What’s in a Name?

Name: sign, symbol, word for something.
Words have power. Names define.


The issue of the name resurfaces any time I experience an identity crisis. At nineteen, while applying for a passport, I discovered that my name was not spelled on my birth certificate as it was on my driver’s license, and as I had always spelled it. So I changed it to the birth-certificate version. That name change, which involved simply adding an “e” to my middle name, caused only a ripple of concern.

Upon marrying, however, the surname change – from Valentine to Simson – felt more radical, and I experienced it as a loss. At the time, the pleasure of marriage seemed to compensate for a bit of identity confusion. No woman I knew had kept her family name when she married.

Shortly after we married, I flew alone to Wisconsin to be bridesmaid for a college friend. Waiting in the airport for the bride-to-be’s family, a rather desperate plea pierced my reverie: “Jo Anne SIMSON, PLEASE report to the courtesy desk.” I realized they were paging me, Jo Anne Valentine, so recently become Mrs. Simson that I didn’t recognize the name.

Two factors contribute importantly to low female self-esteem:
the frequency of sexual abuse of girls and young women
and the almost obligatory name change when women marry.


Only when my marriage began to falter and then crumble, dissolving into the chaos of divorce, did the issue of the name resurface. Although I had been working and paying the bills while my husband was a graduate student, our credit was in his name. After the separation, I was refused credit and, as a single mother with limited income, was forced to establish a new personal and economic identity.

For practical reasons, I kept the married name instead of reverting to my maiden name. My daughter’s last name was, after all, the same as her father’s; keeping that name seemed the easiest option. So I entered graduate school with the name Jo Anne Simson. Obtaining the Ph.D. solidified the name for me; it encoded the personal and academic struggles of a decade. However, on several occasions, I have been unable to locate a female colleague in a professional directory or meeting roster because I didn’t know her married name. It inhibits professional networking among women when colleagues can’t locate a person who has changed her name.

A few years after finishing graduate school, I remarried. This was during the early ’70s, before that decade’s full wave of feminism crested. Everyone assumed I would change my name, but I was determined not to change it again. I had established credit and had earned my Ph.D. in that name.

I initially resisted the marriage proposal, saying, “I might consider getting married again, but I don’t really want to change my name.”

What won me, I believe, was his response: “Well, you shouldn’t have to change your name if you don’t want to.” So I went to a lawyer and had a document drawn up enabling me to retain the name I already possessed.

Everyone thought it was strange, keeping a first husband’s last name when marrying another. Most of the children in the neighborhood addressed me as Mrs. Smith. Their parents found it scandalous that I did not have my husband’s last name.

Adam named the beasts and gained control over them.


My sister had two name-change crises during her early life. The first happened while she was still in grade school. She decided to change her name when she realized that she was being called by a name given her belatedly by our father. The name did not remotely correspond to the name on her birth certificate. Our father had been conveniently absent at the birth but had decided to give her a different name when Mother brought her home. My sister managed the transition to her real name by simply refusing to answer anyone who addressed her by the other name.

Her identity crisis was no doubt precipitated, in part, because she was in rebellion against our father’s often autocratic parenting style. Her rebellion didn’t abate until much later, after she had married in secret, having become pregnant at age 18, a taboo of major proportions in the 1950s. When her marriage and condition were revealed, she was disowned and expelled from the house, and my father took all her personal belongings to the local dump. Thus, when she married, she lost her identity in a great many ways: her name, her clothing, her books, her photographs, her mementos.

We do not believe something exists unless it has a name.


Ours is a country with a history of changeable names and flexible identities –  except perhaps among New Englanders and Anglo-Scots-Irish South-Easterners. An immigrant’s name might have been changed intentionally, perhaps to hide from a disagreeable past, or by accident, because a customs official could not spell the foreign name. In many cases, the change was not contested because the past had been an unpleasant reality from which the newcomer was fleeing.

Slaves were given their master’s surname;
this could be changed if a slave was sold.


Among African-Americans, though, the name change ruptured a connection to a past culture from which they had been torn most unwillingly. Moreover, the name change signified an identity conversion from personhood to property. A woman’s name change upon marriage also carries, historically, these same (rarely articulated) implications: Leave your past behind. You are now property, not a person. Your identity is tied to that of your master.

If you steal my money, I become poor.
If you rob me of my name, I become nobody.


I was active in Amnesty International in the 1980s. Our group had a prisoner of conscience who was imprisoned in Bulgaria for refusing to change from his Turkish name to the Slavic name assigned him by the government. He was so impassioned about keeping his name that he was willing to go to prison rather than forego that key symbol of his identity and heritage. His personhood was intimately entwined with the name by which he had always been known, and he could not imagine an authentic life without it.

