Monday, April 12, 2010

Margaret Moth

To quote my good friend Lauren, "I'm gonna get a lil’ bit preachy." 

Margaret Moth was a CNN photojournalist who passed away last month after a long battle with cancer. She covered events all over the world and was renowned for her passion and courage. She sought out stories in war torn areas and was even shot in the face while covering the conflict in Sarajevo during the early 90's. She clearly lived a life led by her own rules.

Born in New Zealand, she always dreamed of operating a camera. She wanted to see the world and share her adventures through film. After working in her home country as well as Australia, she took a job in Texas before getting her position with CNN. She had goals, vision, and definitely didn't allow gender rules to "get in her way". Many who knew her personally speak of her tenacity to get the best shot possible. She would sleep in her combat boots and run alongside convoys in order to be first on the scene.

There are so many more things that can be said about her accomplishments (not only for women but also in her field of work), but I would like to focus most of this post on her name. She was born Margaret Wilson. An avid lover of skydiving, she changed her name to Margaret Gypsy Moth after parachuting out of one of her friends Tiger Moth planes.

When asked why she chose this new name, she simply questions, "Why couldn't I create my own name for myself? Why keep my father's name or take a husband's name?" So she was known as Margaret Moth for the majority of her life.

Questioning the idea of female name change after marriage was something I first began to seriously think about after a trip to Armenia the summer before my senior year of college. I went with a group of students and a professor to work in an orphanage for mentally and physically disabled children on the outskirts of Yerevan, the capital city. This trip got my brain sparking with ideas I had never let myself have before about society and the way things work.

One discussion that was particularly illuminating for me was on the way back to the hotel after an afternoon at the orphanage. My professor, team leader, and I were discussing male feminists and citing men that we knew personally who we held as good examples. One person was another professor at North Park (my school) who spoke openly about his beliefs in class. Our discussion was not so much about him being a feminist or not, but one specific belief he held. An example he used to describe his activism as a male feminist was his insistence that his mother-in-law take back her maiden name after her husband passed away. Apparently, many years after her husband died, this woman would refer to herself as "Mrs. John Smith" on everything from checks to letters. His argument was that she had completely removed herself from her legal written identity and that this was unnecessary because her spouse was no longer alive. He spoke openly about the disagreements they had on the matter and how much it frustrated him.

In Armenia we were discussing if this in fact supported his feminist case or hurt it. My team leader argued that it helped because he was encouraging this woman that he cares for to reclaim her identity, while my professor and I argued that it hurt his case because he was just another male telling a female how to identify herself. While I understood his intent to help liberate her from a societal barrier she had lived with for many years, I perceived him to be inconsiderate of her past with this man and the fact that even though her husband was no longer alive, it was her right to call herself whatever she wanted. While I completely think of this man as an active feminist he was missing the point. Regardless of the outcome of this discussion it was a turning point for me in my understanding of female name change.

Lucy Stone's Postage Stamp
Women have typically inherited the name of their husband's family after marriage as a way of identifying members of the household, under the head of the household. In the United States, it was illegal for a wife to neglect this name change. The first time this was challenged was in the late 1800's by Lucy Stone. She campaigned for a woman's right to fore go name change as a means to establish one's own identity.  

Nowadays, while still rare for a woman to keep her maiden name, it is no longer illegal. In the spirit of personal choice, a couple in 2007 filed a lawsuit against the state of California arguing that it was against the law to make male name change more difficult than female name change after marriage. This has helped aid in the growing popularity of hyphenated names or blended names of married heterosexual couples. Socially, it is still more popular to take on the husband's last name.

I have more friends than not that are married. Most of these friends, plus many of my married family members have opted to change their names to that of their husbands. There are exceptions to this however. My friend Sterling and her husband Karl changed their names to take on both of their birth surnames. I also have one friend who chose to keep her name and not change it at all. This however took a lot of discussions between her and her husband. He didn't understand her need to keep her name until she asked him if he would take hers. Discussion over, ending with two different last names. I was surprised by other people's reaction to her decision to not change her name. Some people were actually angry. I couldn't understand that because why does it matter to anyone else? But then I started to think about it and I know that there is a certain amount of comfort that people experience when others make the same choices.  I suppose that when others make different choices it is only natural to experience some level of discomfort.

