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.

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This is the new front in the battle to control women’s bodies

By defining all of us as “pre-pregnant”, women are afforded all the blame – but none of the control.

For several weeks, YouTube has been reminding me to hurry up and have a baby. In a moment of guilt over all the newspapers I read online for free, I turned off my ad-blocking software and now I can’t play a simple death metal album without having to sit through 30 seconds of sensible women with long, soft hair trying to sell me pregnancy tests. I half expect one of them to tap her watch and remind me that I shouldn’t be wasting my best fertile years writing about socialism on the internet.

My partner, meanwhile, gets shown advertisements for useful software; my male housemate is offered tomato sauce, which forms 90 per cent of his diet. At first, I wondered if the gods of Google knew something I didn’t. But I suspect that the algorithm is less imaginative than I have been giving it credit for – indeed, I suspect that what Google thinks it knows about me is that I’m a woman in my late twenties, so, whatever my other interests might be, I ought to be getting myself knocked up some time soon.

The technology is new but the assumptions are ancient. Women are meant to make babies, regardless of the alternative plans we might have. In the 21st century, governments and world health authorities are similarly unimaginative about women’s lives and choices. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published guidelines suggesting that any woman who “could get pregnant” should refrain from drinking alcohol. The phrase implies that this includes any woman who menstruates and is not on the Pill – which is, in effect, everyone, as the Pill is not a foolproof method of contraception. So all females capable of conceiving should treat themselves and be treated by the health system as “pre-pregnant” – regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant any time soon, or whether they have sex with men in the first place. Boys will be boys, after all, so women ought to take precautions: think of it as rape insurance.

The medical evidence for moderate drinking as a clear threat to pregnancy is not solidly proven, but the CDC claims that it just wants to provide the best information for women “and their partners”. That’s a chilling little addition. Shouldn’t it be enough for women to decide whether they have that second gin? Are their partners supposed to exercise control over what they do and do not drink? How? By ordering them not to go to the pub? By confiscating their money and keeping tabs on where they go?

This is the logic of domestic abuse. With more than 18,000 women murdered by their intimate partners since 2003, domestic violence is a greater threat to life and health in the US than foetal alcohol poisoning – but that appears not to matter to the CDC.

Most people with a working uterus can get pregnant and some of them don’t self-define as women. But the advice being delivered at the highest levels is clearly aimed at women and that, in itself, tells us a great deal about the reasoning behind this sort of social control. It’s all about controlling women’s bodies before, during and after pregnancy. Almost every ideological facet of our societies is geared towards that end – from product placement and public health advice to explicit laws forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and jailing them if they fail to deliver the healthy babies the state requires of them.

Men’s sexual and reproductive health is never subject to this sort of policing. In South America, where the zika virus is suspected of having caused thousands of birth defects, women are being advised not to “get pregnant”. This is couched in language that gives women all of the blame and none of the control. Just like in the US, reproductive warnings are not aimed at men – even though Brazil, El Salvador and the US are extremely religious countries, so you would think that the number of miraculous virgin births would surely have been noticed.

Men are not being advised to avoid impregnating women, because the idea of a state placing restrictions on men’s sexual behaviour, however violent or reckless, is simply outside the framework of political possibility. It is supposed to be women’s responsibility to control whether they get pregnant – but in Brazil and El Salvador, which are among the countries where zika is most rampant, women often don’t get to make any serious choice in that most intimate of matters. Because of endemic rape and sexual violence, combined with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, women are routinely forced to give birth against their will.

El Salvador is not the only country that locks up women for having miscarriages. The spread of regressive “personhood” laws across the United States has led to many women being threatened with jail for manslaughter when they miscarry – even as attacks on abortion rights make it harder than ever for American women to choose when and how they become pregnant, especially if they are poor.

Imagine that you have a friend in her early twenties whose partner gave her a helpful list of what she should and should not eat, drink and otherwise insert into various highly personal orifices, just in case she happened to get pregnant. Imagine that this partner backed his suggestions up with the threat of physical force. Imagine that he routinely reminded your friend that her potential to create life was more important than the life she was living, denied her access to medical care and threatened to lock her up if she miscarried. You would be telling your friend to get the hell out of that abusive relationship. You would be calling around the local shelters to find her an emergency refuge. But there is no refuge for a woman when the basic apparatus of power in her country is abusive. When society puts social control above women’s autonomy, there is nowhere for them to escape.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle