Saturday, July 21, 2012

What's In a Hyphenated Name?


Among its many dubious achievements contemporary feminism has transformed the relationship women have to their names.

It did not have to litigate, legislate or regulate. By the force of argument it convinced large numbers of women and small numbers of men that what used to be called a woman’s “maiden name” is really “her name” to have and to keep, even in marriage.

For most people it did not seem to be very important. A woman can choose freely to call herself what she wishes and to define herself as she wishes in marriage.

But then, there was the matter of the honorifics. Feminism decided to banish Miss and Mrs., the better erase the invidious division between married and unmarried women. It did not want to grant a special status to a woman who was more closely attached to a man.

Since men, married or not, are always Mr., feminists decided that the same rule should apply to women. It chose the more neutral, content free, Ms. for all women, married or unmarried.

As you know, Ms. is pronounced Miz. I have it on good authority that it’s short for misery.

Since the media has decided that it is easier to acquiesce, nearly all women in the media are referred to as Ms., whether they like it or not. For the record, a few notable married women are still referred to as Mrs., as in Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Obama.

Since Ms. was an assertion of ideological commitment, it should have felt strange that all women had been signed into the feminist cause, regardless of their own views.

Be all that as it may, feminists who married, kept their names and did not change their honorific were faced with a dilemma: what name should they give to their children?

Blindly handing down the father’s name did not seem to be feministically correct. Wasn’t the patronymic a form of institutional patriarchy?

Some pioneering feminists decided to give their children hyphenated names.

Children could bear the names of both of their parents, the hyphen symbolizing the connection that made the parents one flesh… or something like that.

By now, most of these changes to the marital designation are not even controversial. They have not elicited too much discussion and debate. Precious few people fought back, for fear of being taxed with misogyny.

Let’s examine some of the issues raised. 

In some cases it makes perfectly good sense for a woman whose has an established professional identity to keep her name.

If you are Mariah Carey or Celine Dion, it does not make very much sense to change it.

If you have established a career as a lawyer under one name, it makes sense not to change it, if only for professional purposes.

A woman who decides, as the saying goes, to keep her name might encounter problems when she visits her a child’s school. There she might have to explain why Johnny Smith’s mother is named Rebecca Witherspoon, but, this is usually not too much of a bother.

On a more theoretical level, we should question this idea that when a woman chooses not to change her name she is “keeping her name.”

This does not make a lot of sense. Your name is not your private property. You do not own it; it is not your possession; if you change it you are not giving it away.

If Rebecca decides to keep “her name” she is, effectively, keeping her father’s last name. Keeping her maiden name means, by the old customs, that she is designating herself as her father’s daughter, not her husband’s wife. 

To call this a sign of independence and autonomy stretches things just a bit.

You name designates your place within a family and therefore within a community. It defines a set of relationships with other members of the family. It does not assert your individuality or define you as the property of anyone else.

Historically women have, at times, been treated as property. This is not what it means for a woman to take her husband’s name. If a child receives his father’s (and his mother’s) name that does not mean that he is their property.

Of course, some women do not want to take their husband’s names because they do not want to be thought of as anyone’s wife.

They believe that being his wife entails being a possession, because, after all,some feminists believe that possessive pronouns make you someone’s possession.

Of course, this is absurd. A husband’s wife no more belongs to her husband than a wife’s husband belongs to his wife. They may belong together, but that does not mean that either one is the property of the other. Being your father’s child does not mean that he possesses you; it doesn’t even mean that you are possessed!

Since adopting the honorific Ms. and retaining one’s maiden name makes a statement, it is fair to say that changing one’s name and being called Mrs. also makes a statement.

A woman who wants to be identified publicly by her husband’s name is telling the world that she is part of a couple, that she is married, and thus, unavailable.

Since she chose freely to get married was presumably free why should she appear to be hiding the fact?

Similarly, a woman who bears her father’s name is announcing that she is unmarried, and thus, available.

If a woman is married, why would she want to cultivate ambiguity? And, what does the reptilian region of the male brain think about it. Why might he imagine that she refuses to declare publicly that they are married? What does it mean that she wants to be ambiguous about her marital status. 

The same male brain might also imagine that if she is going to be ambiguous about her marital status, then he can be so too.

In a strange way, if you redefine the marital relationship, if you remove the fact that two married people have the same name, you might also be undermining the institution.

It does not seem accidental that contemporary feminism has provoked massive numbers of divorces.

Women have argued that men are not obliged to designate their marital status by changing their name. But the fact is, a man’s marital status changes when his wife changes her name, when they become Mr. and Mrs.

And besides, for all I know this might have something to do with the epidemic of single motherhood that has drawn some considerable attention of late and that everyone, with the exception of Katie Roiphe, recognizes to be a bad thing?

These customs exists for a reason. That reason involves the fundamental uncertainty about paternity. The identity of a child’s mother can be known with absolute certainty. The child's father, not so much. On that score, you are obliged to take the mother’s word for it.

When a woman gives birth, she names the child’s father. Her word is the law.

Normally, no one asks her explicitly who the father is. It is assumed that her husband is the father, and therefore, that her married name will be given to her child.

The custom is based on the assumption that women are trustworthy and honorable.

A woman has a right to keep her maiden name, thus, to assert her independence and autonomy. She has the right to say that she does not want to feel bound to her husband.

But then why would a man not think that perhaps she was also asserting her independence and autonomy when she got pregnant? If she refuses to be attached to him in the public eye, why would he assume that she wasn't acting as a free agent when she conceived a child?

If a man is supposed to provide for children because his wife says that they are his, if she refuses to identify herself as his wife is she also saying that they may not be his?

Will he therefore feel a much weaker obligation to care for children that may or may not be his. Could it be that this new feminist custom has contributed to the epidemic of single motherhood?

Of course, there are always a few in every crowd, a few married couples who have two different names and who decide to give their children both of their names.

They have chosen to make a political statement by calling their children Smith-Jones or Atherton-Rumpelstiltskin.

Apparently, this custom has gone out of favor because, as NPR points out, when young lovers Brendan Greene-Walsh and Leila Rathert-Knowles think about getting married, they are faced with the rank impossibility of merging their names. 

This is to say that those zealous parents who decided to live their ideology by saddling their children with two names did not think past the current generation. To NPR it is a joke. Its article is entitled: “When Hyphen Boy Meets Hyphen Girl, the Names Pile Up.”

Wanting to strike a blow for gender equity a certain number of parents have only succeeded in humiliating their children, reducing them to hyphen boy and hyphen girl.

The great minds of feminism succeeded in reinventing the wheel. By setting out to break the hold of traditional customs they have succeeded in demonstrating why the customs are as they are.

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

For a woman who will not be bearing children, tell me why this is such a heinous act of mutiny to keep her name?

Anonymous said...

I am a successful woman who may marry some day, I have enjoyed over 20 years in my career, a published book and a string of successes in the world. I am no Mariah Carey, but I resent the statement that I may somehow be "in misery" because I wish to keep my name. I will indeed offer all of the vows a marriage holds, except that I won't bear children at my age.
I offer that women like me around the world are not some stubborn angry lot, rather we are practical women who are also proud of our own history that we spent years building prior to marriage.
I have full confidence that I will find a husband that will be proud to be mine as I will be proud to be his, symbolized by our rings.

Anonymous said...

And what about those "terrible" men who don't wear their wedding bands?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

As I was trying to say, women who have developed independent careers will usually not change their names when they marry. If they are not going to have children, then a goodly part of the reason disappears also.

Women who remarry often do not change their names because it becomes confusing to change one's name a second or third time.

The issue of names is really the issue of children. The custom was developed around the realities of childbirth.

I was trying to do some cultural analysis, of something that seems fairly innocent, but maybe is not. I am trying to raise the question of the fallout of the fact that the institution has been transformed, and that one of the effects, among certain segments of the population, is that there are far more single mothers... which is not a good thing.

As for the specific situation you are describing, the naming custom is very old. It has been around for a long time. It is primarily concerned with parentage, and especially fatherhood.

Keep in mind that a century ago the life expectancy for Americans was around 46.

Issues of late marriage rarely arose because people did not live very long.

I don't believe in discarding traditional customs without thinking through the possible societal outcomes.

Anonymous said...

Some people have too much pride of individuality to be in a true union. They should remain single.

Bonnie Leclerc said...

