My Feminist Name Quandary

465px-1883-wedding-licWhen I, Careen Shannon, took David Solomon to be my lawfully wedded (now ex-) husband, I also walked into a feminist name dilemma. But unlike Pamela Paul, who recently wrote in The New York Times about the difficulties of using her maiden name professionally and her married name in other venues, I never considered changing my name to Solomon or even taking on a hyphenated last name. But I did saddle my daughter with a long, somewhat unwieldy name that virtually guarantees she will drop some or all of it at some point, inevitably to the private dismay of whichever parent sees his or her name disappear from our daughter’s public identity.

I emerged from Oberlin College in the early 1980s armed with a hardy feminist worldview that left little room for compromise on important issues like the spelling of the word “women” (which we spelled “womyn” on the T-shirts we made in the Oberlin Womyn’s Collective), the virtues of body hair or the evils of epidurals during childbirth (the last of these being a stance I would later come to regret, loudly, in an angry rant at my husband and my obstetrician while giving birth with little more than ice chips for relief). It is against this background that I now confess that, at one point, I seriously contemplated dropping the name Shannon altogether. After all, it was a vestige of a patriarchal world—one in which a woman lost her identity when she was passed as chattel from father to husband—of which I wanted no part. But would rejecting my father’s name cause a final rupture in my already troubled relationship with my father? The choice wasn’t really meant to be that personal.

So I lit upon what I thought was a brilliant idea. My mother had chosen my first name, Careen, based on a character in a favorite book from her childhood, Gone With The Wind. (Careen, a minor character in the Margaret Mitchell novel, was Scarlett O’Hara’s youngest sister. I will refrain from commenting on the implications of being named after a character in a book that many now excoriate for glorifying slavery and the “Southern way of life” it supported, other than to say that I think my mother deserves a pass on this one. At the time she read the book, she was an adolescent girl, enthralled by the passion of Scarlett’s romance with Rhett Butler and blind to the story’s larger context.) My middle name, Brett, was chosen by my father, also after a character in a novel: Brett Ashley, from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. (Here, I’ll gloss over the remark my father once made to me about Brett Ashley being a whore. I believed him, until I finally read the book myself and found her to be, instead, a sexually liberated woman, somewhat ahead of her time. And why would he want to name me after the former and not the latter anyway? I’d rather not go there.) I decided the solution was to drop the name Shannon and just call myself Careen Brett. In that way, I’d be rid of the dreaded patriarchal surname while still retaining names bestowed upon me by both my mother and my father.

In the end, after years of dilly-dallying, I never bothered to change my name at all. But when our daughter, Rachel, was born, David and I were both committed to giving her a hyphenated last name, reflecting the names and heritages of both of her parents. In addition, David had a beloved stepmother—who I also came to love and admire—who had never had biological children of her own. We decided to honor her by giving Rachel her step-grandmother’s maiden name as a middle name. And thus did Rachel Vineberg Shannon-Solomon come to be. David and I often joked that someday, when she decided to marry Michael Daniel Smith-Lopez, they would have a hell of a time deciding what last name their children should bear. But we couldn’t worry about that. That was a lifetime away, and we had to stay true to our own values.

As it turned out, Rachel learned early on that nobody can understand Shannon-Solomon when you say it to them. They either hear it as Shannon-Sullivan or they think Shannon is her first name, or they come up with some weird amalgamation of the two (Shannsolon?). On standardized test forms, magazine subscription cards or health insurance forms, there is never enough space to write out her complete last name. It also, I presume, becomes tiresome to have to explain one’s name all the time. Actually, I understand that all too well, as over the years I have been called all manner of variations on my unusual first name—Colleen, Corinne, Karen, Sharon, Shareen—and I don’t even pronounce it anymore the way my own mother does (Care-REEN), but the way most people I have met decided it must be pronounced (Cur-REEN). It’s just easier that way.

As with global warming, Social Security and the national debt, we may simply have foisted upon the next generation a problem to which we could not devise a workable solution. In my daughter’s case, sometimes she is Rachel Shannon-Solomon and sometimes she is Rachel Solomon (but never Rachel Shannon, as the ethnic mismatch still causes confusion). She tells me that when she marries she will take her husband’s name so that she, her husband and her future children will all share the same name—even though she appreciates the values her father and I tried to impart by giving her a hyphenated name and taking her husband’s name is out of synch with her own ideas about equality and autonomy.

But hyphenated names are like mules: formed by the combination of horse and donkey, and incapable of reproduction. So someday, when she decides to become Rachel Smith, I won’t take it personally, and hopefully Mr. (or Ms.) Lopez won’t, either.

1883 wedding license from Wikimedia Commons





Careen Shannon is an attorney, adjunct professor of law and writer based in New York City.