I was quite bothered that the Handmaids took on the names of their Commanders (Ofglen, Ofcharles, Offred). Seems so domineering, de-personalizing -- another tool in taking power away from women in Gilead. So archaic, even. Then I realized that we do the same in our culture, but with last names. Does this make it okay? Even women who keep their maiden name (no pun intended) after marriage tend to refer back to their father's name. Do our customs continue to de-power and de-identify women? What would a culture that values the matrilineal look like?

Several couples we know have chosen to combine their two surnames into a new family name, and I think that's ideal - symbolic not only of equality between husband and wife, but of the new family unit which is formed by marriage. Unfortunately, though we toyed with the idea ourselves, we couldn't put together a name that wouldn't have made all our wedding guests snort their toasting champagne out through their noses, so we had to let it go. I, like many of my married friends, am known as "Ms (My Surname)" or "Mrs (My Husband's Surname)", with the former being used 99% of the time*. Only a minority of my female friends go by their husband's surname in day to day life.

But even there lies a big difference between this society and Offred's. Feminism includes the right to submit. These friends of mine - like my mother - have freely chosen to take on that name, and they can choose to keep it. Moreover, all these women keep a name of their own - the first, or given name. Offred is named merely for her current usage, which is decided by the unseen Powers That Be. Not only does the name identify her work, instead of her unique self, but that identity is completely lost and changed each time she is reassigned, and her ability to choose her identity is virtually** removed. Becoming Mrs (Your First Name) (Your Husband's Surname Here), of your own free will, is a very different thing - especially since the role of "Mrs" is so flexible in the modern day.

There should be a passage here about the use of matrinymics in various cultural traditions around the world, and the effect of those traditions in the modern day (preferably with statistics about women's pay, domestic violence, and a comparative breakdown of the roles males and females play both inside and outside the home, etc etc) but I'm going to leave it there, because man, there are enough doctoral theses in that to keep a whole anthropology department going for decades.

*As an aside, I've only found this difficult in the UK. "Ms" wasn't on a lot of forms, and sometimes I didn't even have the option to write it in. Our bank, for example, could never think outside the Mrs/Mr dichotomy. I also found myself having the following conversation when giving details: "It is Miss or Mrs?" "It's Ms." [Wary Look] Whereas at home, or in Asia, I get asked, "Miss, Mrs or Ms?" without the blinking of an eye. It's particularly puzzling, because the Australian and Asian attitudes to marriage are, if anything, more conservative than the modern Brit's.

Most puzzling are the times a British person is heard to say how they want a certificate that legally recognises their relationship - and they describe, as points of inclusion, all the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage, including those which are permanent and ongoing - but they don't want to get married. I always ended up raising an eyebrow and saying, "Sounds like you do." There's probably some connection there with the culture's relative inability to recognise non-traditional name choices.

**She has a sort-of choice, but it's one horrible situation against another.

On pg. 112, during the birth day while Ofwarren is in labor, Offred is thinking about the baby that is about to be born. At this time she also talks about the unborn babies and the fact that they had no way of telling until birth what type of baby would be born. She states: There's no telling. They could tell once, with machines, but that is now outlawed. What would be the point of knowing, anyway? You can't have them taken out; whatever it is must be carried to term. While reading this, I found myself thinking back to my first pregnancy where I wound up with conjoined twins. Then and even now, I wonder if I would've been better off not knowing. I miscarried, so I did not have to make a choice, but in light of that, ignorance may very well have been bliss. How do you feel about the abundance of technology when it comes to reproduction and pregnancy? Do you think that sometimes not knowing so much can be a good thing?

People are fond of saying, "They didn't used to have all this back in the old days, and people got along just fine!" Actually, people did not get along just fine. Women and children died or became seriously, even permanently ill. It's true that much of the time there's nothing you can fix simply by knowing - a lethal defect is still lethal, no matter when you find it out, and a whole host of measurements fall under "wait and see and hope the odds go your way". Some of the people in these situations will be glad just to know, and some of them will regret their loss of ignorant bliss.

But. But. There are also tragedies which can be averted today. Averted because we know about them on time, and can act. So, much as it can be hard sometimes to deal with the overload of information available to us, I wouldn't trade the angst for a single mother or child who might be saved.

On pg. 70, Offred is discussing her past studies of psychology and at this time she mentions a study done on three pigeons trained to peck at buttons for grain. She states: Three groups of them: the first got one grain per peck, the second one grain every other peck, the third was random. When the man in charge cut off the grain, the first group gave up quite soon, the second group a little later. The third group never gave up. They'd peck themselves to death rather than quit. While reading these lines, I could not help but identify with the third group of pigeons. Sadly, I think I've come to a point where I will never give up, even if it means death before success. How about you? Do you identify with one of these groups? What do you think Atwood's intention was in including this bit of information?

This very much explains the way couples can get "trapped" into following a certain path for too long. If results were predictable, the point of moving on would be clear.

Intrigued by the idea of a book tour and want to read more about The Handmaid's Tale? Hop along to more stops on the Barren Bitches Book Brigade by visiting the master list at Stirrup Queens and Sperm Palace Jesters. Want to come along for the next tour? Sign up begins today for tour #9 (The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler with author participation!) and all are welcome to join along . All you need is a book and blog.


14 Comments

Drowned Girl said...

Interesting your thoughts on us Brits :-)

I'm not sure many of mind what we're called. Now I'm a mother I tend to get called Mrs X (X being Mr DG/little DG's surname) though many unmarried women name their children after the mother (my sister did) which simplifies things.

