A Broad View: Last names are where men hide in the coattails of women

Posted inCreative Voices

Ethel Louise Gelpke Butler, this one’s for you.

“Last names are where men hide in the coattails of women.” —Rebecca Woolf

A couple weeks ago, I read that after her divorce, Kelly Clarkson petitioned the court to be known by only her first and middle names— Kelly Brianne— going forward, and my stomach flip-flopped with joyful recognition. I’m well-acquainted with that specific journey, and the hard-won freedom and empowerment women achieve when making this rare move.

I see you, Kelly. Yesss, girl. Get. It, I cheered in my head.

I felt inspired to write about my own experience of legally changing my middle name to my last name. Three years ago, after working as a writer under my married name for most of my life, I decided I would drop that name, as well as my birth name. I successfully petitioned the court to be known simply as Monica Danielle.

So I tried to write about what I initially thought would be my own little empowerment story, à la Kelly Brianne. I told the hilarious anecdote about actually being in the courthouse, sweaty and breathless, as it looked like the name change wouldn’t go through. I wrote about how they only take checks or money orders, and I had rushed there so quickly I had access to neither, and the courthouse was closing, but I couldn’t bear to leave still carrying the weight of my married name. So I texted my friend Jodie, who texted her husband, who happened to work a block down the road, and I rushed to his office, where he spotted me the $20.50, with which I sprinted back to the courthouse. But by that time, a second court clerk had intervened in my transaction, and was telling the first man he didn’t think these name change documents were the right ones. Reverting to my “maiden name” after divorce was one thing, he said, but using my middle name as a legal last name was a longer, more expensive process.

I wrote about all that, but it wasn’t the real story of my name change. All roads kept leading back to two men, and truth-telling when it comes to family is a tricky, ill-advised affair. But as the ridiculously talented, best-selling memoirist Mary Karr said about life-story writers, “Truth is not their enemy. It’s the banister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs. It’s the solution.”

I am groping for the banister, but feel dread when my thoughts crawl toward writing about either man. One I simply can’t write about. The words won’t come. They are bomb shrapnel lodged painfully in my guts and heart and head. If I pull them out now, I am certain to bleed to death.

The other man, my dad, I haven’t spoken to in years. So I tried to tell the story of our name, but like driving around an unfamiliar neighborhood, each time I felt like I was getting somewhere, I’d take a wrong turn and end up in a cul-de-sac. Fear and dread kept smothering the words. Dead end. This is not the way out.

I’ve spent the past two weeks trying to write my way out. I’m running out of gas.

The boys I loved most in my childhood called me “Butler,” my birth name. My father’s name.

I liked being called Butler. It made me feel edgy, tough. “S’up, Butler,” they’d say, and it thrilled my 13-year-old heart. After years of not hearing the name in that cool-girl context, a childhood friend used it during a phone conversation a few weeks ago, and my chest tightened in a not-so-thrilled way. I froze and experienced disorientation that felt something like that cringe-inducing confusion most people feel when hearing their own recorded voice. Is that me? Ugh.

“Oooh, don’t call me that,” I told him. “That’s not my name.”

“You’ll always be Butler to me,” he said simply.

It got me wondering if I will always be Butler to me, despite dropping the name from my life.

I’m Don’t Know.

I understand the heritage, and the importance of ancestry. Fuck, of course I do! A girl can renounce Mormonism but Mormonism is still all up in the girl, you know? If we learned anything from my last essay, it is that. And those Mormons drill that genealogy shit directly into your bones every chance they get. But what I have slowly come to recognize is that honoring my ancestors is exactly the point.

Almost all women take their fathers’ last names at birth, which should make no sense to any woman who has experienced the bodily implosion of pushing a baby from her womb after nine months of tenting said human with her own aching flesh and bones. All that work and the baby is immediately stamped like cattle with dad’s last name.

This surname is then referred to as a young girl’s “maiden” name, and can we strike that one from the lexicon already? A young woman isn’t a fair maiden awaiting her prince. The phrase is ridiculously outdated, condescending, and sexist. Maiden brings to mind the Swiss Miss hot chocolate girl, carefully checking and rechecking the locks on her chastity belt as she waits around for marriage so she can score a male surname. There is no similar term for unmarried men to indicate they’re waiting for marriage, by the way.