Individuation, specification.
There are more than twenty names for snow in the Inuit language.


The issue of the name resurfaced when I began writing fiction and poetry. On scientific articles I used the name J.A.V. Simson; I had fewer hassles from reviewers and editors if initials preceded my surname. A few colleagues who knew me only through the scientific literature expressed surprise when we met and they realized I was a woman.

Since about half the fiction I have written is set in the laboratory, and the stories are often not flattering to the practitioners of science, I didn’t want to jeopardize my professional position by using the same name that was on research articles. It didn’t seem like a very personal name anyway; it was the last name of an ex-husband whom I hadn’t seen in years.

My maiden name was Jo Anne Valentine.  But the literary inclination came largely from my mother, whose maiden name was Helen Pascoe, and she had earned an M.A. in English from Bryn Mawr. Her mother’s maiden name was Fern Temple. I can’t trace it any farther back than that.

I thought perhaps Pascoe would be a good literary name. I tried it in combination with Valentine, yielding the possibilities Pascoe Valentine and Valentine Pascoe. A friend preferred the latter, since Valentine could be a first name and was not gender-specific. Eventually it was abbreviated to V. Pascoe. I don’t think of it a pseudonym, but rather as a literary name, because it doesn’t seem like a false name. I see it as the name of my literary self, and it now seems odd to publish fiction or poetry with another name.

The name was intended to honor my mother and the literary career she didn’t have, as well as my matrilineage. When I showed her my first story published in a national literary magazine, she read it and said, “Well, dear, it’s not the sort of story I would have written.” We honor as we can.

Literary pseudonyms have been widely used by female writers: George Eliot, George Sand, Isak Dinesen – all women hoping to be taken more seriously by using male names. Even Jane Austen was published as “Anonymous” until after her death. Some male authors have also used this device. O. Henry, certainly one of the great American short story writers, was really William Sidney Porter. Or was he? Perhaps he was really O. Henry. And what about Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Clemens)? After all, what could be more natural than using a pseudonym for fiction?

Currently, I’m again faced with a dilemma about the name. My children are grown. I have retired from scientific research. The name continuity is no longer important to me. I have considered assuming my maiden name once more. And I have begun writing non-fiction. Now what should be my name? Who is it, here, now, writing this?

Would a consistent name, retained for life, offer women a more secure sense of personal identity? What would be wrong with giving daughters their mothers’ surnames, and sons, their fathers’? It would certainly reflect a deeper biological reality.

A name is a basket where meanings are cradled.


Author's Comment

This piece was originally written as a meditation on women and names because I was working on a nonfiction book and was trying to decide what name to use in publishing it. More specifically, I wondered whether or not to use my maiden name. I suspect many women have experienced similar issues with a new name when they marry – or questioned what name to use if they divorce.


Jo Anne Valentine Simson is a quirky biomedical scientist, world traveler and author. Dr. Simson retired from the Medical University of South Carolina, where she taught anatomy and cell biology. She combines a love of travel, a fascination with biology, and an obsession with writing. Adventures have included living abroad in four different countries and driving an RV throughout the U.S. and Canada.


  1. Thank you, Jo Anne, for the essay– beautiful written style. In passing, your essay mentions sexual abuse as a major cause of low self_esteem (another cause being the issue of names that you discuss) One wonders whether low self esteem leads our nation to yet more abuse, and thence to the nation’s massive use of abortion. A quick fix for another quick fix.

    American literature gives us Hawthorne’s protagonist Hester Prynne, sentenced to wear a scarlet letter A for adultery. Yet today the scarlet letter A stands for Abstinence, as if deferring the quick sensual fix is deplorable. What is to fear from Abstinence? If abstaining results in diminished pain, say, pain to the under-age abused child, or to the foetus-baby being aborted (and pain is another theme in the essay) is Abstinence not noble and helpful? Maybe Understanding is the key. Thanks again, Jo Anne, very nice and flowing prose style, and thanks for the space to comment

    1. Thanks, Susanna. Just checked in to get the link to this article for inclusion in something else I’m working on. I’m glad to see your response and glad to realize that folks are still finding this issue of Persimmon Tree. Hope you had a chance to read the Vivian Gornick article.

  2. Enjoyed your tale of woe on names. I retained my ex’s name since the British author William Harrison Ainsworth was in the family line. I’d like to become as popular a writer as he was. I also kept my maiden name, Smith, so I only had one name change to make in my life.

    P.S. I also traveled around the world and drove a camper around the U.S.

    1. JoAnn, Just now checking back on this magazine issue and realizing there are several comments I haven’t responded to! Fascinating that you, too, have traveled around the world and driven a camper around the U.S. I checked out your Amazon author’s page. You have a very impressive collection.

