I Said ‘I Do,’ Do I Change My Byline?

August 23, 2010

Illustration by Tracey Berglund

The media frenzy over actress Portia de Rossi seeking to change her name to Portia DeGeneres is sure to infuriate long-standing feminists who have fought long and hard for women to keep their maiden names. Or not?

The issue of marital name change can strike near to the hearts of women journalists who often struggle when they marry with whether to give up the bylines that they’ve worked hard at establishing.

De Rossi, 37, recently filed a petition in a Los Angeles court to legally take the last name of her famous same-sex partner, Ellen DeGeneres. California Assemblywoman Fiona Ma introduced a bill that would make California the seventh state to give married spouses and domestic partners equal opportunity to take their surname of choice. Ma says the proposal is really about “equality in relationships.”

But would pioneering feminists like Lucy Stone agree?

As a 19th century women’s rights champion, Stone advocated for women to retain their own names after marriage. The Lucy Stone League carries on her work. Its view: “A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers…my name is my identity and should not be lost.” When women take their spouses names, it is considered “name-abandonment,” but it’s such a big part of U.S. culture, few recognize it for what it is: A powerful instance of sex discrimination that has a major effect on women’s lives and work.

The issue of sex-discrimination is obviously erased when referring to same-sex couples, but it can still be similarly damaging to one’s career.

Journalists, for example, build their careers, reputations and even brands based upon their bylines, so changing one’s name can cause much confusion, particularly in today’s new-media world where content is shared at lightning speed, with little or no time for consumers to read the fine print.

But it doesn’t stop there.

According to the recent European study, “What’s in a Name? 361.708 Euros: The Effects of Marital Name Change,” women who took their partner’s name appear to be different from women who kept their own name on a variety of demographics and beliefs, which are more or less associated with female stereotypes.

A woman who took her partner’s name or a hyphenated name, for example, was judged as more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, less competent, and less ambitious compared with a woman who kept her own name.

Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi

A woman with her own name, in contrast, was judged as less caring, more independent, more ambitious, more intelligent, and more competent. This assessment was similar to how unmarried women and men (married or not) were judged in the study.

Perhaps most significantly, a job applicant who took her partner’s name, in comparison to one with her own name, was less likely to be hired for a job and her monthly salary was estimated €361.708 lower, or $1109.32.

But somehow, for Portia DeGeneres, I don’t think this will necessarily be the case.

— Lori Sokol is president of Jersey City, N.J.-based Sokol Media Inc., publisher of NY Residential, Green Matters and Work Life Matters magazines, and host of the weekly radio show, Juggling Act, on 1490AM WGCH.

— When you said ‘I do,’ did you change your byline? If you aren’t married, do you plan to? What went into your decision? The upshot?


Swear By It

August 14, 2010


Illustration by Tracey Berglund

To celebrate my 50th birthday earlier this month, I invited the author of the book, “50 Is The New 50,” Suzanne Braun Levine, to be a guest on my weekly radio show, “Juggling Act.” While she discussed the many benefits associated with embarking on this new decade of female freedom and independence called, “Second Adulthood,” what I recall most from this interview is her chapter entitled, “The F-U Fifties.”

But don’t assume for even one moment that the “F-U Fifties” reflects a self-reproaching attack by this birthday girl for reaching that pivotal age gravely considered “over the hill.” Au contraire, this term is actually meant to be aimed at others, as ‘Finally,” Levine writes, “we feel empowered to tell others to ‘f—off’.”

Now, I don’t propose that we, as professional journalists, indiscriminantly curse at others either verbally or in writing, as did a University of Mississippi student journalist last year who was ultimately charged with disorderly conduct and sent to prison. Instead, I am suggesting that, as Erica Jong says, “We need to save ourselves.”

In her book “Fear of Fifty,” Jong wrote: “In our twenties, when success and motherhood are still before us,  we could imagine that something would save us from second-classness — either achievement or marriage or motherhood. Now we know that nothing can save us. . . The anger of midlife is a ferocious anger.”

And, yes, I have certainly felt ferocious. As I now think back on my 30-year career in the media, many times I had wanted to tell a condescending editor, arrogant interviewee, or callous co-worker to f— off. This anger only elevated when desperately trying to balance my work and family responsibilities as a new mother 20 years ago, I tried to explain to too many disbelieving bosses that I had leave the office early to attend a school play or take care of a sick child. As my appeals continually fell on deaf ears, I would ultimately concede, since as women we are taught early that rather than stand our ground, we should instead know our place, which translates to primarily remaining polite, humble, demure, timid, fearful, cowering, submissive (feel free to insert additional adjectives here).

And this is not surprising since, according to Louann Brizendine, author of “The Female Brain,” women have much less direct relationship to anger than men.  “Pushing someone else too far, demanding too much and escalating conflict are all situations that, for most of our lives so far, we would do almost anything to avoid.”

But the importance of conflict should not be underestimated, and the need to sometimes curse should be even less so. According to the results of a 2009 research study from the school of psychology at Britain’s Keele University, swearing has been found to make people feel instantly better by imparting a “pain-lessening effect.” And, after all, men must have known about these health benefits for years. Just look at some of the male leaders of our great nation who have used the f-word, without apology. Former Vice-President Cheney, for example, said “f— off” or “go f— yourself” to Democratic Senator Leahy, and current Vice President Joe Biden told another senator to “Gimme a f–ing break!” Neither Vice-Presidents regretted or apologized for using this word and, now, neither will I.

I feel better already.

— Lori Sokol

Lori Sokol is president of Jersey City, N.J.-based Sokol Media Inc., publisher of NY Residential, Green Matters and Work Life Matters magazines, and host of the weekly radio show, Juggling Act, on 1490AM WGCH.