Committed to change?

Most Israeli women adopt their husband’s surname after marriage, but in recent years more are keeping own.

Cartoon family 521 (photo credit: Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Cartoon family 521
(photo credit: Los Angeles Times/MCT)
In Feminism, Family and Identity in Israel: Women’s Marital Names, Michal Rom and Orly Benjamin deal with the fascinating and under-reported subject of our names. They investigate why Israeli women choose to keep their maiden names, take their husband’s names or, in some cases, decide on a name new to both members of the couple. After all, our names are our identities and our faces to the outside world. These decisions reflect our relationships with our families, feminist awareness and Israel’s social milieu. Our decisions aren’t always predictable. Decades ago, a close friend, a feminist who is the daughter of a famous politician, told me what a relief it was to get a new, unknown name instead of being pegged as “the daughter of...” wherever she went. Others cling to their maiden names. Often, there’s a story behind our choices.
Most Israeli women take on their husbands’ surnames with marriage, but not all countries follow this patronymic custom. According to the authors, in Spain a woman’s name doesn’t change upon marriage and this pattern is followed with variation in many Latin American countries. In Quebec, women are compelled to retain their maiden names. In most Muslim countries it is customary to address a woman by her husband’s name, adding a reference to her status as a wife. But in formal documents, her full name doesn’t change. Who knew?
Among Israeli women who have wed since 1996, only 1.2 percent have retained their maiden names after marriage. But hyphenated names are becoming more common. In Israel, 17.3% of women, up 3% since 1985, opt for “nonconventional” naming, as compared to only 9% of women in the US. Nonconventional naming most commonly means mentioning both partners’ names. We’ve become used to hearing hyphenated names like those of journalist Sivan Rahav-Meir, law professor, UN representative on the status of women Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kadari, and Hadassah Medical Faculty’s expert on women’s sexuality Dr. Anna Wruble- Wolonski.
Those who reject the patronymic custom often face raised eyebrows or worse. An Israeli study published in 2005 claimed that reluctance to assume a man’s name “indicated problems in the relationships.” Women who want to pass down a hyphenated name are often accused of being unfit mothers for burdening children with a complicated surname.
Only two of the mothers interviewed by Rom and Benjamin passed on their hyphenated names to their children. One interviewee explains why she didn’t: “I know the parents who have a child with a very complicated last name, and every time at day-care, when he was asked what’s his name, he’d say his name and people would ask, what? What? What? So after a while, he began refusing to tell his name, shrugging his shoulders.”
In Israel, where the extended family, particularly grandparents, are often a close unit, pressure may be strong for a woman to assume her husband’s name.
Names are culturally loaded, of course. One of my daughters was recently advised that she should use her Ashkenazi surname as opposed to her husband’s Sephardi name when applying for her gifted child at a local elementary school. She refused, even though studies show that those marking essays are inclined to give higher grades on identical compositions to those with Ashkenazi names.
In 1948, David Ben-Gurion insisted that army officers Hebraize their names. Foreign service officials used to change non- Hebrew names like Mandel, which means almond in Yiddish, into the Hebrew Shaked. Pilots like the late Ilan Ramon, who started life in Beersheba as Wolferman but adopted the name of the nearby crater where he had hiked as a lad, routinely chose poetic Hebrew names. Indeed, “beautiful” Hebrew names are still called “pilots’ names.”
The Zionist preference for a Hebrew name is sometimes overridden by the importance of preserving a rare Diaspora name, particularly when a person is the last surviving family member with that name. And finally, context counts. Women reported using different names in varying social situations. When they pick up their graduate degrees they might use one name and when they pick up their children from nursery school they might use another.
NOT TO be discounted is the tediousness of correcting names on banking and other bureaucratic forms. Potential name-changers are sometimes so worn down by the process of making the change that they abandon the endeavor. Say the authors: “Self-naming is a lifelong difficulty that requires much energy, justifications, and the willingness to bear a sense of isolation once the family name separates between a woman and her children.” Rom and Benjamin are both lecturers in sociology and gender studies at Bar-Ilan University. Rom and her husband-to-be had agreed to choose a name new for them both, but backed out in the end. She and her husband use different names; the children bear hyphenated names. Benjamin took on her husband’s name, “giving up a monument to a father she didn’t want to remember.”
They say: “Most of all we hope that the issue of the family name will increasingly become a family matter so that appropriate masculinity and femininity alike will include the reflexive consideration of the family name as an integral aspect for caring for children.”
You may have had to read that last sentence twice. Unhappily, the book is flawed by both awkward diction and uneven translation. Despite their ability to tell an interesting story, large passages of academic prose weigh down flow.
Take, for example, a section called “Contesting the Naming Agency,” in which the authors attempt to clarify the differences between women who seek change through political activism and those who adopt the humanist view of the individual as liberated and autonomous.