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The Inimitable Hyphen, Part 2

Elisabeth Preston-Hsu, MD reviews the history of surnaming, challenging expectations of naming traditions, and "nerding out" over the power of hyphen (Part 2 of this 3 part article)

Part I of this article was published last week. Access it here.

 

Tradition doesn’t always help things move forward: sometimes the harder changes do.

Change manifests when people give up some of the expected authority in an established practice. This delegation of decision-making can be difficult for people not making the changes directly themselves but who are expected to honor the changes. Perpetuating assumptions about naming for the sake of myopic tradition doesn’t hold here. Unyielding people treat tradition as hard and fast which must continue without deviation.

 

Change manifests when people give up some of the expected authority in an established practice. This delegation of decision-making can be difficult for people not making the changes directly themselves but who are expected to honor the… Click To Tweet

 

But let’s go back to hesitation.

As a child sitting in my grandmother’s church, perusing the church bulletin made me appear to look interested in the peripheral sermon that made little sense. I read through the straightforward announcements and calendar items. But like the droning bespectacled minister, parts of it didn’t make sense. Mrs. Robert Lundquist, I read silently, organized the church potluck to benefit such-and-such. I wondered, Who would name their daughter Robert? Someone must have typed “Roberta” wrong in the bulletin. Later after my mom explained that sometimes married women were addressed by their husband’s name, I wondered Who is Mrs. Robert Lundquist actually? Is she Janice, the woman who talked to my grandma earlier this morning about the potluck? Janice’s name hung like a ghost, a trace of a person, there but not there.

 

That a woman was an extension of a man and not considered a discrete person seemed like I hadn’t been dealt a fair hand as a girl.

My parents gave me my name: didn’t they want me to keep it and why shouldn’t I?

 

That a woman was an extension of a man and not considered a discrete person seemed like I hadn’t been dealt a fair hand as a girl. My parents gave me my name: didn’t they want me to keep it and why shouldn’t I? Click To Tweet

 

As I got older, the thought of changing my last name to someone else’s because of expectation unsettled me, even if in the throes of starry-eyed love. Erasing a maiden name also felt like a fugitive activity, as if my maiden, virginal life was somehow a crime in an alternate universe, and that my marriage and expected married name were part of the Witness Protection Program. Legally, I would be one with my husband, the same last name between us, a public stamp of approval to waggle in people’s faces. See, the announcement would say, we’re married. Or rather, we’re one thing and mostly we’re the husband.

 

Why bother with this confusion of maiden or married names?

Why do we have last names at all? In early societies, no one did. As ancient populations evolved, however, family groupings aided census-taking and discouraged intra-marriage within clans and encouraged inter-marriage between clans, depending on the goals or quarrels between families. China carries the honor of some of the first recorded family names between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, which started as a matrilineal tracing, a passing of name from mother to daughter. Roman naming conventions distinguished people with a praenomen (given name), a nomen (family name), and sometimes an additional surname cognomen to further parse out a branch of family on a family tree. The three names are known as tria nomina.

 

Why bother with this confusion of maiden or married names? Why do we have last names at all? In early societies, no one did.

 

Bynames arose out of the need to distinguish between the many Marys and Williams running around medieval England.

Most English and some Scottish people used these bynames by 1400 originating from occupation [“Thomas Clinkscales” (a shopkeeper)], locale [“Victoria Preston” (Priest’s Town)], a physical feature (“George Brown”), silly nicknames (“Henry Loveless”), or a patronym (“William’s son” becomes “Williamson”). These names later morphed into modern-day surnames to distinguish between families and similarly monikered people.

Medieval times also birthed the doctrine of coverture in English common law, a law that forced a woman to relinquish all legal rights to men under his surname. This patrilineal shrouding began at birth: a baby girl became a feme covert, “covered” with her father’s last name. That name could only be changed once married—changed to her husband’s name. Her personhood, from the beginning, was swallowed up by men. While there were medieval women with rights to own property also, feme sole, they were almost always unmarried, upper class, and very few.

Legal fiction, the idea that believing something is true because it benefits someone whether it is actually true or not, wedged itself between a man and a woman in marriage like the act of two large cats simultaneously stuffing themselves into a small box with a small puppy.

 

Legal fiction, the idea that believing something is true b/c it benefits someone whether it is actually true or not, wedged itself b/w a man & a woman in marriage like the act of two large cats simultaneously stuffing themselves into… Click To Tweet

 

There wasn’t room for clarifying two distinct people (or cats), just one unwieldy identity usurping the other with a patriarchal hiss as legal fiction (the annoying puppy) commanded. Legally, a woman did not exist. Coverture impeded women from owning anything, not just her maiden name. Her husband wielded all power and she was not distinct from him. She could not own a business, pursue an education not approved by her husband, engage in litigation, or sign contracts. If she worked, she was required to abdicate any money she earned to her husband. Debate ensued on the stringency of coverture, some sources indicating its use exaggerated and more flexible. It may have come into play more for clarification if in complicated situations. Married women also faced regional variation on property rights in the United States in the mid 18th and early 19th centuries dictating their control of land or buildings.

I recognize some property rights almost wholly benefitted white women in these situations. Erasing lineage, personage, and property rights of Black and indigenous women of color and stamping them with the surnames of their rapist colonizers is even more problematic than anything I discuss here, but finds its roots in the same power structures.

 

Obviously, this systemic shrouding wasn’t going to last as women took umbrage at this covering, their disappearance.

The Industrial Revolution helped women vie for equal rights in the United States and the United Kingdom. The Married Women’s Property Acts followed in the 1800s, addressing the need for more economic flexibility and granting property rights to women. Nineteenth century suffragette and abolitionist Lucy Stone dedicated her life to egalitarianism for all women—Black and white.

She married William Blackwell who supported an egalitarian marriage (at least, initially), keeping her maiden name. In 1879, Massachusetts allowed women’s suffrage voting in local school board elections though removed Stone’s name from these voter rolls, because she did not have her husband’s last name. Frances Perkins, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet and fierce workers-rights advocate, also kept her maiden name when married to Paul Caldwell Wilson, “not because she is a feminine, but…she felt that if she used [her husband’s] name her activities…might be embarrassing to [him],” a 1933 Evening Star newspaper article cites. Perkins gave an impassioned speech about New York City’s dire fire safety standards after witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and championed women’s working rights—the mayor her husband’s boss. Further, the Women’s Lib movement in the 1970s in Western countries promoted choice.

Choosing to keep a maiden name signaled a strong nod to and attempt for gender equality in English-speaking countries.

 

But many English-speaking countries like the United States do not remain homogenous these days.

Many ethnicities and cultural traditions assemble to create us, many of which have naming systems not borne out of medieval England. Some Chinese women do not change their surnames with marriage and some add their husband’s surname onto theirs. Most Spanish-speaking countries join two surnames at least, maternally and paternally driven, to reflect a merge of families and track lineage. These names are not actually considered one name but two distinct surnames—and they don’t need a hyphen to keep track.

In many Slavic countries, Greece, and Iceland, a surname differs within a family depending on the gender of the person bearing it. Mongols used one given name without a surname. Modern times moved to patronymic and sometimes clan name labels to prevent confusion in distinguishing among similarly named Mongolian people.

 

To be continued.. (the 2nd part of this article series will be published on September 5th)

This piece first appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Fall 2021.

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