I used to stand in front of the mirror, wishing for straight blonde hair and a name like “Ashley.” It just felt easier than brushing my frizzy hair or repeating my name over and over. Even though my name is spelled almost phonetically, I’ve never really felt annoyed about the fact that other people struggle to pronounce or remember it. The people that do bother me are the ones who avoid saying my name altogether.
After pondering on it the last 20 years, I’ve decided that people, being naturally risk-averse and afraid of vulnerability, avoid saying names they can’t remember or might mispronounce. No matter how we justify that behavior to ourselves, it’s not about protecting the named from hurt feelings or humiliation – it’s about protecting ourselves. For years, I’ve had new acquaintances, family friends, teachers, employers, and colleagues refuse to refer to me by name, clearly fearing that they’ll say it wrong or unwilling to admit they can’t remember. The complete lack of mutual respect sends the message, however unintentional, that because my parents dared give me something different than a cookie-cutter bible name, I’m somehow deserving of nothing more than a dismissive, “her.”
There’s power in a name
As children, it takes time to truly understand what it means to give and receive respect. Parents and guardians must serve your nearly every need, teaching you everything along the way. While my mother devoted herself to our becoming decent humans, my brother and I often called or referred to her using pronouns. My father always stepped in, saying, “Who’s ‘she’? ‘She’ has a name.” He’d explain that “she” is our mother, who cares and provides for us, and deserves more respect and consideration than a casual pronoun. And he was right – as formal as those corrections and details felt when we were young, I realize now that it’s dismissive to refer to someone exclusively by blanket terms – there’s power in a name.
Now, I cringe whenever people* (*mostly men) refer to women, especially those in the room, as “she” or “her.” Without fail, I think, “She has a name.” And if you don’t know it, ask. “She” and “her” apply to any self-identifying woman, and relegate the remarkable, uniquely capable women in the room to background roles falsely cast centuries ago, which women have unfailingly defied since.
Names imply self-ownership. We name things to help assign them meaning. It’s why we feel frustrated and flustered by colleagues and headlines – calling someone by name acknowledges that they’re seen and taken seriously. A woman without a name is less sovereign, less seen, less strong than Mark, Neil, or Tim. “She” could just as easily be called the name of the woman next to her, simply “woman,” or nothing at all. Tabitha King captured that sentiment in her response to an Associated Press headline that read, “Stephen King and his wife donate $1.25M to New England Historic Genealogical Society.”:
In recent media coverage of a gift that my husband (ironic usage) and I made to the New England Historical and Genealogical Society, we became Stephen King and his wife.
Wife is a relationship or status. It is not an identity.
I’m seventy. I thought I would give you permission, if “OfTabitha” predeceases me, to title my obituary, Relick of Stephen King. In the meantime, you might consider the unconscious condescension in your style book, and give women their names.
Just days later, Camille Kostek, model, host, former Patriots cheerleader, and lastly (and least important) girlfriend to retiring Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, responded to another headline that read, “Rob Gronkowski’s girlfriend responds to body shaming,” saying simply: “Name’s Camille Kostek.”
… they express ownership over ourselves, our history, and our existence.
Beyond grievous refusals to name women as anything but adjacent to the prominent men they know, matters are far more frustrating for women of color. Journalist Sally Ho described the shame and ridicule that many women of color and immigrants experience around names in her essay, “A Married Name That Looks Nothing Like Us.” When Sandra Bland died in police custody, public outcry to “Say her name” forced acknowledgement of her existence and the reality of her tragic, unnecessary death. While naming is a sign of respect and power, it’s also an acknowledgement of existence and humanity – two things that women of color and trans women have to fight for, consistently.
From names carved into picnic tables to tombstones, we all have one definitive thing to say, “I was here.” In an era of increased customization and individualism, our names offer the ultimate symbol and celebration of difference. We wear them on everything – monogrammed on backpacks, towels, tshirts, pajamas, and jewelry. Those stylistic decisions are not to express ownership over material goods – they express ownership over ourselves, our history, and our existence. It takes such little effort to learn a name or ask if you can’t remember. With a history of defiance and wrestling for liberation, throwing off the weight of numerous forms of oppression, the least we can do is give women their names.