I think you are very right in all your analysis of what it entails to *change* the custom.
That's why I'm so happy I live in a country where I like the custom about names. I live in Chile. There, everyone has a double family name: the first one from your father, the second one from your mother. They, in turn also had two names, so they passed along only the first one: the one from the father. For a woman to be called by her husband's name is unheard of. The honorifics "señora" and "señorita" don't actually refer to the marital status of a woman, rather to her age. Men are treated pretty equally, since no one would think of calling a young man "señor", but rather "joven".
I personally feel very comfortable with this system, and I would not like to be in the shoes of a woman in the US or France (where I come from, by the way), who have to decide whether they make do with a custom they don't like, or incur in the ominous feminist attempt for correction.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Bonnie for explaining the customs in Chile.

I suspect that South American and southern European cultures are, at root, more matriarchal than are Anglo-American and Protestant cultures.

In France, also, the honorific Madame is used for women who are evidently no longer girls. It does not necessarily signify marital status, though, of course, the basis for the distinction lies in marital status. The honorific has been extended to avoid the dubious practice of calling unmarried women old maids.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Now that I think of it, in America when you are dealing with a female professional you normally use the honorific, Madam... regardless of marital status.

Anonymous said...

Bonnie"
This custom in some South American countries, as well as some European countries, honors the fathers, something I a, very proud to do.
I come from a family of mostly girls, and all very successful in our careers and very proud of our success as a family (from my fathers humble beginnings, hard work, and confidence in us.)
Yes, my traditional mother changed her name 60 years ago when she married my father and Bore his 10 children. But I find it very sad that I will be labeled as a selfish American Feminist if I don't change my name if/when I marry.
Some traditions made sense 100 years ago, some are worth reexamining now ...

Anonymous said...

Anon, what do you care what others think? Do what you want and reap the results. In the end you will be and remain an outlier in traditional society, but you value your own ego more so go with it.

Anonymous said...

All Anna's bring up good points.
But last Anonomous, do we have much of a traditional society? This is not about my ego, but I can surely tell that I bruised yours...
My bf has been married 2 times, talks of marriage to me, and I really don't care to be another "Smith" if I'm not going to have his child.... I'm more proud of the union that brought me here than any I've seen today.
I didn't see much "traditional" anything around here...
And the last name is truly the last tradition I see that might be working its way down from a "must" in society.
Long after the tradition of working through the problems (now marriages are throwaway)
Long after courtship is something that is honest and thorough (now it is "how many and how fast can I take?")
Long after men and women stopped treating sex as something held for marriage, then at least long-term as they envisioned getting married; then they lost all respect and started "hooking up" and thinkiing they'd still be friends when they moved on from that thrill...
So these traditions have been working their way down, and now these terrible women (who havent partaken in any of the above major shifts theses norms) , we women are deemed as outliers andmust be to blame for the double names in society.
...maybe we should take a look at the true drivers of the societal shift that has occurred en route to marriage...

Anonymous said...

Jeez, pick a name already. Feminists think hyphenation is a radical act. It isn't. It just shows indecisiveness.

Dennis said...

I have to admit that I think this is humorous. No matter what one does it is still a father's name that one bears. If one takes a mothers maiden name then it is of her father.
Feminism is truly silly and has for years fought the wrong battles and allows itself to be seen as spiteful and anti male.
I really don't care what one calls themselves for, unless one makes up one, it is someone's father's name. The reason was to make sure that men could not disenfranchise their children.
What childish drivel.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the hyphenated name goes to honor the legacies of both the father and the mother?
As Dennis said, the original purpose is to connect he father to the children. In a world filled with divorce and custody battles, this seems like one more reason to connect with the Mother's name too.
In each make response (including the good doc's original post) I read an awful lot of threatened males attacking females.
Maybe that is why I'm still single, it's not because I want to keep my own name at all. It is because I am successful and strong, and clearly that threatens a great population of males (sample set~this string)

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I do not quite get the "threatened" idea. Let's say that women insist that they do not need men, that they are independent and autonomous. If a man does not want to have a relationship with such a woman, that doesn't mean that he's threatened. It suggests that he is willing to respect her wishes.

Disinterested is not the same as threatened.

