What’s in a name?

By the time we got married, I was 29 years old and I had established my name through news reporting. I wasn’t a celebrity by any stretch of the imagination. But people did associate Gretchen Lord with news writing.

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet...." -- William Shakespeare

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet….” — William Shakespeare

It was still early in the years that led up to a complete acceptance of women retaining their maiden names after marriage. In my heart of hearts, that’s what I wanted to do. But as much as a pioneer of women as I wanted to be, I didn’t want to fight that fight.

Now, back when I was born, my parents, in their infinite wisdom, never gave me a middle name. My sister didn’t get one either. I’m not sure what their thinking might have been. Both of my brothers were given middle names. My mom, Mildred Mae Moreland Lord had a middle name but when she got married she just went by Mildred Lord (although I smile when I look at the lining of her mink stole and see “MML” embroidered there; she must have been hanging on to something). On Dad’s birth certificate it plainly says Anthony P. Lord. There’s no explanation as to what the “P” stands for and he never used it.

I can remember in elementary school, fifth grade would be my guess because the teacher didn’t like me anyway, that one day we were told to one-by-one say our entire names, no nicknames, and including the middle name. Now, that teacher wouldn’t stand for nicknames in the class so Susie became Suzanne in the teacher’s presence and Mike became Michael. So in this little exercise, we made our way around the classroom with each student reciting (many with embarrassment) their complete names including the middle ones.

I knew I was heading for trouble.

“Gretchen Lord,” I said, when my turn came and waiting for the shoe to drop.

“What is your middle name?” the teacher demanded.

“I don’t have a middle name,” I said honestly.

“Of course you have a middle name. Everyone has a middle name.”

“I don’t have a middle name.”

Her fury was rising.

I’m not sure how it finally played out. I’m sure I had to provide some proof. I don’t remember carrying my birth certificate to school, but I’ll bet I took a note from Mom.

No. No middle name.

Not having a middle name never bothered me. I kind of liked being different in an inconspicuous way. And as the years progressed, it was I who wondered why most people had middle names. It seemed so many of them didn’t like what they had. Hardly anyone used them. I could understand the need for a middle name to help with confusion; John Doe would be so much easier to distinguish if we knew his middle name. And I could understand middle names that honored a parent, a grandparent or someone near and dear to the parents.

At any rate, it’s always been fine with me that everyone else seems to have a middle name. I’ve just been completely satisfied not to have one.

Until I was to be married. That’s when I decided (after some deep discussions with women professionals in the depths of a bar one night) that I would solve this whole name issue by giving myself a middle name:  Lord.  When I got married I would be known as Gretchen Lord Anderson. No hyphens, thank you very much. Lord would be my middle name and I, unlike most people I know, would use my middle name. Always. My fifth grade teacher might have been proud of me if it weren’t so contrary to tradition.

It seemed like the perfect answer. I could protect the professional name I had already established and it honored by husband by taking his name.

So I started the name change process as most all brides did in those days. First, I went to the Social Security office. I told them the plan and the clerk assured me everything would be fine and the government would approve. My new Social Security card arrived and proclaimed “Gretchen L. Anderson.” I returned to the Social Security office. This clerk told me it had to be that way. Everyone abbreviates their middle names, including the government. So I visited the local field office of Congressman Jim Abdnor. I sat down with Barb Driscoll, an extremely competent and kind staffer who listened to my whole story. She said, “Well, let’s just go see about this.” So the two of us walked to the Social Security office together. There she calmly explained to the clerk that I was to be allowed to have Lord as my middle name, no abbreviations. The clerk looked daggers at me (that’s when I realized that having a congressman on your side could prove to be a beneficial thing). My second new Social Security card arrived some time later. There it was to prove to the world: Gretchen Lord Anderson. Of course we aren’t supposed to use our Social Security cards for identification.

My next stop was the telephone office (that’s how everyone referred to the various Bell Telephone Company offices around the country). When we got married, we were going to keep the phone number I had. So I went there to add Terry’s name to the account and to change my name in the listing so that when anyone would look up our names in the phone book (those were the days), they would find among all those Andersons, a listing for “Anderson Terry C & Gretchen Lord.

The telephone office staff went ballistic. “You can’t do that,” they said. It can be under his name and maybe we can put in your first name, but we can only put in initials for middle names. I told them that the Social Security Administration said Gretchen Lord Anderson was my legal name. To which, in her frustration, the clerk said, “What are you afraid of? Divorce?” I can’t remember how I got it done, but through sheer determination, both the listing and the bill came our acknowledging we were a married couple: Terry C and Gretchen Lord Anderson.

And so it went. The driver’s license was next. A struggle for sure, but I was determined. Then when I became press secretary for the governor of South Dakota, I was clear with the reporters that my name was Gretchen Lord Anderson “and Anderson on second reference.” Apparently, that caused some debate among the reporters because I was told weeks later that they had held a summit on the issue and the consensus was that because I was known by everyone as Gretchen Lord Anderson, they would also refer to me that way in their written stories. “No hyphen,” I said. “No hyphen,” they agreed. “And no abbreviations,” I said. “No abbreviations,” they agreed. They had overruled the Associated Press Manual of Style.

Through 34 years of marriage, I have had to be persistent. Even close friends have refused to acknowledge my full name, just calling me Gretchen Anderson (you know who you are). I don’t like that. Gretchen Anderson is not my name. I have a middle name and I use it.

But through 34 years the right of women to take whatever name they want has become more widely accepted. With the advent of computers and the forms on them to be filled out, I have discovered that I can enter Gretchen Lord under first name, Anderson under last name, leave the middle initial blank and everything will work out just fine.

Abraham and Sarah, formerly known as Abram and Sarai

Abraham and Sarah, formerly known as Abram and Sarai

I wonder sometimes if Sarai and Abram ever had problems getting people to understand that God had changed their names to Sarah and Abraham. When God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, it seems to have stuck. Would any of them had to fight with Social Security, the telephone office or the Department of Motor Vehicles? No. But we’re just talking about first names here. I wonder if any of them had middle names. If they did, nobody used them. What I do know is that in Biblical times, names meant everything in terms of identity. It means everything to me too in terms of my own identity.

Recently I had to contact the Social Security office again…for the first time in 34 years. The person who helped me over the phone was so helpful and when I pointed out my full name in their records, she noted it and assured me they would be happy to continue that practice.

Since then all of my correspondence from the government has been addressed to Gretchen L. Anderson.

I wish I had a congressman on my side.


No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. – Genesis 17:5

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. – Genesis 17:15

God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he was called Israel. – Genesis 35:10

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