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On Naming & Claiming
"What's in a name?" she said
I disagree with Juliet. Names matter. That which we call a rose, if called a bulbous fartblossom, would not smell as sweet.
I’ve done a great deal of thinking about names throughout my life, and not just because I’m a professional word nerd.
Being gifted with the name “LaDonna” made me stand out in classrooms full of Heidis and Christies and Sarahs. I hated it when I was younger. I wanted to blend in better.
But as I grew older and began to embrace my not-like-everyone-else-ness, I came to love my name. Every once in a great while (just three times in my life so far), I meet another LaDonna—or lowercase d Ladonna—and each time it feels like we belong to a secret club.
When I realized that my name translates to “the woman” or “the lady” in Italian, I was delighted, and made jokes about being THE woman.
Having an unusual name has been a good thing. But it’s not the LaDonna that I’m here about today. It’s the other name. The last name. The one that, for the last couple of decades, has been missing.
I was a tiny baby child when I got married. Also I was 27. At the time, I thought I was an old maid, destined to die surrounded by cats and library books. I lived in northern Illinois, and a large percentage of my twenty-something friends were not only married already, they had mortgages and offspring. They were on their way… somewhere.
From kindergarten through high school, I attended an extremely conservative church and school (Independent Fundamental Baptist), and I knew that any Good Christian Woman(TM) was destined to become a wife and a mother.
Though I had already extricated myself from the cult of extreme fundamentalism, and was teetering on the edge of leaving Christianity altogether, I still could not escape the looming anvil of marriage.
It was the only question my grandparents ever had for me, really. Not “Are you happy?” or “Have you written anything you love lately?” but “Do you have a boyfriend?” and then “Is it serious?” and then “When is he going to pop the question?”
So by the time the serious boyfriend DID ask me, all starry eyed, while he flashed a diamond ring, 26-year-old LaDonna felt an overwhelming sense of relief and accomplishment. I was late to the matrimony party, yes, but I had finally received my invitation. Maybe this would prove to all the church folk and skeptic relatives that there wasn’t as much wrong with me as they thought. (I had a long way to go before I figured out that it was the system that was ridiculous, not me.)
I said yes because I was genuinely in love. But also because it was The Thing To Do. And I wasn’t brave enough to buck the system entirely.
So the flurry of wedding plans ensued—the dress and the cake and the invitations. And somewhere in the midst of it all, the decision to change my name.
It wasn’t a big decision. It was actually quite rhetorical.
Of course, I’d drop my own surname. My maiden name. Name of my birth. Of course I’d take my husband’s name. A man’s name. It was How Things Were Done.
So when the ceremony was over and the paperwork was signed, I swapped Witmer for Willems and laughed that I hadn’t moved up in the alphabet at all. I changed my bank accounts and my driver’s license and created a new email address and updated my resume and whoop-de-do, I was a Mrs.
I did no digging into why. I didn’t ask Marido if he’d mind if I kept my own name (he wouldn’t have). I never even thought about it. This was what you did. You grew boobs and snared a man and took his name.
There’s a name for it, actually. (Of course there is!) Coverture was a legal doctrine imported to the U.S. by English colonists, as it was the common law of England for hundreds and hundreds of years—well into the 19th century. Basically, it meant that when a woman was married, her legal rights and obligations were absorbed by her husband.
A wife’s legal status was “feme covert” from the French femme couverte, which literally means “covered woman.” An unmarried woman, a “feme sole” (or femme seule, “single woman”), could own property and make contracts in her own name.
Coverture comes from the idea (propagated by the Bible) that a husband and wife are one person.*
So for generations in England and the U.S., a married woman was a dependent, like an underage child or indentured servant. She could not own property in her own name or control any money that she earned. When her husband died, the wife could not even be the guardian to their underage children. (WTF?)
The concept of coverture ties in nicely with conservative religious ideology that the man is the head of the household. That wives must submit to their husband’s will in all matters, public and private.
And it wasn’t just fundamental Baptist churches like mine that backed up this patriarchal ethos—it was our American culture as a whole. All our systems and processes and rules of engagement.
It’s fairly common knowledge that women in the States couldn’t vote until 1920, but did you know we also couldn’t have credit cards in our own names, separate from our husbands, until 1974?
Women were not allowed to smoke in public (until 1927), wear bikinis to the beach (until the 1950s), work while pregnant (until 1964), take birth control (until 1972), run alongside men in marathons (until 1972), or serve on juries (until 1975).
Knowing all of that, it seems a little less silly to me now that I just… gave up my name.
Two decades into marriage, I know a lot more than that 27-year-old who walked the aisle in white. I do not regret my yes. I still love Marido, and think he’s a damn fine partner to have at my side as we travel through all these adventures of life.
But I do regret giving up my own name. I regret the appearance of a merger of personalities. I regret every envelope I’ve ever received addressed to “Mrs. Marido Willems”. As if LaDonna Witmer no longer existed, or mattered.
Of course that’s a dramatic reading of the situation, but it does not change the truth that what we call ourselves matters.
(Kind of like how it matters when people call the rioters of last Wednesday “protestors” instead of the seditious, violent terrorists that they are. But that’s a whole other story.)
My name mattered enough to me that in the midst of a global pandemic, I took myself down to the Superior Court of California to file paperwork (and pay a hefty fee) to get my name back.
In the space given to me to provide a reason for the name change filing I wrote simply, “Feminism.”
Marido and I had several long talks about it, and being the highly evolved human that he is, he kept circling back to, “It’s your name, do what you want.” We discussed him changing his name, or both of us changing our surname to an anagram of Witmer/Willems. There’s a list, somewhere, of all the new words we could make with letters of the old: Willmer, Wiselit, Metler.
Our marriage has always been one of equality and partnership. Marido has never subscribed to the head of the household, lord of the manor mindset. We operate as a unit sometimes, but we’re also two individual people.
So in the end, instead of creating something entirely new, I just wanted to go back to the name I was born with. I wanted to take back what was mine.
The approved decree returning my maiden name was signed and stamped by a judge, and arrived in my mailbox on October 20, 2020. I then set about filing a lot more paperwork—at the Social Security office, the passport office, the bank, the DMV.
And now, it’s official everywhere. I’m LaDonna Witmer, legally, once again. I am my own woman in name as well as deed.
It feels really, really good.
*Side rant about the whole “two shall become one” idea: I’ve always hated the tradition of the unity candle at wedding ceremonies. Usually it’s a big fat unlit candle squatting betwixt two slim flickering tapers. At some point in the nuptials, usually while a soloist warbles a song about undying love, the bride and groom each take a taper, and together bend to light the single “unity” candle. Once its flame is bright, they blow out the flames of their own candles. It was always at this point in the proceedings that I’d huff a sigh and roll my eyes. There was no unity candle at my wedding. I expressly forbid it. But I still signed away my name.
Copyright © 2021 LaDonna Witmer