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Where married women feel like collateral damage

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, November 6, 2009

In our security-obsessed, post-Sept. 11 world, married women are highly suspicious, especially if they are elderly.

They have been doubted, rejected and brought to tears at an alarming rate in our region's motor vehicle departments.

After I recounted the harrowing tale of Jean Earley -- 90-year-old pastel artist, minister's wife and Virginia newcomer -- and her attempts to get a state identification card, scores of others wrote to me to recount their own bureaucratic horror shows that left them red-faced.

Now, I know the DMV is low-hanging fruit. When I told my editor about the outpouring, she noted that "life's certainties are death, taxes and getting mistreated at the DMV." Only she used saltier language.

And many of the people who wrote in, including men, had deplorable stories about the way they were treated.

But I think the old rap against the DMV of long lines, unsmiling clerks and bad metal chairs has taken on a new edge.

It took Earley four visits to the Fairfax/Westfields DMV office to get an ID card. All because her birth certificate didn't have her current name on it and that, according to new state and federal laws, means it doesn't prove that she is a U.S. citizen.

For women in particular, the passage of the Real ID law, which created standardized, federal identification standards in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has made the process of documenting who they are far more complicated, frustrating and unreasonable.

"Kafkaesque," one reader called it.

"The only public office I've ever ran out of in tears," another said.

Many who wrote to me said women seem to be unfairly affected by the new scrutiny. They have to dig up marriage licenses, divorce decrees and all kinds of legal documents to prove their identity.

Many were forced to start from birth -- literally, with their birth certificates -- and reapply for Social Security cards, passports and so forth, until they satisfied the local DMV.

"I choked on my coffee this morning when I read your story about Mrs. Earley," wrote Angela de Rocha. "A similar Kafkaesque nightmare descended on me at the Virginia DMV in Arlington in 2006. Mrs. Earley is not alone, and after much discussion and pondering, I have decided the problem is that our laws and the DMV are not written and set up for the vast majority of women who change their names when they marry," de Rocha said.

She had to go back and forth for hours between the DMV, the Social Security office and her home, getting new documents and reestablishing, again and again, that she was a federal employee with a passport, married and a U.S. citizen.

That hoop-jumping "remains to this day my worst experience with bureaucracy, including bureaucracies in foreign countries," de Rocha said.

Claire Tieder was told she had to bring in a divorce decree in order to be licensed to drive a car in Virginia. Then she was turned away and told to return with the marriage certificate.

She returned, waited in line yet again, and was told her marriage certificate wasn't valid because it was issued by the Catholic Church.

"That's when I went ballistic and was ready to jump over the counter and throttle the woman," the 55-year-old wrote.

Or take the case of Carol Parsons' 89-year-old mother, who moved to Virginia from Florida three years ago and had a valid Florida driver's license when she came.

"She needed to show the progression of her name change, from her birth certificate to her first husband, then the divorce papers, and only then the marriage certificate to her second husband," Parsons said, of the process to get a Virginia license.

"Ever since then, I've been counseling girls: never change your name . . . ever!" she wrote. "I'm so glad that when I married my second husband I kept the last name of my first husband -- this way I only have to provide my marriage certificate (if I can ever find it)."

So that's what women get for having the nerve to follow tradition and change their names when marrying.

On to some of the older folks who dare venture into the world of documented driving.

Their records are not always precise.

Often, they are written in big, loopy lettering that is fading. Their records might have birth dates wrong, a misspelling or, in the case of Jean Werner Kirk, "there wasn't room to spell out her full name" when she got a driver's license in 1966.

So when she tried to renew this year, bureaucratic alarm bells went off because her full name wasn't on the original document.

This time, it was in Maryland, but the routine was the same. The Kirks pinballed among government offices for weeks, piecing together a paper trail to explain what a clerk had done 40 years ago.

Has any of this made us safer?

I doubt the most notorious terrorists of our time -- the Sept. 11 hijackers, Timothy McVeigh -- would have been stopped by these new DMV requirements. All these laws have done is make us more harried, more paranoid and more red-faced than ever.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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