And also, as Dennis said, feminists have allowed themselves to be portrayed as anti-male... Many have expressed overt hostility to men and believe that cultural warfare is the only path to equal rights.

If a woman tells a man that he is so fundamentally opposed to her rights that she cannot trust him, and if this man does not want to deal with such a woman, then why does that mean that he feels threatened.

He might feel insulted or demeaned...
even attacked... but I am not sure why feminists believe that they can only advance in society at the expense of men... thus that their advantage is a man's disadvantage.

Whatever happened to cooperation and, as Aristotle said, taking people at their best?

Anonymous said...

I do not get th leap from "a woman who want to preserve the history her own ancestors gave her" to
"a woman's advantage must come from a man's disadvantage"
I personally am a woman who plans to keep my own family name.
I am a successful leader, who treats my male employees and colleagues with as much respect as the females, I wouldn't even dream of treating them differently.
I trust them all the same... Some women are married on my team,some are not. Some kept their names, some did not. I have men with hyphens on my team, I think no less of them either.
I feel like there is a sub-culture out there of males that want to lump every woman who is not totally submissive into that "Agressive Feminist" category.
There is a spectrum, fellas.
And just because I want to keep my name, my legacy and my family's legacy, shouldn't label me some evil man-hater.
Lighten up, guys!

Stuart Schneiderman said...

It looks like I am not expressing myself very clearly. It will not have been the first time.

Since I do not know Anon, I cannot really comment on her, though I am sure that she is wonderful.

And I would much prefer that people not take it all personally. Perhaps it's inevitable that they do, but I can wish...

Anyway, feminism is an enormously influential social and political movement. Different people see it differently, but it seems to me to involve a struggle against male privilege and patriarchy. If a struggle is needed, then clearly there is an underlying assumption that men hold all the cards and will give out nothing unless they are coerced.

I am not saying that all feminists believe this, but that the idea has certainly entered the culture.

Neither I nor anyone else has any problem with professional women who keep their family names. That name has a place with commerce or a profession and no one has a problem with a woman's keeping it.

I think that charging non-feminists with submissiveness is simply inaccurate.

It is also inaccurate, I would agree, to say that feminists are aggressive. I don't think that I was taxing feminists with aggressiveness.

Since feminism has had a marked influence on the culture surrounding marriage, and since feminism has pushed the strongest for changes in the institution, I do not think it unfair to hold feminism accountable for the consequences... regardless of whether they were part of the plan.

Feminists want women to be strong and self-sufficient, independent and autonomous. If men do not find such women to be the kinds of women they want to marry or be involved with the men have, dare I say, every right to make a decision on whatever grounds make sense to them.

For my part I was trying to analyze the state of the marital institution in terms of one of the most seemingly innocuous changes in marital customs-- the feminist insistence that married women keep their (that is, their family or their fathers') names.

I have some awareness of why women believe that they should do this, but individuals do not control the meaning of their gestures or their language.

If a man sees the gesture as somehow involving a lesser commitment to him or if he sees it (in his reptilian brain) as a sign that perhaps his paternity is not as certain as he thinks it is, then women should take that into account.

If a woman explains to a man that she will never, under any circumstance, take his name, he might think that she sees it as contaminated... as though it will compromise her independence.

And marriage is not about tow independent individuals... it is about a couple functioning in harmony. Autonomy cannot really be part of the picture.

Independent, autonomous, strong women is a nice ideal... but when it translates into an epidemic of single motherhood, the reality does not seem to be as good.

Dennis said...

When one uses words like "threatening" and "submissiveness" one is denigrating others without any information to back up such comments. Is it any different than feminists stating that because a man may challenge them on some issue that "he hates women?" Where does such childish drivel emanate?
It would seem that feminists like to cast aspersions at males, but don't like it when it comes their way. It reminds me of Hilary Clinton throwing all kinds of derogatory slaps at her opponents then saying when men responded "that it was because she was a woman." Interesting game that?
As I often intimate, "If I can do no right then your opinion has no value." When feminism creates a hostile environment they cannot expect to not garner the same actions. Maybe some women need to "lighten up" as one commenter stated.
One has to remember that men were constantly reminded that women were our mothers, wives, daughters, friends, et al, but seem to have forgotten that men are their fathers, brothers, husbands, et al. One cannot spend 50 years ignoring and denigrating one side of the equation and not have negative reactions.
Maybe if feminists imparted halve of the respect, courtesy, et al that they expect one might be more inclined to think well of them.

