Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

March 8, 2011

Happy International Women’s Day!

Not too long ago we discovered (to my delight) that the small wiggly proto-baby in my belly is most likely a girl, my second.  This makes my life easier on many accounts, but on one it opened an old wound.  What do you name a girl?

I am a staunch believer in “names with meaning”.  I don’t care a lot what a name sounds like, and I am outright offended at the practice of naming girls after pretty but inanimate objects (Ruby, Ivy, Lily, Yuki, etc.) or limp character traits (Grace, Hope, Harmony, Chastity, etc.)  I like a name with strong historical and literary connections.  I want to say I have named my daughter after a history of women she can be proud of.

Miss Margaret

My first daughter is named Margaret, after (mainly) Marguerite de Navarre & Marguerite de Valois.  The former is most famously the author of The Heptameron, while the later’s life inspired both Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Dumas’ La Reine Margot.  My favourite of her accomplishments was her managing to get her loveless marriage to Henri de Navarre dissolved, but maintaining her power and title of Queen.  To say nothing of her impressive list of romantic conquests, the coup d’etat she orchestrated, and the many scandalous writings she left behind.  Margarets, too, have an illustrious presence in Canadian literary circles, of course.  When she was 3 months old I took her to the Trinity College bookfair, where a new acquaintance exclaimed, “Ah! Margaret! As in Drabble?” to which I replied, “No, as in Laurence!”

What to name her sister?  Part of my problem is epitomized by this article published in the Guardian this morning, Where are all the daring women heroines? Strong, heroic women in literature are few and hard to come by.  True, children’s literature is plush with them, but this route is somewhat infantilizing.  Speculative fiction is debatably a source, but comes with its own set of problems.  Much specfic isn’t very good for starters – I’m not naming my child after a two-bit chick in some forgettable contemporary novel.  Many of the “heroines” are undermined by weaknesses that wouldn’t be found in their male counterparts, and in many cases male co-heroes hog all the best page-time.  And I’ve a bit of a rule – no names that entered our vocabulary less than 50 years ago.  Sorry, kids.

And what does it say, anyway, that the strong female heroine is a trope only of the land of make-believe?  Is our history really that poor?  Or is the modern, real world too gritty and unequal to even pretend that out there are strong, uncompromised women kicking ass and winning?  I believe in the power of names, so I want a name associated with power.  My husband and I find ourselves throwing around names like Sheherazade and Boudiccia. We’re mining Shakespeare – Beatrice, Rosalind, and Catharine have come up, but seem like stretches.  After all, with the exception of the tamed-Catharine, none of these women are the central figures of their stories.  Dear Josephine (of Little Women) is an option, though it happens that we know a number of young Jos already.

This shouldn’t be this hard! But the paucity is in the source material.  Where are the heroines?  Send me your strong, unvictimized, accomplished literary women; those who didn’t get murdered, kidnapped, tamed or commit suicide.  On International Women’s Day, this feels like a mission.

18 thoughts on “Happy International Women’s Day!”

  1. Chavaleh says:

    Try looking into names of the various goddess. There are some good ones there. We took Rhiannon’s name from the Mabinogion and had no idea it was a Stevie Nicks song till after we’d picked it. Honestly I found coming up with a good boys name a lot harder than the girls. And I LOVE Josephine. It would have been Jack’s name had he been a girl.

    1. Charlotte says:

      I remember you making similar suggestions when I ranted about this on Livejournal back in 2008 when I was preggers with Maggie. ;) Actually, I think I might go back to the Mabinogeon, because I remember some very interesting women in the book (especially in Evangeline Walton’s retelling).

  2. Matthew E says:

    It’s a tough call. Here are a few that I liked, from books that have been around for a while:

    Nancy Blackett (from the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome)
    Eilonwy (from the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander)
    Flora Poste (from Cold Comfort Farm)
    Irene Adler
    I suppose there’s always Harriet Vane (Dorothy L. Sayers)

    I’ll post more if I think of ‘em.

