August 24, 2010

The Hyphenated Woman

Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler
A married woman's decision to hyphenate or not to hyphenate is not really a "new" idea.  However, I have found that the hyphen is still met with unbridled hostility. 

When my husband and I were engaged to be married, I had a brief conversation with him about the decision to hyphenate my name.  By that time, he knew me well enough to know what my decision would be, and he knew that the decision would ultimately be mine to make.  However, everyone was not as progressive and supportive as he. 

There were many extra steps at the county marriage license office, lots of paper work at the Social Security Administration, the DMV, and the bank.  But the most disarming of all were the very personal expressions of disdain that I received and still receive from strangers.  When I am introduced to people, I get obvious outward responses that signify their disapproval of my two last names.  When I am conducting business and people must look up my information in alphabetical order by last name, they almost always look up one part of my name and not the other.  I have encountered IT personnel who decide to shorten my last name in email systems without my consent.  I have even received resistance from family members and students who defiantly decide to dispense with one name or the other altogether. 

I believe that much of this hostility is predicated on a subconscious or conscious resentment of married women who have the audacity to believe that their identities are just as significant as their husbands'.  After all, the convention of women replacing their maiden names with their husband's surnames represents the last vestiges of Victorian era patrilinealism and symbolizes the commodification of women as male property.  The exchange of her maiden name for her husband's surname represents the transfer of property from one owner to the next - from father to husband.  At least the dowry system disappeared from American culture long ago.  I know my husband would never consider me his property and neither would my father.  However, I just could not imply as much by completely "deleting" my name, my identity, my self.

When my husband and I met, I was a smart, vibrant, thoughtful, and productive person.  I was no less smart, vibrant, thoughtful, and productive after we married.  If I had made my name disappear, I believed and still believe that somehow "I" would disappear too.  Thankfully, my Kevin has never asked me to decrease so that he could increase, or be seen and not heard, or diminish so that he could shine.

Many conservatives associate the hyphenated woman (as I have come to be called) and their disapproval of her with Feminism.  As conservatives are wont to do, they have reconstructed Feminism as a radical monster that threatens to unhinge all that is righteous and true.  As a result, approximately 70% of married women drop their maiden names.  Some claim that this overwhelming percentage proves that most women disagree with the notions that I present here.  However, I suggest that the majority of women drop their maiden names in exchange for their husbands' surnames because of the insurmountable pressure to do so.  Most women, feminist or not, do not want to endure the passive agressive hostility that I have described here.  For them, the hyphenated name is noble, even courageous, in theory.  But they are not willing to undergo the public scrutiny that comes along with it.

However, as the button above proclaims, feminism is nothing more than "the radical notion that women are people."  As such, hyphenating my name should not be an affront to patriarchy or nationalism or christianity or anything.  Thankfully, I live in a country that still (the last time I checked) allows me to do what I want with my own name.