Women In Politics Face Decision Over Name

2007/2/24: Debbie Stabenow headshot, as US Senator of Michigan, photo on black AP

This story was written by Josephine Hearn.


Many politicians spend decades building a name for themselves. They plaster it on yard signs, trumpet it in mailers and repeat it ad infinitum until every voter has some passing inkling of who they are.

For women in politics, though, burnishing a political identity entails an added hurdle: the married name. After all the effort spent promoting one name, adopting a new one can confuse voters, yet keeping the old one can risk alienating some.

A third option, of hyphenating names, carries its own perils. It was a triumph of graphic design when one-term Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-Pa.) fit her name on a bumper sticker. And Geraldine Ferraro probably never seriously considered tacking on her husband's surname: Zaccaro.

What to do, then, with the married name?

Among the women now in Congress, there is no uniform answer. Of the 79 female lawmakers who have been married, 19 are using their maiden name. Twenty-five share the name of their current husband, and 23 still identify with a former husband, either deceased or divorced. Eleven use combinations, with or without hyphens, while one, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) has the fortuitous situation of having married - and later divorced - another Johnson.

The most recent marriages also exhibit no pattern. Reps. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) appended their husband's names, while Reps. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and Mary Bono (R-Calif.) plan to keep their current appellations.

"The congresswoman has had the name Giffords her whole life," explained her spokesman, C.J. Karamargin. "She is a public official known by Giffords. That's the name she's going to keep."

While Giffords built her own name recognition, Bono inherited hers. And in a nod to that political legacy, she's keeping the name of the late Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.) when she marries Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) in December.

Bono is an example of a trend among married women in politics: preserving names with political legacies. Rep. Kathy Castor (D), whose parents are Don and Betty Castor, both big names in her part of Florida, did not change a letter when she wed. Nor did Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), the daughter of longtime Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski. She is one of only two Republican women in Congress to keep her family name. (The other is Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico.)

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) rebranded herself when she married but never dropped the association with her father, Rep. Edward Roybal, a founding member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. And Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), despite years of marriage, still touts the connection to her father, former West Virginia Gov. Arch Moore.

Other women use the combination names as merely a pit stop on the way to a full swap.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) went by Blanche Lambert Lincoln when she first married, then dropped the Lambert over a few years away from Congress.

"When she came back, it was Blanche L. Lincoln, and people knew who she was," said her former chief of staff, Kelly Bingel. "Part of it was that she has such a recognizable first name. She was still Blanche to most people."

McMorris Rodgers sometimes introduces herself as simply Cathy Rodgers, said spokeswoman Jill Strait.

"She always wanted to adopt her husband's name. That's always been important to her. But she realized that for the sake of name ID, she had to keep the McMorris," Strait said. "She was in the state legislature for 10 years, so people know her as McMorris."

McMorris Rodgers' situation exemplifies what media consultants say about name changes: Personal preference plays a role, but so do political considerations.

"People are really funny with names. You have to make the calculated decision how it plays," said media consultant Peter Fenn. More conservative electorates are likely to prefer that a lawmaker conform with her husband, whereas liberal areas tend to admire the independence of a maiden name.

When Bill Clinton first ran for governor of Arkansas, voters rejected wife Hillary's decision to keep her maiden name. She changed it after polls showed she cost him as much as 6 percentage points.

Decades later, in her 2000 Senate bid in New York, a more liberal state, she used Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her current presidential campaign dubs her Hillary Clinton.

All the variations prompted some to call her a political chameleon, opening up a whole new area of campaign attacks male politicians rarely confront.

To be sure, name changing has its drawbacks. But it can also be a boon, allowing aspiring politicians to seamlessly drop unwieldy monikers. When Olympia Bouchles married Peter Snowe, she gained a surname with a simple pronunciation and clear appeal in the cold-weather state of Maine.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) might have benefited from conforming to his wife, the former Susan Hasleton. Instead, he launched a massive public relations drive to educate voters that his surname is pronounced like "crepe," not the other way.

Those examples aside, name changes usually present more problems than they solve. When female politicians divorce, a new set of difficulties ensue as they face the unsavory prospect of trumpeting their marriage troubles to the world. One-term Utah Rep. Enid Greene famously added - and dropped - the surname Waldholtz during three tumultuous years in the mid-1990s when her husband was engaged in massive campaign fraud.

Perhaps the best example of divorce complicating political identity comes, improbably, from a man.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa fused his birth name, Villar, with his wife's name, Raigosa, 20 years ago. Now that they are seeking a divorce, he's announced he'll keep the amalgamation even as he contemplates higher office.

Villaraigosa's decision is not rare. Facing a breakup, most women in Congress keep their married name, even if it means continuing a connection to a man they may now despise.

Even when they remarry, they tend not to change in a nod to political expediency. They may also share the earlier name with children. Ten women in Congress still use previous husbands' names even after remarriage. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) was born a Danoff and is now married to a Creamer. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) was born a Greer and is now married to an Athans.

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) acknowledges her situation is ironic. She was born a Levine. Her husband is a Lehrner. But the name writ large in Nevada politics is Berkley.

"It's funny, isn't it?" said Berkley, who remains friendly with her ex-husband Fred. "[But] I'd been Shelley Berkley for 25 years. After all those years, what, was I going to go back to my maiden name?"

"The only place I changed to Lehrner was on the credit cards."

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