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.
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.