Rachael said...

Interesting, your answer to the 2nd question.

Ms is a lot more widespread in the UK now, I think... A lot of people when they phone me ask 'Is that Ms McSshh?'. Maybe because I seem very young to be married? (I got married at 21).

Samantha said...

I like your comments about names. I think you have hit the nail on the head when you say it is now a choice. I think there are still societal expectations in the U.S. that women should change their names upon marriage (I did not, but in fact most of my friends have--it seems like people 20 years older than me are more likely to have kept their names). I felt like it was too tied up in who I was to want to change it. Even our auto mechanic knows we have different last names, as he sometimes reminds us when we drop off our car :)

Good point on the second question. We can wax rhapsodic on the "good ol' days" but often they're based on selective memory.

serenity said...

My disclaimer: I've never managed to get through Atwood's book. I'm not sure why.

But.

I like your analysis in the first question. I too struggled with what my name would be when J and I married - my maiden name is too long to adequately hyphenize. I did like the idea of combining our two names to make a new name, but we just couldn't figure out a good way to do it. So I compromised - dropped my middle name and took my maiden name as my middle name.

But the first time I was called Mrs, I looked around for my mother in law. It's hard to get used to it, really.

Ellen K. said...

Great review. Lots to think about here.

Most of my friends either took their husband's last name and moved their maiden name to middle name, or kept their maiden name. I kept my middle name, which feels more personally significant than my maiden name, and took D.'s last name. For awhile he talked about taking my last name instead. That would not have gone over particularly well with his family or mine.

Beagle said...

Book tour aside (I haven't read this one) the name thing is a great topic! Maybe I'll blog about it.

I'd have to do some research but I'm pretty sure there are some cultures who follow the matrilineal for naming children but I'm not surethat they are more progressive about women't rights and so on.

Was this book terribly depressing? I'm avoiding those for now.

Pamela Jeanne said...

I'm forging a different path here. I use my given name on the job and my married name on the weekends -- it allows me to preserve my identity and at the same time express my commitment to my dh.

As for this comment: "couples can get 'trapped' into following a certain path for too long" ... I absolutely agree!

Anonymous said...

My husband took my surname when we got married (before actually). Mind you, his surname was Vile so you can understand his eagerness to get rid of it! The interesting thing was how difficult it was for him to legally change his name. For me to have taken his surname on marriage I would only have had to tick a box on the marriage certificate; for him he had to go through the palaver of changing his name by deed poll. The other interesting thing was how people reacted to him taking my name. He would go into the bank or get a new drivers licence and all the ladies behind the counter would fawn over him "Doris, this man is taking his fiancee's name! She must be someone really special! You must be so in love! etc" He loved every minute of it.

loribeth said...

You are so right about the fact that we get to choose our name; Offred didn't. I took my husband's name & I've actually had to defend that choice to some of my coworkers who kept theirs. I support their choice, why can't they support mine?

Loved your other answers too!

deanna said...

I'm such a big fan of "Ms" and really wish the negative connotations around it would fade right away. When I insist on using it, I usually get some dramatic sigh or eyeroll, as though I'm intentionally just trying to be difficult for difficulty's sake. But, for me it's a crucial distinction---Why should any woman's identity be marked by her marital status? I just don't see how it's anyone's business.

Although, some of my more radical friends think my insistence on "Ms". is in contradiction to my choosing to take my husband's surname. But, it sorts out agreeably in my mind, and I'm glad that I was able to make that choice. (and, sidenote: If I had been coerced to take it, I would have resisted, for the sake of the choice, as well.) That's why it doesn't seem akin to the Handmaid's naming system. They had no choice, no ability to creatively come up with a solution that pleased them---contradictory or not.

The Dunn Family said...

I don't think I know the difference between Ms and Mrs. I always thought Ms was unmarried. I guess I'm wrong?

I took my husband's last name, I always wanted to. But like you said, it's all about choice.

Also, I would get so frustrated when people said "When we were young, we just had babies, without these tests and worries". To me, it was akin to "Just relax, you'll get pregnant." I'm definitely the type of person who wants to know as much as they can, to prepare themselves for whatever outcome may happen.

Thanks for your answers.

Lori said...

I was the one who posed the first question. I realize we have the choice now whether to keep our maiden names or to take our husband's or even to merge them. But even if we keep our maiden name, in most cases he name came from our father -- a man!

So my point was, how would we go about finding/creating matrinyms? Do any exist that didn't originate with a father or a husband?

Good point on #3.

The Town Criers said...

What does it say that I go by Ms but my husband's surname? That's very popular in the US. It's actually the default more than Mrs--at least in the offices were I've worked.

I think more interesting is the point you made about dealing with the glut of information (and the consequences of not having information).

K @ ourboxofrain said...

I'm in the same boat as Mel and Deanna, wondering what it says that I use Ms. and my husband's surname. For me, as you noted, it was about choice -- I probably would have refused had I been told I had to take his name. And, like Loribeth, I've had to defend my choice to take my husband's surname to my friends and coworkers, many of whom kept their maiden names (which I always thought of as my father's name, since my mother went back to her maiden name after my parents divorced) or merged their names (which would definitely not have worked with our names). I did, however, just tack his surname on the end of the name string, refusing to surrender any of my prior names, so I now have 2 middle names -- my original middle plus my former surname. And I have definitely experienced some ambivalence about this issue.

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