Julia Smith-Eppsteiner: Hyphenated surnames defy standard traditions

By Julia Smith-Eppsteiner, Daily Trends Columnist
Published February 5, 2012

Since the day of my birth, I have been both blessed and burdened with the inheritance of a hyphenated last name. The 16 characters don’t quite fit on the yoga class sign-in sheets, they definitely don’t make the cut for the standardized testing box, and they comprise one hell of an unappealing signature. But perhaps a hyphenated name is memorable, like sharing in the Additional section of your résumé that you bear the skill of reciting the entirety of Christopher Walken’s gold watch “Pulp Fiction” monologue. Mom and dad, I love you up to the sky and down again, but what were you thinking? Did you hypothesize what might come of my kids’ comically never-ending names?

For my mama, choosing to keep her maiden name Smith and not take my dad’s name was more practical than anything else. As a lawyer, she had already made a name for herself, established an identity in the workplace and all aspects of life. It wasn’t a particularly feminist or ethics-based decision, and it wasn’t just the avoidance of the paperwork that comes with getting new credit cards and all of that not-fun business. Hyphenating her name with my dad’s just made sense, but for others, it’s a forceful and moralized decision involving issues such as women’s equality, religion and tradition.

For Kim Kardashian, on the other hand, plans were in place to follow the customary path and become Mrs. Kim Humphries, despite manager-mother Kris Jenner’s resolute advice not to. The reasoning was that Kim’s fame, identity and career are all intimately attached to her last name. Thankfully for Kim, she hadn’t yet gotten around to legally switching her name in the — don’t hold your breath — 72 days they were married.

The trend of brides opting to keep their maiden names and hyphenate their children’s last names with their husband’s is possibly a fashion of the ’90s, but one that is possibly still continuing — it’s difficult to decipher. But it’s one with interesting ramifications that are finally rising to the surface. Not for myself, I must specify.

Stuff White People Like, aka Christian Lander, addressed the inclination toward hyphenated last names, describing it as “a direct result of white women thinking it’s sexist and outdated to take on their husband’s name.” Theorizing about the prospects of this “recent phenomenon,” Lander “(has) a feeling that college lacrosse and soccer jerseys are going to look pretty strange in the next few years.”

The situation isn’t as dramatic or problematic as I’ve been making it out to be, because there truly are a lot of options. And it seems that most people who were given hyphenated last names were not raised in traditional families with traditional values and would probably be open to progressive alternatives such as using one’s middle name as their last name for their children’s surname. To clarify, let’s imagine a very distant scenario — I, Julia Alix Smith-Eppsteiner, marry phantom spouse John Doe. This would mean that our hypothetical kids would be named Emma Alix-Doe and Alexander Alix-Doe, for example.

In the past week, I’ve gotten a sense for students’ opinions on the subject from a wide range of personalities and majors across the University’s campus, including those of my classmates. My curiosity on the topic of last-name options was in fact spurred during a discussion in my English course that looks at “Love, Marriage and the Rise of the Novel” in the 17th and 18th centuries.

I heard a variety of responses, from “I want my wife to have my last name, I insist upon it. I’m a believer in traditional stuff” and “I want to honor my husband, he’s the old-fashion type, you know?” to opinions such as “if my wife had a cool-ass last name, I’d take hers,” to a female speaking about hyphenation as a symbol of a merging of heritages.

A friend of mine made me aware that some people are, as of late, opting to combine names to create something fantastically fresh. This would look like Phillip Glass and Lucinda Childs getting married (Yes, I’m still stuck in “Einstein On The Beach” mode) and their children’s last name being something awful sounding like Chlass or Glilds.

Though these trendy alternatives may clash against tradition in the eyes of about 70 percent of Americans, opinions like “it’s kind of just what happens” in reference to women taking the man’s surname in marriage feel a smidgen complacent and unconsidered for my peace of mind. I have no clue what the trend of last names will be a decade from now or what I’m going to do when and if I get married, but an altering of identity should never be a kind of assumed notion, nor should anything in life be. Summer sunbathing comes and goes, love comes and goes, trends come and go — so I say let’s listen to the words of the old scholar and “question everything.”