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Arriving at a Hyphen
A Married Woman's Journey through the Surname Minefield

by Erica Paladino-Sweeney

The phrase "What’s in a name?" has been uttered by many, most often cynically. The truth is, there’s a lot in a name. It is, at its most basic level, one’s identity. Changing one’s name in marriage can be, for many women, a daunting thing.

Name changing seems like an outdated and definitely overrated tradition. I’ve never understood those bubbly girls who, minutes after their wedding ceremony, begin calling themselves Mrs. Somebody. I had felt that I was Somebody before getting married. Marriage was not to be my defining characteristic but, rather, a wonderful opportunity to share my life with someone I love. It was only the name change that troubled me.

When I got married, I personally found the changes that come with a new marriage easy to adapt to, but the dreaded name change was nerve-racking. For me, the dreaded name change was something that was not discussed until after the wedding. When we got engaged, I – perhaps naively – never acknowledged that I would have to change my name, and I planned to keep my birth name. The first time it really came up was a couple of weeks after our marriage, when my husband, Jon, and I received a check from my aunt as a wedding gift. The check was made out to “Mr. & Mrs. Sweeney” and, since I had not yet adopted his name, we had an impossible time cashing it. It was then that I first considered the possibility that I would have to change my name – but it was not actually discussed until a little while later.

A recent study by Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin suggests that, despite the women’s movement, more and more women today are choosing to take their husbands’ names. The study showed that 44 percent of the women in the Harvard class of 1980 kept their birth name. That percentage fell to 32 percent for the class of 1990.Goldin also found that 23 percent of college-educated women in 1990 kept their own names after getting married; by 2000, the number was as low as 17 percent.

Similarly, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports on an informal poll in 2005 by theKnot.com, a wedding Web site. The poll found that 81 percent of respondents took their husband’s last name; this is up from 71 percent in 2000. Those who chose to hyphenate their names dropped from 21 percent in 2000 to 8 percent in 2005.

While the Social Security Administration does not keep records of the number of name changes related to marriage, the Lucy Stone League estimates that 3 million women give up their birth names and take husbands’ names at marriage. This number represents about 90 percent of all marriages.

These statistics seem quite disconcerting. To me, the changing of one’s name is unrelated to the real meaning of marriage. Isn’t marriage supposed to be about partnership? Doesn’t love mean loving everything about another person, including their name? The Lucy Stone League’s Web site suggests that the tradition of women giving up their birth names at marriage is "a powerful instance of sex discrimination which has a major effect on women."

Interestingly, Lucy Stone, a pioneer feminist and abolitionist, was the first American woman to keep her birth name at marriage in 1855. Shortly before her marriage, she reportedly wrote to her future husband, saying, "A wife should no more take her husband's name than he should hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost." While her husband supported this decision, others did not, and it caused scandal throughout Stone’s life. When women were given a limited right to vote in 1879, Stone was refused this right unless she used her husband’s name. She also found that her signature was not considered valid on legal documents, unless she signed as “Lucy Stone, married to Henry Blackwell.”

Obviously, I am not the first woman to feel reluctant to change my name. I am only one in a long line of strong women wanting to feel equal in this symbolic way. But feeling increasing pressure on all sides -- my aunt's check was only the beginning -- I figured something had to give. I ended up taking what seemed the best option. I decided to hyphenate my name.

I’d always been quite fond of my "real" last name – Paladino. Living in Little Rock, Arkansas, it was exciting to have a different "ethnic-sounding last name," as one of my high school teachers characterized it. The name is Italian. Even though it was slightly annoying being constantly bombarded with questions like "Are you related to so and so Paladino? My wife works with her." Or, the occasional query of "What are you?" or "What does that name mean?" And, of course, it is impossible to forget about the constant mispronunciations.

Actually, it is pronounced exactly how it is spelled – PA-LA-DEE-NO. People are always adding letters and syllables that don’t exist, making it more complicated to pronounce. As a kid, the first day of school was always interesting – both for me and the teachers. When I finally became a teacher myself, I began apologizing in advance for mispronouncing any names and urged my students to correct my errors. The mispronunciation of our beloved family name has so irritated my father that he now gives only his first name (Larry) for reservations at restaurants and the like. But our family pride in the name has always trumped the annoyances. It’s the name my grandfather, Angelo, and my dad were born with. And it is the name I’ve had since birth. I felt it was important to keep it.

After I got engaged about two years ago, I got cold feet – but not because I was getting married. It was because I felt terrified of changing my name. It seemed so barbaric, like a remnant from an oppressive history that society as a whole would be better off leaving behind. After all, what about progress? What about the efforts of the women’s movement of the past several decades? These were the thoughts keeping me awake at night.

The Lucy Stone League equates women giving up their names at marriage with prison inmates being assigned numbers and having their names taken away from them "to strip away a sense of importance and humanity." Women giving up their names is "equally damning," the league says.

The group continually calls for women to consider the implications of changing their names. They maintain that until name-changing practices are equal, women will not be equal to men in this country.

Maureen Dowd, in her 2005 book Are Men Necessary?, suggests that many women take their husband’s name because it is considered a "status symbol" or a "brand" to let the world know that they belong to a man. She suggests that “the title ‘Ms.’ has lost its meaning, now that ‘Mrs.’ wants to crow that she’s Sadie, Sadie, married lady." It’s true that society will continue to view a woman who identifies herself through a man as taking "a step up" so long as social inequality is entrenched.

