The Disappearing Hyphen: Surnames Are Getting Simpler
Hyphenation may be the most egalitarian approach to surnames, yet like so many other trends popularized in the ’70s and ’80s, it hasn’t aged well. As women saddled with hyphenates face their own naming decisions, the hyphen is revealing itself to be an impractical, one-generation solution.
Emily Mitchell-Marell, 26, regularly fields questions about her name and the ultimate what-if scenario: marrying someone else with a hyphen. She has come close, as two of her ex-boyfriends have hyphenated surnames. “I’ve often thought about what I’d do, not so much when I get married, but when I have kids,” said Mitchell-Marell. “For the first time, in the last year or two, I’ve thought about changing my name.”
In September, Mitchell-Marell started a Facebook group called My Hyphenated Name Brings Me Both Pride and Confusion. “I really like my last name and would use it for some purposes,” said Mitchell-Marell, who works for the City University of New York’s admissions department. “But I don’t feel like I need to keep it to prove something--I’m the same person, and I can have two names.”
That pick-and-choose attitude has become more prevalent among women, and with that, the number of hyphenated surnames is dipping. No longer as powerful a feminist statement as it was a generation ago, the hyphenated surname is often seen as a bureaucratic inconvenience.
“Hyphenation, in my experience, seems to be tapering off,” said Danielle Tate, founder of MissNowMrs.com, which helps women with the legal process of altering surnames. Tate, who gave up the name Rowlett when she married in 2005, observed that many of her mother’s friends have hyphenated last names, but none of hers do. “In talking to brides, I feel like there’s almost a stigma with hyphenated last names. They’re a mouthful and difficult in travel situations,” Tate said. “We’ve had the whole feminist movement--we’re aware that we’re equal.”
Leah Adams-Curtis hyphenated in 1982, when she was 21, as a way to follow the tradition of taking her husband’s name without giving up her own. She agrees that there has been a cultural shift. “When you ask college-age women today, they’re like, ‘Well, I’ll just take his name,’ and I don’t think they have the same sense of identity tied to their names,” she said.
In 2002, Adams-Curtis, an administrator at lllinois Central College, and colleagues at nearby Millikin University surveyed 197 students’ perceptions of married women and men with hyphenated surnames. The results were generally positive: Women were seen as intellectually curious, good-natured, and career-oriented, and men as warm and committed to their marriages.
Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum, whose professional description (actor-director-fight choreographer) rivals his name, has come to terms with his hyphen. And at 29, he’s mulling the possibility of replacing one of his names with his fiancee’s surname to form a new hyphenate for their kids. “If you’ve been carrying both sides of your family your whole life and you start mucking around with a hyphen, will the families be offended?” he said.
Such complications help explain the disconnect between the perceptions and reality of hyphenation--and why so few choose it. Michele Hoffnung, director of women’s studies at Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University, researched name choices in New York Times wedding announcements from 1982 to 2002 and found that 21 percent kept their names, 7.1 percent used their maiden names professionally and their spouses’ socially, and only 2.1 percent hyphenated.
Choices at marriage tell only part of the story, as women may make revisions over time. Robbi Sherwin, a 50-year-old cantor and Jewish recording artist, hyphenated her name to Sherwin-Jordan when she married 26 years ago. After 14 years, as she puts it, she “kept the husband but dropped the hyphen” because it was too unwieldy.
Sherwin spared her daughter and son the hyphen, but other hyphenated offspring, like 24-year-old Alex Levy, formerly Frell-Levy, have taken matters into their own hands. Levy dropped the hyphen last summer before beginning law school at the University of Chicago. “It made sense professionally to decide what I was going to do for the rest of my life, and it’s annoying” to have to spell a hyphenated name, Levy said.
Her decision was made easier, as Frell, her mother’s maiden name, is already her middle name. Levy slipped in the hyphen in eighth grade. “I’m less bent on making a political statement than I was when I hyphenated,” she said. “Losing the hyphen just felt like a total epiphany about how my life would be so much easier.”
For Dana Perry-Hunter, 29, hyphenating at 18 acknowledged both her stepfather, who raised her, and her biological father, who died when she was 3. As a child, she had been known among friends as Dana Hunter, but her legal name was her biological father’s, Perry. “I was very happy to hyphenate both names and put it to rest instead of being the same person with different names,” Perry-Hunter said.
Yet while hyphenating simplified things for her personally, it created the type of bureaucratic hassles that are infamous among hyphenates. She was called for jury duty twice in one year and had to show up in court with a lawyer to prove that she had already served. It turned out she was listed in the computer system twice, with and without the hyphen.
Perry-Hunter has a penchant for her monogram and plans to keep her hyphenated name when she marries but to give her children her as-yet-unchosen husband’s last name. “Then for purposes where we’re together,” said Perry-Hunter, “I would be Mrs. Whoever.”