vetoed that. In the end it was he who decided to give our daughter my surname.

And that's how Katie Bridgeman got her name and it also explains why, at school functions, Kevin is sometimes called Mr Bridgeman. Luckily, he doesn't seem to mind.

- NZ Herald