But the issue is also more complex than this for many women who face the decision of whether or not to change their name. Simple peer pressure and the power of tradition can be formidable foes. I myself felt terrified at the idea of being a person with a certain name one day, and a different name the next. On the other hand, deciding to hold onto one’s own name doesn’t usually elicit harmonious understanding and support from everyone around.

About three months after the wedding, Jon asked me point blank when I was planning to change my name. At first, I didn’t know what to say. Then I half-heartedly blurted out some textbook feminism about losing my identity, and come on, was the women’s movement for nothing? Isn’t changing one’s name a little passé? He didn’t go for it. In fact, he half-jokingly said, "I’m not going to be the only jackass whose wife wouldn’t change her name."

Jon is the least chauvinistic man that I have ever met, so I was somewhat shocked by his comment. Clearly, this decision was important to him as well, something that I hadn’t realized until that moment. After all, society’s pressures are just as harsh for him as they are for me. So after a lengthy discussion, it was settled: I would hyphenate.

After many hours at the DMV, the Social Security office, the passport office, banks, utility companies, human resources offices, et cetera, I became Erica Paladino-Sweeney. Along the way, I inadvertently memorized my husband’s Social Security number and was left with a tattered marriage license, from which the gold seal has started to chip away after being folded, unfolded, and refolded. Is it fair that I was the one to have to go to such trouble, while my husband did not?

Immediately after my life with a hyphenated name began, I regretted my crafty decision. Imagine trying to tell people that your last name is "Paladino-Sweeney." It thoroughly confuses my students. Some call me Ms. Paladino, some call me Mrs. Sweeney, and I’ve even had some so bewildered that they just call me Erica. Rarely does anyone anywhere ever call me by the correct last name, Paladino-Sweeney. It is always one name or the other. Many people don’t seem to understand that my last name consists of both Paladino and Sweeney. More often than not, I’m called "Mrs. Sweeney." I usually just let it go and try not to let it bother me. When I try to explain, most people don’t understand what I’m talking about.

It’s not just the students; other reactions have been similarly interesting. When my dad saw it written out for the first time, he smirked and said, "What is all this Paladino-Sweeney stuff?" Only "stuff" wasn’t the word he used. Both my mom and my sister have trouble remembering how I "do" my name now. Apparently, they had a lengthy discussion about my name when they decided to have something monogrammed for me.

My husband and brother-in-law joked that we should have combined our names to make a new name that we would both take. They came up with some pretty interesting ones. The most noteworthy were "Palaweeney" and "Sweenadino".

I don’t think they realized it, but melded or combined names of both spouses is a growing trend. Earlier this year a reporter at the New York Times wrote a piece describing her experience with a "made-up moniker." She and her husband combined a few letters from each of their names to create a new name that promotes equality, family history, creativity, as well as their commitment to each other, as the reporter put it.

But this solution isn’t going to work for everyone. Paladino and Sweeney, for example, just wouldn’t provide us with fusible syllables.

As time went on, I found the hyphen was not all drawbacks. It became a conversation piece, and even a social statement. In the faculty office of one of the colleges where I teach, some of my colleagues were impressed. One felt that my two hyphenated names sounded "cool" together. Others agreed, saying that’s what they would do as well when they get married. Another agreed with me about the importance of keeping one’s "real" name, as she put it.

My experience raised so many complex questions – for me and for those around me. My only certain conclusion is that more of a public discussion on the issue is needed. A nationwide debate would, at the very least, lighten the burden for those of us with hyphens who have to constantly explain ourselves. More importantly, it would help others who will be faced with this life-changing decision. Perhaps such a discussion would eventually lead to a more perfect and more egalitarian solution for the dilemma of name changing in marriage.

For me, for now, the hyphen will do just fine. I find as time goes on, I am growing fonder of my new name. Maybe one day, I’ll even love it. True, I’ve made a long name even longer and completely confused everyone. But by choosing the hyphen, I stood by my feminist ideals. I kept the name I was born with, which I’ve always liked. And my husband – who is still attached to more traditional sentiments – is now sufficiently happy, since it was just as important to him that I take his name as it was for me to keep my name. Marriage inevitably requires compromise, and in a quickly-changing society, compromise sometimes needs to be creative.

Notes:

Powell, Alvin. “A new comfort zone? Fewer women keeping names on marriage.” Harvard Gazette 26 Aug. 2004. Posted at http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2004/08.26/11-namechange.html

Barrientos, Tanya. “Misses * Mrs. Modern brides go traditional by trading in their surnames for their husbands’.” Philadelphia Inquirer. 5 Feb. 2006. Posted at www.philly.com.

Rudoren, Jodi. “Meet our new name.” New York Times. 5 Feb. 2006. Posted at http://www.nytimes.com

“Name Choice Freedom.” Posted at www.lucystoneleague.org

“Lucy Stone.” Posted at www.anb.org

Dowd, Maureen. Are Men Necessary? New York: Putnam, 2005.

Erica Paladino-Sweeney lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she is an Instructor of English at Pulaski Technical College, in North Little Rock, and Arkansas State University – Beebe. She can be contacted at ericapaladino@hotmail.com








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