An identity tangle at the DMV

Jean Earley, a 90-year-old Virginia newcomer, was so scarred by the bureaucratic netherworld she encountered at the state's Department of Motor Vehicles while trying to get her state identification card that she isn't confident election officials would treat her any better at the polls.

"In my 90 years, I've never experienced anything like this," she told me as we sat in her lovely new living room in Fairfax. She began to unfold the documents and explain the DMV experience that nearly undid her.

Earley and her husband recently moved to Virginia from the very small town of Spearfish, S.D., to be closer to their son and his family. It was also a plus to get away from South Dakota's harsh winters.

Little did Earley realize the Siberia she would face when she entered the Fairfax/Westfields DMV office last month to get her new ID.

She was told to bring a birth certificate, a driver's license and proof that she lived in Fairfax County.

She did this but was rejected because her birth certificate — a fragile document the color of very weak tea certifying that a baby girl named Jean Patterson entered the world in 1919 — didn't have the married name that appeared on all her other documents: Jean Patterson Earley.

She pulled out her driver's license, her Medicaid card, her bank card — all kinds of plastic that had both her maiden name and the surname of the Disciples of Christ minister she had married 68 years ago.

In the 1940s, she made the ever-so-slightly feminist decision to keep her maiden name as her middle name, a very Sandra Day O'Conneresque answer to the still-unresolved question of what women should do about their surnames when they get married.

Ever since suffragette and abolitionist Lucy Stone famously kept her maiden name when she was married in 1855, many American women have wondered whether to change, keep or hyphenate their surnames. Today, almost 90 percent of married women take their spouse's name, a slight swing back in the pendulum from the 1970s, when about 80 percent of women did.

Some women who change their names do so after being crushed by the bureaucracy that comes with two names, kids and endless insurance forms, school enrollment papers, doctor's offices and passports.

After living in several states and traveling overseas to at least a dozen countries, Earley had never encountered anyone who doubted her paperwork or identity.

Well, she admits that once, when she was pulled aside for random screening by the Transportation Security Agency before boarding a flight, she snapped at the latex-glove-wearing officer: "Terrorists don't live to be 90."

At the DMV office in Virginia, officials had no reason to suspect that the 90-year-old woman who was exhausted and near tears after waiting in those gray, metal chairs for an hour, on her fourth trip to get this taken care of, was doing anything nefarious.

"It's a lack of something my generation calls common sense," she said.

And compassion.

"I thought my birth certificate proved that I was a U.S. citizen," she told me.

But that document, filed away so carefully for nearly a century, is basically invalid.

"It is not invalid — you just have to bring another document with your current name," countered Melanie Stokes, spokeswoman for the Virginia DMV.

"We didn't just randomly make that up. It's the state law," Stokes said. "And the Department of Motor Vehicles can't make exceptions for certain people. We cannot just violate the law."

Well, Earley countered, "that's just stupid."

I agree.

I understand that after Sept. 11, documentation is taken a little more seriously. But along with a U.S. terrorist watch list that grows by about 1,600 people every day, box-checking away our humanity at a suburban DMV office is not a real answer.

Earley returned to the DMV with an old passport that had expired years ago.

She waved it at the clerk who initially rejected her, forcing her to get back in line for another hour. They finally accepted the expired passport and told her that her new ID would be in the mail soon.

At long last, the fancy new ID arrived. Turns out, the persnickety DMV clerk who stuck to the letter of the law when it came to the whole ordeal spelled Earley's name wrong. Earley is now Jean Patterson Early.

Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post's Metro section. E-mail her at

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