NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Whatchamacallher

Whatever happened to “Rodham”?

As the next president of the United States shapes her campaign messages, her brand seems to be wobbling a bit. From “Hillary Rodham Clinton” to “Hillary Clinton” to simply “Hillary,” media observers have begun to comment on what the Democratic front-runner calls herself these days … and her fellow triple-name females wonder, too.

The crisp signature that served her as first lady, senator and Cabinet secretary seems to be softening around the edges. Predictably, the usual contingent of nut jobs has begun to ascribe a cauldron’s worth of nefarious motives: Is she pruning her feminist roots? Is she hewing closer to Bill? Or perhaps she’s just intoxicated by her own star wattage … you know, like Madonna or Beyoncé.

If you’re male, this name business might seem trivial. But trust someone who has a vested interest here: It can be a biggie.

When Russ and I said our vows exactly 40 years ago last Sunday, figuring out what to call your married self was a pretty big deal for me and my female friends. We were hip-deep in the battle for gender equality and were searching for something that felt right — that expressed our commitment both to our husbands and to the women we were trying to become.

Socially, all was well as long as you chose the default option, swapping your surname for your husband’s as you walked down the aisle. If you favored any variation — for reasons ranging from professional to political to simply preferring the sound of it — inquiring minds wanted to know why.

Taking on Hubby’s surname seemed simple enough, requiring little more than breaking in a new monogram. It wasn’t, and isn’t, quite that painless for women with established careers. After eight years of bylines, I worried that I’d be severing connections with countless friends, acquaintances and professional contacts.

Not only that. Coupled with my ubiquitous baby-boomer first name, Russ’ surname created one of the great generic North Country handles, much like Laurie Anderson, Kathy Johnson, Jennifer Nelson, Linda Olson and our similarly named Scandi-American ilk. Just try standing in downtown Fargo and hollering, “Nancy Hanson!” Two or three women are bound to  look up and ask, “What?” (My favorite little shop, Prairie Yarns, carries accounts for no fewer than six.)

Some of my friends selected Door No. 2. They maintained their maiden names in their careers but adopted married labels in “real life.” While their path seems to work for these sensible and organized types, I doubted I’d ever be able to keep two alter-egos straight. Sometimes, I have a hard enough time remembering who one of me is.

Following the KISS principle (“keep it simple, sister”), the bravest of my generation kept their own names post-marriage. After all, that tactic seems to have worked out just fine for an eon or so of married males … and it’s taken for granted among women, too, in many other cultures.

To no one’s surprise, this can be a little trickier for us Americans. I’ll bet it works best if you’re endlessly patient, since you are signing up for a lifetime of nosy questions: Are you really married? Does your husband hate it? What are you going to call your kids? Hillary Rodham tried that herself in her legal career but eventually amended her name after weighing the burden its overtones placed on her husband’s political aspirations.

What’s left? Compromise — melding “before” and “after.” Sometimes, they’re symbolically welded with that dashing little hyphen. The outcome can be unwieldy, though. The newly minted double-strength surname tends to spill out of the boxes on fill-in forms, overcrowd address labels and add a touch of mystery to passenger boarding lists, will-call tickets and other alphabetical incidents.

Personally, I chose to hang onto both Russ’ and my own surnames but omit the fancy punctuation. The decision meant bidding farewell to my given middle name. It wasn’t much of a loss. My parents had picked “Jo” from the two or three mandatory choices for little girls in the ’50s – creating a name so unavoidably common that my own daughter had no trouble finding herself a mother-in-law who’s another “Nancy Jo.”

Back in 1975, when Russ and I became permanently paired, sightings of wives who retained three names were fairly rare. Not so today — even though researchers say it’s on a downward slide. The middle-name compromise peaked with about one in four married women in the ’90s. Today, the same research suggests it’s fallen back to fewer than one in 10 … perhaps reflecting a generation of younger women who think all the battles are won.

Like Hillary, those of us who’ve stuck with our three names recognize its social downside — for example, one of her current critics who lately sniffs that the practice is “pretentious and annoying.” Well, fine. I really hope the first charge is off-base. But annoying? I can live with that. Just think of what they’d say if I called myself “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.”

And as for Hillary herself, I’m pretty confident she’ll be able to cope. Forget the Rodham part and the Clinton stuff. “Madame President” should do just fine.

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