Mother’s Maiden Name?

There’s recently been a discussion on the FEAST mailing list about the fact that the APA uses as its online security question, “what is your mother’s maiden name?” And you know, despite all my years of teaching feminist stuff about language usage, I’d never reflected much on the problems with that very standard security question. (And that shocks me, as I’ve thought a lot about marital name change issues, which are obviously closely related. Really a nice demonstration of how something can be taken for granted no matter how vigilant we try to be.) Some problems are obvious, like the fact that it’s based on the expectation that all women change their name upon marriage; and the assumption that all mothers are married. Feminists have spent a lot of time on the problems with this sort of thing, so I won’t rehearse that here. But allow me to mention the really BIG one, which should convince even those who don’t see a problem with expecting women to change their names.

This is meant to be a SECURITY question, which asks for some information that’s not readily and publicly available. More and more women are not changing their names upon marriage, and more and more women are having children without getting married. Mother’s name before marriage is very easily accessible in the first case– especially if it’s THE SAME AS THE CHILD’S– and nonsensical in the second. Times have changed, and the question needs to change too– it’s currently providing lousy security. (And bad politics.)

Update: You know, I even failed to realise what terrible security it is FOR ME: My mother’s maiden name is my middle name, and that often appears on credit cards, etc. (Whenever I’ve been asked, I’ve felt mildly annoyed, but usually set that aside because I was trying to get something done and didn’t want to get distracted from that. So I never thought it all through.)

16 thoughts on “Mother’s Maiden Name?

  1. Thanks, Jender. The APA leaves too many gendered assumptions in place; we can happily bid farewell to each and every one.

  2. And even if the mother has married and changed her name, the information is available on the public record, or even her birth certificate.

    If you are asked for anything like mother’s maiden name, first school, place of birth etc, (all common ‘security’ questions that can all be found easily) then make something up. e.g. – Q: mother’s maiden name? A: Toolofthepatriarchy

    Still memorable; not guessable.

  3. Although Jender did not want to rehearse the issues surrounding women changing their names, I would love to hear some good ones (if there are any). I would also be grateful if someone would explain to me why feminists don diamond “engagement rings”.

  4. Sorry, I meant to say that I would love to be given some good reasons why women should and do change their names. (But I would also love to know why some feminists think it is unproblematic to wear diamond engagement and/or wedding rings.)

  5. Jender: Thank you so much for this post! It was a good reminder of how gullible I am sometimes: mother’s maiden name? Sure, here it is. I, too, had the little voice in my head saying “can’t that be looked up easily?” But I pushed that aside… Now I have a political and a security reason to use BrevisMus’ great idea (though a different “name” ;-).

  6. O dear! An awkward point has occurred to me. Isn’t the security in question for the APA really its security, not ours? No one gets access to any financial data about members or anything else.

    It is true members get to look up other members’ email address, but if they know your mother’s maiden name – if there is one – then they don’t need the APA.

    I suppose a miscreant could post a job notice or something like that in your name, but somehow it doesn’t seem incredibly likely that this would happen.

    The points Jender’s making still hold for all the other sites, though usually I think they give one a choice about the security question.

  7. Nobody who cares about their site’s security should be asking the mother’s maiden name question. They shouldn’t even be offering it as an option. Folks who really know how to do security actually vet passwords before accepting them– because so many people use things like their own first name or ‘1234’ as password. People choose poor passwords and security questions when you leave it up to them. Further, lots of places still *don’t* give a choice. Financial operations in particular seem to ask me the mother’s maiden name question quite a lot.

  8. Yes, of course, you are right, Jender, though it may be that “security” is a misnomer for what the APA is after. It’s basically there to make sure that people who don’t pay won’t still have access to things that it costs them to publish and send out.

    I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a locksmith after I realized that the house we used to live in was nearly open to all. The locks on the basement windows were extremely elementary. So the locksmith came out and did one of their assessments, and I asked them really whether what they planned would prevent burglaries. “O no,” they said cheerfully. “Nothing will really prevent burglaries; the point is just to make things harder so they’ll go away and try something easier.” This is not my attitude to most of the information I put into various websites, but I suppose it might be the APA’s.

    Still, if it is just supposed to make things too hard for a casual visitor, they at least might have one that doesn’t appeal to gender expectations that no longer get fulfilled, a flaw you rightly pointed out.

  9. Great post. Clearly such questions should only be things that are *not* on paper trails. Even questions like “what was your elementary school” is subject to some amount of traceability. Pets names are better but imperfect.

    My trick on this one is not genius, but I always say my Grandmother’s maiden name instead of my Mother’s, it’s one step further removed and much harder to trace. I have an entire web persona in which I have adopted some but not other aspects of her person (Zip code where she lived in the 1940s) and combined them with my own actual self in surprising combinations. The worry is that the current case of “Myspace fraud” (where there are trying to persecute someone for not using real information on the web) will interfere with my little attempt at some sort of “security” or more likely at least somewhat better anonymity.

  10. MMN as a security question has always bothered me from a philosophical standpoint (because of it’s assumptions), but from a security standpoint, it is WAY outdated. Thanks for mentioning it.

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  12. Security aside, is no one bothered by the very term ‘maiden name’? Are we really being asked what our mothers’ names were before they were sexually active? Let’s advocate for the gender-neutral ‘birth name’ on all documents, just the way we insisted on the marriage-neutral Ms.

  13. I just finished filing out a document that asked me to provide my mother’s maiden name as well, and suddenly it struck me how idiotic this whole practice is. I’m glad there are some sensible people out there that realize the misogyny and lousiness behind this all.

    It’s little things like this………

    -Angry male feminist who would like for the world to start making some fucking sense

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