Original name? That feels good. Birth name is better. Unmarried name works, too. Pass it on.

Between 70-80 percent of women choose to take their husband’s name when they get married, opting into a patriarchal legacy dating to the 11th century. Up until then, women didn’t even have surnames, according to the BBC. Sometime after the Norman Conquest (when a bunch of French dudes did what small dick energy dudes always do, and invaded and occupied England because power), the Normans introduced the idea of “coverture” to the English.

Coverture basically means marriage and property laws outlining that until marriage, a woman was nameless. It wasn’t until marriage— when a woman became her husband’s possession— that she was given his surname. This article from Harvard Business School defines coverture thusly:

Coverture stipulated that a married woman did not have a separate legal existence from her husband. A married woman or feme covert was a dependent, like an underage child or a slave, and could not own property in her own name or control her own earnings, except under very specific circumstances.

By the 14th century, it was standard for women to take their husband’s surnames upon marriage. After going around without last names for all those centuries, they probably felt like they were actually making progress once they’d finally nabbed one.

Around the turn of the 15th century, religion became entangled in the concept of married surnames— which, of course. When doesn’t religion insert its colossal gob into the mix? Clergy started focusing on the eternal spiritual union of husband and wife as a reason for women taking male last names, while simultaneously perpetuating the stigma that a woman who signed a different surname than her husband or children was obviously living in sin.

Eternal union, promises, and shaming: typical religious playbook shit, but fine. If patriarchal-god-defined-twin-souls-need-one-last-name is your romantic jam, rock on. Still, religious angle or not, married women could not hold property or vote.

In later centuries, because of the persistence of laws denying them independent personhood, women were still forced to take their husbands’ names if they wanted to function as citizens in society. No driver’s license or passport or registering to vote, unless they adopted their husband’s last name. While women earned the right to vote in 1920, it wasn’t until 1975, after Dunn v. Palermothat a Tennessee court upheld women’s right to vote using their “maiden” name. Until 1974, a bank could refuse to issue a checking account or a credit card to an unmarried woman and if a woman was married, her husband was required to cosign.

I first heard the word CUNT when it fired from my dad’s mouth like buckshot as he described my “slut of a mom.” At 10, I already knew what slut meant, also courtesy of Dad as he infrequently drove us the six hours from Mom’s Utah home to spend a few summer weeks at the depressing, cramped New Mexico apartment he moved to in the wake of their divorce. The razor blade that is CUNT sliced into tender, seven-year old heart muscle, ripping, gashing, twisting, eventually leaving a painful scar.

After a lifetime of unfairly foisting all the blame for their divorce on Mom, my dad also spent much of my own divorce talking about how bad he felt for my ex-husband. The few times I called him to update him on a situation that would, to my dismay, ultimately come to mirror my parents’ terrifically awful post-marriage relationship, he’d sigh and tell me how hard all this must be for my ex.

It took me a long time and a lot of therapy to understand my dad is a misogynist who deeply mistrusts women, although their attention is the glue that holds his crumbling masculinity together. An often charming narcissist, he has exploited my attention the same way he has with his girlfriends. I have therapized him for hours over the phone, fielded suicidal threats, listened to him talk about his own terrible childhood at the hands of an alcoholic father who terrorized the family, and abused my sweet grandmother as my dad hid under his bed, trembling in fear.

Even as I know uncomfortably personal details about his life, my dad has always maintained an aggressive uninterest in the particulars of my life. Maybe because he couldn’t relate to me as his only daughter; maybe because I viciously defended Mom when he called her a cunt, and regaled us with constant tales of how she’s a bad woman who ruined the family. His interest in me ran only as far as my interest in him.

When I got married, I took my husband’s unique last name— not so much a result of tradition, but because I liked his name better than mine, and uncommon names are useful when creating email accounts, websites, or if you want a memorable byline for your writing.

After divorce, I continued on autopilot, keeping the name because it’s the name my kids were given, and a name under which I worked hard to build my writing career. When my ex-husband remarried and his wife took his last name, it immediately felt strange at best, but mostly wrong to continue using the name, regardless of my kids or career. The name no longer belonged to me. Like trying to squeeze your post-holiday ass into a pair of summer jeans, it just didn’t fit. But neither did my birth name. I waffled in uncertainty for more than a month. Married name? Birth name? Who am I? Who do I want to be?

