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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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