So, Doctor, what exactly is your real name?

January 30, 2004

An academic who uses her maiden name for work can find travelling tough in the post-9/11 world, says Ruth Morse.

Fashions come and go, but it continues to surprise me when a female student announces that she has married and changed her name. In France, most identity documents demand both married name and maiden name; the Biblioth que Nationale's photo ID remains in one's maiden name although it carries married names as well. My university pays Ruth Morse's salary into a bank account in Ruth Morse's name, but some university documents come with both my surnames on them. No one seems bothered by this.

Women are likelier than men to confront the choice of nomenclature, but it is far from being a "women's issue". Many women continue to use their maiden name but hyphenate or just tack on their married name.

Some consistency helps locate articles or books by a person even if fashion or self-fashioning changes forms of address. Avoiding prejudice induced the gender-hiding J. K. Rowling rather than Joanna because of the fear that boys wouldn't buy books by a woman. Whatever we hope, female academics may still feel that some disguise is useful. There are striking cases of name shifts that make it difficult to keep track of one person under a variety of ascriptions, not to mention downright pseudonyms. In the name game, it is well worth thinking carefully before signing that first article.

This question of style is not easy to manage, however hard one tries to be consistent. It also raises social hazards as well as legal difficulties, particularly in international mobility and global travel. Over the years, women have gained many choices closed to the previous generation. But once a married name appears in a passport, there it stays (although in US passports one can have an "also known as" inserted). For many years, my passport has occasionally caused a tiny hesitation when I travel because almost all the rest of my documents give what many refer to as my professional name.

Until recently, queries from check-in staff (or French police) could be referred to supervisors who had the authority to OK women's continued use of their maiden names. But recently, the jobsworths seem to have decided that new security measures require everyone to conform not just to what is in their passports, but to the exact order of everything in them. Too bad for Hispanic or Italian travellers, or anyone whose name is transliterated from a non-roman alphabet, who may find that their travel ends prematurely at an airport.

Given the pressure of post-9/11 measures, this may seem trivial. But it isn't trivial for those thousands of professional women for whom it is a reversal of hard-won progress, rolled back in the name of bureaucratic enthusiasms - ostensibly to avoid litigation should one of these thousands of professional women turn out to be a bomb-carrying terrorist as well as a card-carrying feminist. The idea that a female terrorist would not have impeccable documents is ludicrous. So is the way the new rules are being enforced, since they seem to turn on just what line which name appears on, not which names are actually there. There is nothing sinister about using different styles or different names. In a logical world, professional women who use their maiden names would be allowed a simple explanation of this on their picture IDs.

I wouldn't advise my female students that if they want a career and a marriage they'd best choose to become Mrs Somebody; but I'd certainly suggest they think hard about how they will manage this, along with all the other complexities of balancing career and family. The forms of prejudice are legion.

In the meantime, the inflexible enforcement - by airlines - of a ludicrous literalism is one more instance of deterioration in civil liberties in the past two years.

Ruth Morse is professeur des universités at Université Paris VII.

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