    1. Charlotte says:

      Thanks Matthew! Though note that both Swallows & Amazons and the Alexander books are “children’s” literature. Funny how it’s okay for girls to be rambunctious and brave until they hit puberty…

      I haven’t read enough Sherlock Holmes to have run into Ms. Adler yet… but it’s an intriguing thought, as my husband’s grandmother was also an Irene…

  3. Rob says:

    How about genre fiction? There are plenty of brave fictional female detectives, and space opera heroines.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_female_detective_characters

    1. Charlotte says:

      I have to admit, I just have very little experience in the genre. What I need is for someone who knows it all well to recommend the one, smartest, most clever, most daring female detective. ;)

  4. Camille says:

    It -feels- like the name Cersei is more than 50 years old. Haha. Of course, on top of being a strong female, she’s also a bitch. It’s a tough call.

    1. Charlotte says:

      I’ll let you know what I decide about the “sex is the best tool” school of feminism…

  5. maria says:

    name her maria, we’re a strong breed.

    1. Marie says:

      Or a variant thereon. My mom’s name is Mary, so I named my daughter Marien, which is the German spelling (we’re of German heritage) of Mary/Marie. (My grandmothers are also Marie and Margaret, so I went with Marien Margaret, which has a nice “Marie-n-Margaret” pun in there too. ;)

      Plus, I rather love that we translate as “The Bitter One”. So many meanings (including a nice allusion to kungfu’s “eat bitter”), and a nice twist on ye old Christian-owned Mary theme, too. Bitter virgins indeed!

      Best of luck to you!!

  6. Carmen and Debora says:

    Dude, I understand the Dilemma!!! Carmen was the one I chose. I think it’s a very good one. but there are lots of others!

    What about Maeve? I love the name, and the Tain’s Maeve is the sovereignty goddess/ queen of Ireland. She is thought to be an embodiment of Ireland it’self. She is a dark queen, as the Tain focuses on the war that pits her and her husband Alliel (sp?) against Cuchulain and his kin; but in the end her womb ends the war. She is the main force behind Alliel, and her consort is king. So everyone wants in her pants.

    If I have another girl ever, that one is totally top of my list; but I doubt I’ll be breeding again any time soon, so if you like it, go for it!

    Or Joan? as in, Joan of Arc?

    Another Tain reference is Morgan. It’s getting pretty popular, but I do love that name. Dierdre is also in the Tain. She is the most beautiful woman ever who is kidnapped and kills herself rather than be wed to a king she doesn’t love.

    Rhiannon is also a very strong name. She is a permutation of a Celtic horse/water goddess who features in the Mabinogion. There are actually a decent number of women in Celtic myth.

    Juno, Diana and Athena are prominent Greek/Roman goddesses who need no introduction. Those names are common among Greek kids. Isis is also a pretty rad name and goddess if you want to delve into other mythology cycles. In Norse myth, Iduna is a maiden goddess is guardian of the apples of eternal life. She gets kidnapped and rescued, but she is someone that the gods will die without.

    Arwen and Ayowen seem obvious but I thought I’d mention them. Or Hester? As in…Scarlett letter.

    Keep looking, their out there!

  7. Carmen and Debora says:

    here’s another linc for ya
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7EaDGOsWVA.

    I’m not wild about Anne Briggs’ voice, but the song is a favorite of mine

  8. Carmen and Debora says:

    better version, different singers.

    1. Charlotte says:

      This is one of my favourite recordings of one of my favourite ballads! I love the name too, but I was wondering if I really want to name my kid after someone who’s so damn hung up on her husband’s fidelity. I mean, bit obsessive, isn’t it?

      Still, I love the dress-up-as-a-robber-and-rob-your-fiancée trick in principal.

      1. Carmen and Debora says:

        yes, but…the name means wild, or savage, souvage. Which ups the cool factor even more.

        I enjoy the theme as well! And, maybe she was just establishing that the deal was good before making that final purchase. Checking the water before she dove off the dock, as it were. It’s forethought! I mean, I imagine she was pretty tough on any used car salesmen also…or, ya’know, used horse salesmen.

        1. Charlotte says:

          No kidding? I feared the name was from the French “Sauvee”, as in, Saved. Part of why I was shy of it. :D

  9. thewildsidepets says:

    Ug! I feel your pain! I’ve had to name THREE girls! Add to pretty much everything you’ve already said, even if it’s a great name, I refuse to intentionally name them something that’s on the top 100 most common names list for the current or previous year.

    You’ll do fine though, I promise!

    1. thewildsidepets says:

      Weird – not sure why it posted that under the pet stores name… I must not be logged out. This is Cari A. lol.

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