The obviousness of going by Monica Danielle was nibbling my brain for weeks, but didn’t bite hard enough to earn my attention until I was driving home from work one day and experienced a flash of clarity. Like a bolt of lightning that transforms night into day, I saw the subtle systemic patriarchy at work in my life. It was like peering into the motherboard of a computer when you’ve spent your entire life tightly focused on the images that appear on the screen.

This is the book of the generations of Adam. And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth. And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters: And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died. And Seth lived an hundred and five years, and begat Enos: And Seth lived after he begat Enos eight hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters: And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years: and he died. And Enos lived ninety years, and begat Cainan…

Even if my dad was a super swell fella, I’d feel silly for ever going along with this centuries-old name game of men bestowing surnames on babies and wives like they’re awarding congressional medals of honor. Smearing surnames all over women and absorbing their lineage until their identities disappear from history like sidewalk chalk in a rainstorm.

I pointed my minivan toward the courthouse and pushed the gas pedal. Getting rid of my married name suddenly felt as desperately imperative as tweezering a tick from a tender part of my body.

In her petition, Kelly Clarkson wrote in court documents that she has “a desire” to go by her first and middle names because “my new name more fully reflects who I am.”

The sentiment is familiar. Legally transforming my middle name into my surname remains one of the most liberating, empowering decisions of my life. My name belongs only to me, and reflects who I am and who I want to be until I die and thereafter. I refuse to backpack around the legacy of men for one second longer.

If dropping my birth surname seems like thumbing my nose at my ancestors, probably you’re seeing it from the perspective of male ancestors, which is no surprise because society is constructed and informed by the male perspective. For me, ditching my birth surname is an act of honoring my ancestors: the ones who were passed from man to man as property; the ones who had no options in life other than to be housewives and birth children; the ones who were prohibited from purchasing property, or voting, or opening a bank account, or obtaining a credit card unless they had the male surname stamp of approval.

Ironically, the one person I know would approve of my name change is a woman who bore the same male surname as me until she died, despite the fact that her husband— my grandfather— terrorized and beat her until she fled their home with her five sons— including my dad— in her early forties.

Ethel Louise Gelpke Butler was a singular badass, one of few women to earn a college degree in the 1940s. She worked as a community nutritionist and hospital dietician in Massachusetts and New York before deciding to set out west and give Colorado a try. When she didn’t find a job there, she headed to Seattle, but was waylaid by the Mormons in Salt Lake City, and never left Utah. She is my heritage, and I honor her by dropping the name of the man who beat her, in spite of what my dad would have you believe.

By the time I legally filed to use my middle name as my last name, I hadn’t used my birth surname in more than 15 years. While my dad had no problem with me dropping the Butler name all those years ago, when I got married, choosing not to use any man’s last name was an unacceptable audacity that prompted our final interaction.

Text exchange from September 24 2019 2:58 pm

Dad: I hear you are dropping the Butler name, is that true? Really? That’s really hurtful, Monica. I don’t really know what to say.

Monica: Sorry your feelings are hurt.

Dad: No you’re not.

Monica: Of course I’m sorry your feelings are hurt.

Dad: You’ve disrespected me for the last time

Monica: I don’t even know what that means, but OK dad

Dad: Of course you know what disrespect means. You’re full of disrespect for your family including my mother and the Mormon church and your Heavenly Father and his son Jesus Christ. I am truly heartbroken.

Monica: I just wondered what disrespected you “for the last time” meant exactly. How have I disrespected grandma or my family?

Dad: All of these things you are doing are going to come back and haunt you.

It is a wonder the man who taught me to view my mother and all women as sluts and cunts who fuck men over thinks his name— which comes from an alcoholic wifebeater— should mean anything to me. Such is the relentless, predictable entitlement of man.

Nearly three years later I am not haunted. Only free.

Now Reading:

How To Do The Work by Dr. Nicole Lepera.

‘Lucy Stone, If You Please’: The Unsung Suffragist Who Fought for Women to Keep Their Maiden Names by Olivia B. Waxman for TIME.

The Colorful Work of Ukrainian Artist Maria Prymachenko by Jason Kottke.

This essay was originally published on Monica Danielle’s blog, A Broad View, a real-time memoir about starting over in mid-life. You can keep up with her work here, or join her community at Substack.