College, as we are often reminded, is where we (ideally) go to prepare for how we want to live out the rest of our lives. It’s also sometimes a place where we find the person we always want by our side. Lately, conversations are buzzing with who’s just gotten engaged, who finally got together and who’s getting married next summer.
Someone asked me recently if, when I eventually tie the knot, I would hyphenate my last name rather than take on an entirely new one. The question honestly caught me off guard. If I have made the decision to marry this person, why would I have any inhibitions of forever being associated with his name?
Retention of a woman’s maiden name after marriage isn’t entirely unheard of. Nearly 10 percent of women in the United States and 30 percent of women in the United Kingdom keep their names if they marry in their twenties, according to Women’s Health and Mail Online. Many journals and magazines claim this to be a sure sign that younger women are turning more toward feminism. Grammatically speaking, perhaps it is overly patriarchal that a married woman’s title “Mrs.” is a small punctuation mark away from being “Mr’s.” More often than not, however, the maiden name stays merely for convenience. In an age where women are finally making a name for themselves in professional circles, changing that name in the midst of a glowing career often seems counterproductive. Actress Anne Hathaway married a designer in 2012, but as she already has such a well-known presence on the screen, it would be confusing to her audiences if she changed her name now.
Others come from all-girl families and decide to pass on their fathers’ name. Often, whether or not a woman has brothers aplenty, she will keep her father’s name to honor where she comes from. For example, a very good friend of mine is Polish. Her heritage is one of struggle, war and endurance. They are, historically, a frequently conquered people who retain an unconquerable spirit. Kuklinski will always be Kuklinski.
These are reasons I understand and can deeply respect. But the very idea of a hyphenated last name still confuses me.
I know several women who look at the tradition of taking the husband’s name with a note of fear, as though the new name erases everything associated with the old — so the old one stays. Yet at the same time, women want to show that they are committed to their new spouse, so the new name is tacked on with a hyphen. This alternative is meant to honor both members of a marriage as a visual union.
Although well-intended, “union” is not what comes to mind when I see a hyphenated name. I see uncertainty. Single-Married. Clinging to both names suggests indecision rather than independence, as though this person can’t decide who she really wants to be. A recent Huffington Post article cites Phillip Cohen’s 2011 study that relates the improving economy to divorce rates: The rate lowered from 20.9 divorces per 1000 women in 2008 to 19.5 in 2009 but raised 0.3 points again in 2010. Essentially, divorce increases when couples can afford the cost of separating. And as divorce rates continue to climb, I see impermanence in those combination last names. That little hyphen may as well be a piece of Scotch tape holding the two names together, very easily removed again.
Thinking in terms of language, an object or concept can’t be truly understood without the word that describes it. Names work in the same way. I could tell you a story that involves a mutual friend, recounting her mannerisms and the things she said, but unless I also give you her name, you can’t be absolutely sure of who I’m talking about. Names carry with them history and meaning, just like every other word. To ask someone to change the word they are identified by is, frankly, daunting.
Even so, a name is just a word. You can fill it up with as much personality and history as you like, but it’s still just a word. I could go around calling every chair a cat from now on. People would think I’m crazy, sitting on cats, but the fact that I am calling it something other than its known name doesn’t change its substance, its existence or its purpose. And in time, when I say I spent the whole weekend curled up on a cat with a book, others would understand that I was relaxing, not being cruel to felines.
Perhaps this is an extreme example, but the basics remain: If Jane Doe takes her husband’s name and becomes Jane Smith, she hasn’t changed in substance, existence or purpose. Her story is not erased but continued in a new direction.
In a society where relationships frequently fall into disrepair, whether out of neglect or inconvenience, it’s important to remember what marriage is really meant to be: a commitment. It isn’t easy; in fact, it can be the most difficult thing to manage. It hardly even begins with the possible name change. So I encourage all of you young lovers to forget the hyphen and commit to one name. It doesn’t matter which one. Marriage isn’t a merging of our past selves and our new selves, but a merging of our whole selves to someone who has chosen to call us “beloved.” It is the continuation of our life’s story, not the rewriting of it.
Annie Stokely is a sophomore English major. Reach her at email@example.com