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Which Name Goes First-- Hers or His?

April 05, 1987|MOLLY SELVIN | Selvin is a policy analyst with the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. and

There was an episode of the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show" in which Mary discovered that she earned significantly less money as a producer for WJM-TV than had the man who previously held her job. She fumed for a while and then stormed into Mr. Grant's office demanding that he raise her salary. After she had earnestly argued her case, he paused, astonished, and then sputtered, "But Mary, he was a man!"

Lately I've thought about how exasperated Mary Richards must have felt after her battle with Lou Grant. Not in the context of comparable worth. But in relation to the subtler, perhaps more pervasive ways in which we still say, "But he is a man!"

Mine is not a very unusual tale: Once I was single. I owned a car in my name, I filed income tax returns in my name and I held the title to a house in my name.

Then I got married. I kept my maiden name. After a time my husband and I bought a new car for me to drive. I listed my name first, then David's, on the Department of Motor Vehicles title form. But when the pink slip returned from Sacramento, David was listed first, I was second.

During the first years of our marriage, I prepared our joint tax returns. I listed my name first and David's as "spouse" but the Internal Revenue Service and the California Franchise Tax Board unfailingly reversed the order of our names on the following year's return.

More recently, we applied for refinancing for our house, the house to which I formerly held sole title. I completed the application, listing myself as "borrower" and David as "co-borrower." However, in the weeks since we submitted this application, we've received mail from both the bank and the escrow company addressed either to David alone or to David first and me second.

Am I being peevish to care whether my name is first or second? Hypersensitive? Or worse, strident? Why should it matter, since the position of my name does not affect my legal interest in our car or house nor does it diminish my responsibility for payment of our joint tax liability.

Yet it matters. I wanted my name first on the DMV pink slip because I drive that car every day. I want my name first on mortgage and title to our house because I once owned that house by myself; I added my husband's name to the title, not the reverse. David had no preferences as to the order of his name in either instance and was quite willing to accommodate mine.

But I don't think I need a reason. And the more often I request my name first and discover it has been placed second, the more I--perhaps petulantly--want it first. The more I am troubled by the message sent by those computers or clerks who automatically insist on putting me in second place.

I was 12 years old when Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" was published. In the nearly quarter-century since then, my generation in particular has benefited from the major societal changes the contemporary women's movement has spawned. I have a graduate degree in a field that was once overwhelmingly male and I have a job more frequently held by men than women. And, ironically, the same bank that insists on reversing the order of David's and my names, informs me, at the top of its mortgage loan application form, that I have the right to apply for credit in my own name.

However, despite the apparent changes there is still, in 1987, an enormous disparity between practices and deep-seated attitudes. And one of the most deeply-seated sets of attitudes revolves around the relative power and status of wives and husbands. We seem to still assume that when a couple buys a house or a car, his preferences and his money dominate the decision making. We still assume, literally, that the man comes first.

In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote eloquently about what she termed "the crisis in woman's identity" produced by a society that educated women and men to believe that they had broad opportunities but then expected those women to find fulfillment primarily in their roles as wives and mothers. Yet, in 1987, when the DMV, the IRS and our local bank are clearly still more comfortable considering me as David's spouse than regarding him as mine, I wonder how far we've moved from this earlier definition of female identity.

Unconscious Error

No matter that the bank has since corrected the order of our names on the mortgage and title upon my request. No matter that the loan agent and the escrow clerk were even a bit embarrassed at their unconscious error. And it is perhaps too much to say that my second-place listing on the house title or the pink slip or our income tax returns has seriously eroded my self-esteem.

Cumulatively, however, this reflexive behavior makes me feel a bit invisible and that hurts. Like Mary Richards, I want to do battle with those computers and clerks who seem unable to recognize that there can be any order other than husband first, wife second. I want to say, "Hey, this is my car" or, "Without my salary, we wouldn't qualify for a loan on this house."

But I shouldn't have to. In an age when you can order a hamburger cooked "your way," it doesn't seem outlandish to hope that the explicit choice of two individuals as to the order of their names on a legal document can be accommodated without special effort. It's one of those small details that speaks volumes about the times in which we live.

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