  3. I’ve always had an interest in words and their meaning, especially names. I love what you say right at the end “A name is a basket where meanings are cradled.” I’ve given a lot of thought to the importance of names and how they affect our identity, but I hadn’t ever imagines that. I’ve written so many pieces exploring names and even gave myself a brief evaluation based on my names, but I don’t think I’ve ever dug this deep. Thank you for such a fascinating read.

  4. Jo Anne,
    I found your name essay through Cate Warren’s post in the She Writes group “In Praise of Literature.”
    Name has been a secret soft spot for me. I’ve changed my name a couple of times and felt the loss of my birth name and its sense of identity. What’s odd is my lack of connection with my first name because accuracy in pronunciation rarely occurs. So, I generally say “I’ll answer to anything close.” Name is profound and I frequently avoid using names.
    Thanks for sharing your name journey.

  5. Absolutely terrific inventory of the occasions when a naming, or a name change, wake us up to the fragility of our identities.
    Best of all, your examples are about my life — (the PhD in married name, which I kept too long after divorce because my son needed not to think I was divorcing him as well, when I moved in with my woman lover). This affirms the lovely thing about reading Persimmon Tree –where else could I be sure to find the recollections and analyses that shed life on women of my times?

  6. JoAnn(e) !
    Loved your musings on names and heritage. Although adding my maiden name back into my professional writing name (Laura Mortenson Pavlides) initially made me feel better, I realized it was just another male last name passed down and taken by my mother! And both are renditions of “son of”: Pavlides is son of Paul in Greek and Mortenson is Morton’s son in Swedish! What to do? I love the mash-up idea Jane Perdue offered up~ Best wishes on the coming Russia book!

  7. This hit home with me as well. After relinquishing my name with my first marriage, I promised myself at the dissolution of the marriage that I would never give it up again. And I haven’t. All the forms were redone and I went back to my maiden name. Even upon remarriage, I have kept my name even though it caused confusion with my husband’s family and friends. My children have their father’s name as a compromise and even they have considered changing all of their names — not just the last one. I will be curious to see what they do with their changes in the future once they become legal adults.

  8. Most interesting, Jo Anne, how our names shape our identity. When I married, my team presented me with a list of “new” last names — various mash-ups of my husband-to-be’s surname and mine. Fun stuff.

  9. Thanks so much for this personal and probing reflection on a crucial intersection: name and identity. It certainly resonates for me. Like you, I took the name of my husband when I first married (1968) and kept it when I left that marriage in 1976: it was, after all, the name of my two daughters and the name under which I had earned my PhD. For a time, I toyed with the idea of changing this name: “Frye” could easily become “Frei” and signal my status as free and self-defining. But in the end I kept the name I had confirmed in becoming a mother.

    When I then remarried in 1989, after thirteen years of single parenting, I, too, retained that name, now thoroughly imbued with personal and professional history. As for you, it was crucial for me that my new husband embraced this recognition of who I was and who I had become under this name. And along the way, I had come to understand that my most crucial thread of identity resided in my first name, the name I usually invited students and colleagues to use: Joanne. Perhaps my embrace of informality over “professionalism” was really just a way to be sure I retained this continuity.

    I envy you your embrace of multiple identities through multiple names. Though my naming practices differ from yours, I, too, have embraced a protean identity. Having moved through changing life experiences and identities, I am at last comfortably settled into the consistent label that I have inhabited for almost fifty years–with a middle initial that gestures toward my birth name on each book I have written: Joanne S. Frye.

    Again, my thanks for your keen insights and thoughtful personal reflections. Clearly you have tapped a potent source of reflection for me–and I trust for many other readers as well.

    1. Joanne, OMG (as they “say” now! What a coincidence!! In SO many ways. Just bought your memoir on Kindle (although I never pay more than $10.00 for a Kindle book–but I guess I can’t say that anymore). I noticed that your publisher is Syracuse University Press. I did my Ph.D. work at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse.
      I’m also working on a persona memoir, as well as another travel on Russia. Let’s keep the thread going on SW.

  10. This entire essay resonated profoundly with me, as I have often thought/written about names/naming myself. And the final line “A name is a basket where meanings are cradled” is a fabulous summation of the entire conversation. It is a powerful prompt, as well. All those meanings, values, associations, identities, times, places…

    I am one who changed my name for a first marriage and took it back, keeping it through a second enduring and child-producing one. My children never had an issue understanding that we had different names, and I have a sense of continuity between personal and professional ‘lives’ that keeps me whole. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful and thought-provoking reflection.

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