I took a married name for SEO purposes, but it's not for everyone

Less sentiment, more search-optimisation - that's the way forward, says Sarah Ditum (née Webster).

There are some decisions about which everyone is the world is obliged to give a shit, and for women, changing or not changing your name on marriage is one of them. (See also: having or not having kids, eating or not eating a cake.) It’s tempting to throw a strop here and point out that it’s not actually anyone else’s name about which to give a shit, but maybe that’s not quite fair, given that names are a definitively public thing. You don’t go having a name just so you can keep it to yourself, unless you’re engaged in some kind of Lovecraft necromancy action on the side. But as well as telling people what they should call you, your name choice can be taken to betray a lot about your private opinions and political beliefs, and people who think you’ve gone the wrong way are rarely shy of letting you know.

There are some time-honoured ways of doing this – the birthday cheque made out to a person who’ll never exist, for example – but most of them come down to just doggedly calling you by the wrong name. At university, I read (and then disbelievingly re-read a few dozen times) a feminist literary critic declare her intention to use an eighteenth-century author’s birth name rather than the “chattel name” the writer was actually known by, as if simply using the husband’s name constituted a wibbling capitulation to the monolith Patriarchy. And anyway, if taking a man’s name designates a woman as property, why isn’t sticking with the patronym just as chattel-y?

The thing is, most of our traditions about naming derive from a time of things being substantially less than awesome for women. Those who hear echoes of historical misogyny in name-changing have sensitive ears, but they’re not wrong. One answer is to blend the bride and groom’s names into an all-new confection, but giving up your name can still feel like surrendering your identity. The mean age of first marriage for a woman in the UK is 30: that’s 30 years of having the name you were born with, unless you’ve had the gumption to come up with a particularly fabulous alternative in the interim. What would make you suddenly decide that the person you’ve been for three decades should be replaced with a new, more obviously be-spoused version?

The best argument for sticking with what you’re born with, though, is the faff involved in changing. “Oh, you should change your name, it’s romantic,”said one of my friends when I told her I planned to sign the register as “Webster”rather than my husband’s “Ditum” all I could do was fold my face up in an origami of doubt, trying to work out where the romance was in taking my marriage certificate on a tour of administrative bodies. (I did change my name in the end, but it wasn’t for very romantic reasons - it was more about the SEO.) “Oh darling, I’ve never felt so together as I did while sitting in the Natwest back office signing forms in triplicate,” is a thing no human has ever said.

And what if your marriage doesn’t work out and you want to change back? Then you have to do all the paperwork again, with the added piquancy of announcing your divorce at the same time. There aren’t many less fun group emails to send out than the one that goes, “Please add this this address to your contacts as I will be using this name from now on, and don’t ask if I’ve just got married or divorced because it’s the latter, the house sale was pretty stressful and I really miss the dog.”Now we all live online, changing your name feels like a perilously drastic thing to do to your identity –not far off getting a plastic surgeon to carve you a new face. The new you might fit some people’s idea of what’s right, but no one’s going to recognise you.

This is an especially keen issue if you work in an industry that demands some sort of public profile – journalism, say. If your career relies on people knowing who you are, it’s entirely self-defeating to tie your reputation to a name that isn’t yours. That, incidentally, is why my birth name went: when I decided to start working as a freelance writer, it turned out there was already a Sarah Webster working as a writer. Luckily, I had a spare name in my back pocket, and it happened to be an unusual-to-the-point-of-unpronounceable one. You’re probably saying it wrong, but you’ll find me if you google me, and that’s what counts. Less sentiment, more SEO: that’s the future of name-changing.

 

Cheryl Cole has a tattoo on her neck reading "Mrs C" - she is now divorced. Photograph: Getty Images

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder