Thursday, April 16, 2015

Linda: An American Name

Linda Sanchez

Linda Perry

Linda Brown

Linda Ronstadt
Brown v. the Board of Education
Linda Liao
Linda Wertheimer

Thomas Hardy spoke of the Family Face:

I am the family face.
Flesh perishes. I live on.
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon

And leaping from place to place
Over oblivion.

The years-heired feature that can
In curve and voice and eye
Despise the human span
Of durance –that is I:
The eternal thing in man
That heeds no call to die.

But what about the Family Name? No, I’m not referring to the surname, with its national, social and broadly historical associations. Our surnames, our last names, are given us, usually without undue consideration, at birth and, if female, at marriage. Typically our surnames are that quintessentially unquestioned part of our destiny. Rarely, someone rejects his: becomes Malcolm X, or goes to court to petition for a new name. Wanting a last name that was neither her parents’ nor her first husband’s, my Cousin Phyllis invented her own by combining two ancestral surnames to form the double-barreled Lucas Haddow.

Speaking of first husbands, mine came from a family whose name-change in the 1930s – from the Jewish Cohen to the Scottish Colman – circumvented anti-Semitism, but left a curious legacy; for it was the branch of the family that didn’t opt for a legal name change that conspicuously prospered. As much as I admired my cousin’s creativity in forming her own last name, when, following in her footsteps, I divorced after seven years, I did my own version of trying to elude the destiny mapped out for women by genealogy’s patronymics – by keeping the name Colman. Reasoning that, after all, I was Scottish by descent, I made a choice that caused a surprising amount of resistance and even indignation when I refused to give up the name Colman, with which I had become identified, upon re-marriage. All this cousinly messing about with surnames, though, is really a case of the exception that proves the rule. On the whole the destiny implicit in one’s surname is too deep, too integral a part of our social conventions to resist.

But that other name: our first name, the one that our parents chose for us lovingly and very often in advance, with much pondering and discussion and deliberation, is characteristically a Family Name of a more intimate kind. In theory, the more intimate nature of this first name makes it our name of choice par excellence: if our last name represents implacable destiny, then surely our first name represents our individualism, our free will.  Yet curiously, the opportunity to exercise free will is clearly burdensome, for however original we may think we are being in choosing our child’s first name, our naming behavior is actually crowd behavior, and in this as in so much else, we move and decide and create with the herd.

The year in which I was born and named was a year in which a whole demographic swath of parents of girls decided to kick over the traces and go with something completely new. Thus I did not receive a Family (first) Name. And I find that regrettable, somewhat.

The Appeal of a Family (first) Name

Girls named after a beloved grandmother or aunt always seemed to me to be enviable, their parents optimistic enough to rekindle a relative’s name, to re-route the karma that had belonged to one of them, recently. How much more stable and, well, familial to name a daughter Elisabeth or Catherine, after a recent embodiment of those classic handles. These girls would likely grow up to be as successful at housekeeping as they were in school, as involved in dynasty-building as in climbing the career ladder.

But what about the desire for novelty? For uniqueness? What about the desire to make sure that one’s child is recognized as precious and rare? Born of a shrewd sense of competition for survival, from its immediate manifestation as edginess vis-à-vis one’s peers, to a daunting awareness of our infinitesimally small place in the universe, this desire for novelty could dominate the game. It had been a long, hard winter, and in addition to protecting the traveling monks, the pilgrims on another search for redemption, you felt called upon to protect these rare maidens, Pearls beyond price, whose names bespoke their fragility as well as their uniqueness. Thus the Melodys, Emmelines, Guineveres, Corinnas, and Phaedras. Hence too the more substantial Cornelias and Dianas, the Patricias and the Constances, who come to the fore  whenever the romance of the slightly unusual is melded with a secure sense of the present as an outcropping of the past. But when, to the contrary, the sense of competition makes us feel edgy and anxious, and we long to triumph over our rivals in nomenclature, we try to become prognosticators of tradition and the individual reincarnate by choosing precisely those classic names that are due for a second heyday, a comeback: Esther, Dido, Lavinia, Juliette, even Antonia.

Or again, seeking another mix of history with the arcane, we reach further back into the ancestral line –– our own or another’s: it matters not. There we find Irises and Junes, Phyllises and Valerys and Ferns.

Ancestral Names  

What in fact were my ancestors of the female kind named?  (And why didn’t I get one of their names?) In the near term they were Margaret and Maytie, Mildred and Phoebe and interestingly, Zipporah. And further back where the females of the line tended to dim next to the scions of patriarchy, one could still discern names familiar as well as names of romance and intrigue: Jerusha, Dora, Irene, Bessie, Jemima, Isobel (and Isabelle), Ruth, Nanny, Adelaide, Jane, Jean, Lillian, Maude, Ethel, Jeneva, Mabel, Rosa, Darlene, Dolores, Barbara, Christina, and, of course, Mary.

But such noble forays into the past remained unrealized; these journeys were not to be undertaken by my parents.

My birth certificate was left blank. Was that because they had expected a boy? Perhaps. I was to be my parents’ only child, so that may have been a reasonable expectation from members of the World War II Generation (dubbed “the Greatest” by Tom Brocaw). The postwar world was, after all, their oyster. But my name, when they chose it, was not a family name. No. It was a name that broke with the past. It was Linda.

From 1947 to 1952, Linda reigned as the most popular girl’s name in America. Flanked at both the beginning and the end of her reign by Mary, Linda expressed, however briefly, a generation’s confidence in a present, and a future, not beholden to the past. When you named a girl Mary, you named her after a beloved, or exemplary, grandmother or aunt; or if not a family member, you named her after the best loved and most exemplary Mary of all: Mary Mother of God.  Never mind that the infant dubbed Mary might turn into Mary McCarthy or Mary Martin: she was first and foremost an embodiment of the Christian feminine ideal. When you named a girl Linda you did not name her after any female relative: (there were no grandmothers or aunts named Linda) you named her for the living present, and for the future. It wasn’t even an English name; ‘Linda’ was a Spanish word which, however, the Spanish would – for the most part – not be caught dead using as a name.

And Mary? Mary ruled the first half of the twentieth century, and overall, Mary had the longest reign of any girl’s name during that 100-year span. The most popular girl’s name from 1911 to 1946, and again from 1953 to 1961, when Lisa made her appearance, Mary enjoyed the widest popularity of any girl’s name from the first year that statistics were collected (1911) to the end of the century. In the early 1900s, Mary couldn’t be touched: first Helen, then Dorothy, were a distant second. Later, around the mid-1930s, Barbara and Patricia battled nobly for second place, while Mary continued to enjoy her unquestioned supremacy.

Who were all of these Marys, anyway? And what did they become? The Marys, like their Victorian counterpart, Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp, were themselves ladies, indeed women, of succor, of dedication, of redemption. They were also ladies with the lamp in the (Henry) Jamesian sense, bringing culture and enlightenment into the home while their men explored and exploited the land, its people, and its venture capital.

Despite their sporting struggle for second place, neither Barbara nor Partricia could unseat Mary. Linda, unheard of in the early years of the century, arrived as a sort of dark horse.  First spotted in 1941, in the number five slot, Linda rose to #4 in 1942 and 1943, to #3 in ’44, to #2 in ’45 and ’46, achieving the unthinkable in 1947, when for the first time in that turbulent century, Mary was toppled from her throne; she would appear only once more in the 1900s when, inspired by her rivalry with Linda, she ended the latter’s reign, stemming the tide of late-century names for nine years up until the emergence of Lisa, soon to be followed by Jennifer and Jessica, Emily, ever-so-briefly Emma, and finally in 2009 and 2010, a name which reaches back to the early days of many Anglo-American genealogical charts: Isabelle.

Can we really speak of a Rivalry between Mary and Linda? It seems to me that we can. Though I can’t site any stats on first names and middle names, I am willing to bet that the combination ‘Mary Linda’ occurs rarely if at all; while ‘Linda Mary’ may be just a bit more frequent, as one can imagine the girl’s parents wanting to hedge their bets by mitigating  the boldness and brashness of Linda with the most time-honored female moniker of them all.

Linda: sculpture by John DeAdrea

Indeed Mary and Linda were, and are, like water and oil. Mary is the Virgin: the mother, the seamstress, the intercessor, the ideal female. Linda is “pretty”. Or rather let us say that Linda was pretty sure to be wherever Mary was not. If Mary (Price) was at the hearth, Linda (McCartney) was on the road. If Mary (Travers) was soulful, Linda (Ronstadt) was sexy. If there was something about Mary, Linda (Hunt) was living dangerously. If Mary (R. Beard) was mainstream, Linda (Nochlin) was in the vanguard. If Mary was at the center of things, Linda was at the extremities. It was Linda Lovelace, the porn star, whose name became a household word for kinky sex, not Mary Tyler More (Heaven forbid!) Businesses, like people, bear names that place them in time; if Mary Kay Cosmetics was a company for girlie girls and women, powered by housewives, was a cuttig edge company offering educational software, and occupying a techy
niche that reflected its professorial founder's expertise.  

So while the Marys no doubt excelled, for decades, at motherhood and virtue, the Lindas, who would come of age in the sixties and seventies, would be first and foremost Experiencers of Everything about the sixties that was characteristic: college, yes, greater independence, yes, and before the feminist movement in the seventies: civil rights, and sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.

I never particularly liked the name. First of all because it is so common and has such a definite timeline, to the extent that, today, the majority of women (Caucasian and African American women, that is) named Linda are identifiably in their sixties. The Asian Lindas are another matter: identifiably, for their part, in their late forties-early fifties. So, too, the Lyndas: fortyish-fiftyish, since spelling variations tend to be a latter-day development.

Also there was the fact that when you met someone Spanish or Mexican and told them your name, they smiled. A Mexican friend once told me that no self-respecting Mexican woman would name her daughter Linda – then mitigated the story somewhat by remarking that a friend of hers – not Mexican – had named her daughter Linda but ‘fortunately the girl was linda.’ But in the end, so, so many American women were named Linda that that name, like Rose or Daisy or Iris, or Autumn or Summer – that name ceased to be notable for its literal meaning, and instead became familiar, accepted, and even familial.

Who, then, were the Lindas who put the name on the map?  Who are the Lindas whom we regarded in their day, and who are the Lindas who will be remembered fifty or one hundred years from now? Sing, Muse, the list of Lindas.

My Lindas

These are my Lindas: (all around my age, who grew up in my neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa, or attended the Des Moines Public Schools at the same time I did) :

Linda White and Linda Moon, Linda Shiels and Linda Griffin (daughter of civil rights pioneer Edna Griffin), Linda Coon, Linda Hargrove and Linda Groves, Linda Mason, Linda Laughlin, Linda Lekwa, and many more Lindas, to be sure….

There were no moms named Linda, no teachers, and certainly no grandmothers.

At the University of Wisconsin there was my Allen Hall suitemate, Linda H (I’m working on remembering your  last name.)

At the California College of Arts and Crafts, I took a class in pastel drawing from Bay Area artist Linda K. Smith.

One of the parents I met when my children attended Berkwood Hedge School in Berkeley was Linda Hirshhorn, cantor and singer-songwriter.

My sister-in-law is Linda Enghausen.

Linda several decades on

Named in the 1940s or later, having come of age in the sixties, seventies or later, where is she now?

Animator: Lynda Weinman: founder of

Artist: Linda Howard, Linda K. Smith, Linda Stein, Linda Vallejo

Author:  Linda Sue Park, Linda Ching Sledge, Linda Laplante

Astronaut: Linda M. Godwin

Astronomer: Linda A. Morabito, Linda S. Sparke

Ballerina: Linda Williams

Cartoonist: Lynda Barry: Ernie Pook’s Comeek

CEO: Linda Hudson, Linda McMahon, Linda Rosenberg

Chef: Linda Goldberg, Linda Weiss

Civil Rights Activist: Brown v. the Board of Education: Linda Brown

Classicist: Linda Farrar, Linda Gillison, Linda M. Medwid

Clown: Linda B. Levine

Composer: Linda Buckley, Linda Tutas Haugen, Linda Catlin Smith

Congresswoman: Linda Sanchez

Department of Education: Linda gancitano

General: US Army: Linda L. Singh, Linda R, Medler,

Gamer: Linda Liao Pei Ling

Historian: Linda Gordon, Linda K, Kerber, Linda Lear

Impressario: Linda Clouette McKay

Judge: Linda R. Reade

Mathematicians: Linda Jo Goldway Keen, Linda Rothschild, Linda Furuto, Linda Bailey Hayden, and more.

Opera singer: Linda Esther Gray, Linda McGuire, Linda Watson

Philosophers:  Linda Trinkhaus Zagzebski, Linda Martin Alcoff, Linda Radzik, and more.

Physicists: Linda Ayers

Poets:  Linda Gregg, Linda Bierds, Linda Pastan

Rabbi: Linda Henry Goodman, Linda Joseph, Linda Shriner Cahn

Rock Singer-Songwriter: Linda Perry, Linda Ronstadt, Linda Thompson

U.S. Supreme Court: covered by Journalist Linda Greenhouse

Yes, Linda has had a pretty good run. In pretty good times. At heart an American name, Linda expressed American ideals like democracy, equality, civil rights and civil liberties. As for dethroning Mary, shall we declare the Revolution to be complete? For Mary never again returned to her former place of unquestioned supremacy.  Yet even here, at the antipodes of Mariolatry, we must confess that Linda is, after all, only a name, while Mary remains a powerful archetype. In times of trouble Mary may indeed make a comeback Linda, a name for a generation’s hopes, being all about the way forward, cannot offer us consolation, or comfort us in our darkest hour. Mary, the name for a timeless ideal, may be driven underground, but will never entirely disappear. Today she waits in the shadows, watching our world hurl itself ever more precipitately into the future, a future  that will have a place – indeed, many places,  for Linda, but for Mary, who can say?

"Let It Be"
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

And when the broken-hearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be
For though they may be parted
There is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be

Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Yeah, there will be an answer, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

Let it be, let it be
Ah, let it be, yeah, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

And when the night is cloudy
There is still a light that shines on me
Shine on until tomorrow, let it be
I wake up to the sound of music,
Mother Mary comes to me

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