Let’s Talk About Names

[Cross posted at Flyover Feminism]

“If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison

Yesterday, we read this piece by Jill Filipovic on women changing their names when they marry men. We kind of hated it. It’s simplistic, patronizing, Eurocentric, and very narrow in its perspective – typical of mainstream U.S. feminist commentary on this issue.

And yes, this made us angry. We took to Twitter to say as much, as we do, and got some pushback for it.

Those of us in the feminist blogosphere are familiar with this cycle. Privileged, misguided commentary sparks a flurry of furious rebuttals. The folks being criticized, and their supporters, rebut right back. Little, if any, of the critique is really absorbed. A day or a week or a month later, it happens again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Naming problems (pun intended) we see in media we consume is valuable and necessary. But this time, we want to do more than just get angry. We don’t want to leave the discussion at a response to this article. We agree with feminists like Filipovic that this is an important conversation – too important to leave it up to Big Media to frame it for us, and to do so around faulty and incomplete assumptions.

We can start our own conversation. We can shift, reshape, and recenter it. And that’s exactly what we’d like to do, hopefully with your help. We want to intentionally and from the outset center people left out of mainstream discussions of naming and identity.

With that in mind, we’re inviting people to share their stories and reflections on what names mean, and what it means to change one’s name. We want to bring together a range of voices – POC, queer, trans, immigrant (not just to the U.S.!), global, nonmonogamous, and the various intersections of these.

We could have done a forum on issues of naming within a specific group or identity – and this is also a much needed discussion. But our specific hope here is to create a forum that shows how rich and complex the relationship between names and identity is, and provide a variety of jumping points for multiple conversations about what names mean.

Filipovic argues that “Your name is your identity,” and that changing it is giving up a part of yourself. We would argue something much broader this. Names are powerful, and often intimately related to our self-identity. But the relationship is not an easy, uncomplicated one. It’s not as simple as saying that the name you’re given is your identity, or that you have one name and one identity, or that changing your name means erasing your identity or part of who you are.

Names can be given, they can be claimed, and reclaimed. They can be denied by the people they are “given” to, or denied by people who refuse to recognize the names we claim for ourselves. Names can be imposed as way of erasing authentic identity. Many of us have multiple names and straddle identities. There are a range of stories – historical and personal – to be told about naming, a variety of meanings signified by names.

We’re really excited about creating a forum to share some of these stories. We already have several contributors lined up, and we (Jess and Grace) will also be sharing stories from our own families as well. Starting on March 17th, we’ll be posting them alternately here at AWH and Flyover Feminism.

We hope you’ll join us in reading and discussing these stories, and maybe contributing one of your own. The format – video, essay, poetry, etc. – is up to you. And if there’s a piece of media you really love that speaks to names and identity, feel free to share that, too. We’re also asking that each essay submission include an image of a place that has personal meaning for you (you can send us that image, or tell us the place and we’ll find an appropriate one). You can reach us at arewomenhuman2@gmail.com or flyover@flyoverfeminism.com.

We’d like to thank Spectra Speaks and Ann Daramola/Afrolicious for shaping the ideas in this post and continually reminding us of the need to tell our own stories. We too can create the media we want to see. Let’s get to it. Let’s talk about names.



  1. Grace, I’m really excited for this and look forward to contributing and reading through others’ stories about naming and identity. I did want to flag for you that Shannon Hill (The Feminist Mystique) and I co-founded the Last Name Project last year and will be re-launching it in the next couple of months. The Last Name Project is a collection of stories from people from all walks of life — but mostly Westerners at this point — talking about what they did with their last names and why.

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  3. Woot! I’m excited to see more and more people step out of the read/react cycle. I’ll be amplifying this project on all Afrolicious channels, on and offline.

  4. That sounds fascinating! I hope the emphasis remains on women making their own choices. A lot of people were surprised when I took my husband’s name, but even if it wasn’t shorter and easier to spell than my maiden name, my middle name was much more central to me than my Dad’s last name, which really isn’t any more important to me than my Mom’s, especially since they got divorced. So this works for me, but it isn’t a story that gets told very often.

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  6. Kelley Baron says:

    My name. At 16 years old I was a rebellious teen looking for independence from my father’s reign. I never considered aspiring to be an independent woman on my own. At a very young age, I started searching for a man to rescue me. I understood that I was to be a mother and a wife, many times my father pondered the point of investing in an education for me so that I could waste it by staying at home to raise children and keep house. At 16 I met a boy that committed to me. He was a small town boy with no dreams, happy to follow my lead as we became adults and to “give me” my independence through our marriage – I was 19, he was 21. Changing my name from Kelley Baron to Kelley Alexander was liberating. I was no longer my father’s daughter, I was my husband’s wife. For the next 8 years I dove head first into the domestic life that I knew would complete me. I panicked for years that I’d fail my womanly duties due to infertility, but after three years I had my first child, 15 months later my second. I focused on keeping a perfect house, baking, cooking, cleaning, picking curtains and attending PTA meetings. My husband developed his career. He attended school to become a journeyman carpenter eventually starting his own business – another dream of mine. In 2005 our marriage went south and my identity crashed. I did not know who I was if I wasn’t a wife. I could hardly be a good mother if I wasn’t good enough to be a wife, could I? Following 3 years of deep depression, I slowly climbed my ass out of nowhere and found myself. I began to see how I had been tricked about life. The Joneses didn’t exist. And if they did, I did not want to be part of that robotic, patriarchal, mind-numbing, entitled, naive lifestyle. In those three years I saw how I had narrowly escaped a lifetime of striving to meet impossible expectations; but even with my new perspective i struggled to let go of my married name. Not because I wanted to hang on to a part of my ex-husband, but because, at 34 years old, It felt like failure to become my fathers daughter again and go back to his name. it took a conscious effort and many counselling sessions for me to embrace the fact that I own my name, it does not own me or define me. This led me to the most liberating choice I have made in my life to date. I changed my name back to Kelley Baron, not because I am my father’s daughter but because that is and always has been my name. I have not remarried, but if I do I will not be changing who I am ever again. I will be Kelley Baron from now until eternity.

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  8. I am a bisexual woman of color in a relationship with another woman. I decided a year ago to drop the surname of my family of origin, either if/when we marry or when I am ready to go through the paperwork hassles, whichever comes first. The identity associated with that surname does not fit me…and hasn’t for a very, very long time.

    I’m looking forward to what other women have to say about this.

    My idea of feminism is about women being able to choose what they want to do with their identities and lives, rather than having them dictated by outside forces. This includes the decision to change her name or not.

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  22. As a trans woman, changing my name was a liberating experience, but choosing a new name was also quite difficult, and was also symbolic of the friction in my family about my transition – when my mum was pregnant with me, she refused to even consider any “girls’ names” because she believed she “knew” in some mystical way that I was going to be male. She told me that story several times over the years (before I came out to her as trans, to her credit) and also about how she’d “always wanted a son called [birth name]”, so when she fell in love with and married my dad, who’s also called [birth name] she took it as an extra “sign”. When I was choosing a name, I wanted one that I wouldn’t share with anyone I know, because I was self-conscious about the possibility that if I *did* choose a name that someone else in my family or social circle shared people might read to much into it. That narrowed the choice considerably. I also wanted something similar to my birth name, in order to help people get used to it, which in hindsight was a bad idea – it contributes to paranoia, cos I’m often not sure if I’m hearing my birth name or a version of my chosen name

    • Really interesting about balancing the name change to something similar to your birth name to ease with the shift w/ the paranoia about which one someone might say.

      thanks for sharing this, Alison!

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