What’s in a Maiden Name?
A Facebook friend, and fellow female professor, recently made a status update that mentioned that her students call her “Mrs. X.” She is unmarried and has a doctorate. She signs her emails with “Dr. X.” I sign my emails to students with my first name (sig file beneath has “Rose Woodhouse,” no “Dr.” or “PhD”). No student, however, ever calls me by my first name. Sometimes students call me “Mrs. Woodhouse.” I am married, but I too have a doctorate. The fact that any student uses Mrs. has irritated me for two reasons: (1) I suspected they might not call their male professors “Mr. Y,” and (2) what happened to Ms.? I have assumed (and continued to assume) that calling me “Mrs. Woodhouse” is an ingrained habit left over from high school, and probably not consciously done. That is, they do not consider whether I am married or have a doctorate before calling me Mrs.
Male professors commenting on my friend’s post said they did get called “Mr. Y.” So perhaps my reason (1) is mistaken, although it would be interesting to see how often it happens to each. The commenting male professors, however, seemed more likely to request to be called by their first name or to dismiss having their students refer to them by a title. I’m guessing that has something to do with more confidence that they are taken seriously. (These were, after all, philosophy professors commenting on her posts. And philosophy is “bested” only by physics, engineering, and computer science in the ratio of male to female PhDs earned. Yes, that means there are more females in chemistry, economics, and mathematics. More on that in another post.)
But what did happen to Ms.? Isn’t it offensive to refer to a woman by her marital status? Are high school teachers not calling themselves “Ms.”?
Then something else occurred to me. Feminists have protested the use of “Miss” or “Mrs.” But I do not recall seeing an objection to the phrase “maiden name.” However, that strikes me at least as offensive, if not more so, than having a “Miss/Mrs.” distinction.
First of all, for some people who retain their original name, their “maiden” name is simply their name. My mother retained her name after marriage. Indeed, it has always bugged me that banks use “mother’s maiden name” as a security code. My mother achieved some prominence in her field. Her “maiden” name is not some secure information. Many people who know me know her name.
Secondly, “maiden” means “unmarried” and more specifically, “virgin.” So for the first meaning, this is simply inaccurate for those who retain their name after marriage. For the second meaning, um, this was our name until we lost our virginity? Even for those of us who changed names when married (and I am one of them), calling it a “maiden” name seems (ahem) nearly always inaccurate. And offensive, in its presumption that women do (or should) remain virgins until married. As if it’s a name we have while waiting for the man who “takes” our virginity.
I propose instead “original name” which says nothing about marital status, adoption status, sexual activity, or whether it remains our name after marriage.
This post may have my highest ever scare quotes-to-words ratio, so I’ll stop here. What do others think? What is the norm in high schools these days? Is “maiden name” a phrase we should keep? Has anyone heard of others finding it offensive? Should I correct my students who call me Mrs.? (I don’t.)