Many people don't think that this should even be an issue. And maybe it isn’t one that warrants a lot of attention but I would say that it is incredibly significant. I remember having this talk with a friend who told me that she always felt sorry for the kids who did not have the same name as their mothers. This was so upsetting to me because I feel like there are so many other issues that should worry us about children's home lives. It just sounded like this friend felt like as long as families outwardly looked a certain way, things were "good".

I know I have not personally needed to make the decision to change my name yet, but I already know what my choice will be. I am Julia Olson. I have a great relationship with my family and I have a great sense of pride in the idea of keeping my last name throughout the entirety of my life. I could never marry or partner with someone who didn't respect this choice.

That being said, I recognize this is not a black and white issue. Of my married friends, I know several that have considered if they want to change their names and all of them have decided "Yes" for many different reasons. I have friends who have not so great relationships with their fathers so they want to drop their birth surname. I have friends who are eager to start their own families that are completely separate from their previous families. Outside of personal reasons, it is difficult to do certain things when you have a different last name from that of your spouse. Kelly was at an impound lot after her car was towed a few weeks ago and a woman who had to get to a job interview was trying to convince the person in charge of releasing her car to allow her husband to wait for it to be ready since she needed to leave. The worker said this was impossible because she and her husband had different last names, thus, causing the woman to miss her interview. There is a lot of explanation that is attached to keeping your birth name or choosing a different name that could get quite frustrating and tiresome. So I get that it’s easier (socially) to just take the husband’s name. However, it seems that the norm these days is to just change your name because that’s what women are supposed to do. This is where I take issue.

I'm not some robot zombie girl. I'm the same as everyone else. I fantasized about changing my name as often as I changed crushes when I was young. Romantic love is intoxicating. And in our country we associate obtaining that type of love with the finalizing of a marriage certificate and thus becoming "Mrs. ...". I wonder though, if we as little girls ever fully accept our names because we are always expected to give them up. This is what sets Margaret apart. She did think about what our relationship with our names mean to us. It’s not just some arbitrary label. A name defines us more than we appreciate sometimes.

I work in the records office at a private, Christian, liberal arts university in Chicago. I have become ultra sensitive to the growing number of young female students who are turning in name change forms. They keep getting younger. One of the last ones that I changed was for a student who had just turned 18 and was an incoming freshman. Listening to girls talk about changing their names has become increasingly fascinating/frustrating for me as well. They do lament the loss of their name, but the way they speak of it is like they are fulfilling some type of spousal duty even before they become a spouse.

I’m so proud of my friends who have thought about what it means to change their names. That says that we are making progress as far as taking control of our life choices. I worry though that we get so wrapped up in what our lives are supposed to look like, we neglect personal choice all together. Name change does not mean complete forward progression; I would just argue that it’s an important piece. And again, an issue that is loaded with shades of gray.

My grandma always joked that she shouldn’t have changed her name after she got married. She was a “Johnson” and then became a “Bringerud”. No one could pronounce her last name so that is why she would say that she wished she hadn’t taken it. I’m happy she did because my grandpa was a “Gustafson” who changed his name because he felt his birth name was too common in his native Sweden. Gote Bringerud was certainly not as common in the states and gives my family history that extra special dose of character.

My whole point with all of this is that I wish the choice to name ourselves was a more commonly accepted social occurrence. Margaret, while praised by many, was also considered to be eccentric. All too often women who stand outside of society’s rules are given this label and that is unnecessary. Once we start to set our own guidelines we can get away from the labels that hold us back, regardless of what we decide to be called.

Look! Jessica Valenti responded to me on her Tumblr!! :)


  1. First of all, thanks for the shout out
    Second this is my FAVORITE post so far. Karl and I had LONG discussions about the meaning of changing names and our decision to take each others names came from a couple of things. We are apart of each others families. He is a Haukom. I am an Anderson. I wanted my kids last name and I wanted them to have mine. I am Sterling Haukom. I always have been and now I always will be. We are PARTNERS! There is no head of the household, no male dominating bullshit. We are partners. He is not three steps ahead of me, we are side by side and our decision to take on the Haukom Anderson name together represents all of these ideas
    Also, this line "I worry though that we get so wrapped up in what our lives are supposed to look like, we neglect personal choice all together" is SO TRUE!
    This is my FAVORITE post!!!!

  2. yay Sterling! I'm glad you liked it! You and Karl are great and an awesome example of what partnership in marriage is all about!