Anonymous said...

Thank you doc-- you make a lot of sense in your most recent response. I agree that feminism as a whole has recently in sime sects gone overborard, and have given strong women like me a bad name. (simply strong, but not elitist or man-haters)
I speak of a subset of males, I do not wish to lump any group together and say "men hate women"
I Am sorry, Dennis, that you feel so strongly that you have to resort to superiority/elitist comments like calling opposing views "childish drivel"
As I was saying in my comments, there is a spectrum, Dennis.
Since this is the comment section, I did not know I needed to show graphs and demographic data...
I am simply stating that I should not be lumped into some hateful sect because I choose to keep a name that I am incredibly proud of, and have worked 25 years to drive recognition within my profession. My parents are proud. My boyfriend is proud. His parents are proud...

Dennis said...

The meaning of drivel is nonsense. It is nonsense to say that because one disagrees with a woman that he hates women ergo DRIVEL. The meaning of childish is silly or immature. Is it not silly or immature to say that that one who disagrees with a woman one hates women therefore childish?
I think you might be reading more into my comment than what was stated and may have applied it in error. Though I did like the superiority/elitist comment.
Enjoy life.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Dennis
I understand the meaning of all of these words you use.
Thank you once again for clarifying.
I take you for the type of person that "must" have the last word, so I fully expect you to write one more post to prove your superiority
(ergo "childish")
I am not worried about superiority myself, just respect for my accomplishments. And thankfully I am surrounded by people who treat me as their equal because of my equal accomplishments...
I definitely enjoy my very full life, that you for wishing that upon me.
Enjoy yours,
Sincerely,
G

Dennis said...

I have to admit that comment about the last word was hilarious given that it would seem that was your intention and each response was an attempt to cast an aspersion and then run. I would make comments about you, but don't know you and have no reason to think ill of you. You might want to look up the definition for the word assume.
At no time did I intimate you were anything bad or evil. I did no more than challenge your assumptions and those of today's feminism.
I do find it interesting that you need to see me as an enemy not as someone who might, horrors, think differently than you. We might even be friends if you actually knew me. I don't discount you because we disagree.
I could go on about all my degrees, professional certifications, awards, honorifics, et al, but that and a couple of dollars will buy me a cup of coffee. I value my wife, daughters, son, granddaughters and grandson far more than I value any award or accomplishment. My jobs never defined me because I am much more than that.

Bizzy Brain said...

So Johnny Stuart-Miller meets and marries Mary Cunningham-Jones. Then they become Mr. and Ms. Cunningham-Jones-Stuart-Miller. Then their little boy grows up and marries Jane Williams-Johnson-Barclay-Patterson. Then they become Mr. and Ms. Williams-Johnson-Barclay-Patterson-Cunningham-Jones-Stuart-Miller. Sounds a little ridiculous.

Sam L. said...

I remember reading recently the French have essentioally outlawed the use of "Mademoiselle".

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I saw that too, it's unfortunate, but probably not the worst of France's current problems.

The interesting thing is that all French nouns are either masculine or feminine... they do not have neuter nouns.

IF they try to wring the "sexism" out of the language they are going to run into some real problems.

Anonymous said...

It is amazing to see the horror/terror/anger drummed up over this tradition...

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/storyComments.php?storyId=156923573&pageNum=2&pPageNum=2

Timely NPR article and following responses are pretty interesting....
In the end, it seems like a personal choice to live with this tradition or not. I myself will be happy to be in a partnership when I marry. That means we are equal. I do not lose my identity...
Many people are perfectly fine with their hyphens, if you read the responses...

Anonymous said...

My fiance's ex gave their daughter her last name on the birth certificate. He had to go to court to give his daughter his last name and it was hyphened with her mother's name. Her mother often dropped his last name when she signed their daughter up for things. His daughter got pregnant and had a son and once again my fiance's ex screwed the real father out of giving his son his last name. She let their daughter makeup a name for her son using the babies great-grandfather's first name and now this child has a ridiculous last name that his father will have to fight in court to change.