A Simple Hyphen Will Do


Posted on July 7th, 2011 by Vina Tran

From Elizabeth F. Emens’s op-ed for the New York Times’ Room for Debate discussion on “Marriage: The Next Chapter”, crossposted on July 3, 2011.  Emens is a professor of law at Columbia Law School and author of “Changing Name Changing: Framing Rules and the Future of Marital Names,” which was published in volume 74 of the University of Chicago Law Review:

Will same-sex marriage help make straight marriage more equal? Here’s one concrete way it could.

The distant future may hold many possible changes for marriage. But one change could happen right now. Without a single controversial vote.

As marriage license forms become gender neutral — no bride, no groom — women will gain more power over names.

New York has a law on the books that could help make marriage more equal. But no one seems to know about this law.

A 1985 New York law requires that “every application for a marriage license shall contain a statement” explaining that neither spouse must change his name, either can change his name, and what the marital naming options are. Those options include hyphenation (“Smith-Jones”) and merged names (“Smones”). But contrary to the law, not all counties’ marriage license application forms include this information (and even if you ask, the desk clerks may not know the marital naming options).

The summer of 2011 is a watershed moment for marriage equality in New York. To prepare for same-sex marriage, bureaucrats across the state are busily revising marriage license application forms to make the forms sex-neutral. Say goodbye to separate lines labeled “bride” and “groom.”

In the interest of gender equality, and in compliance with the law, the new forms should include prominent statements of the marital naming options.

Why? Because names matter. And right now, women who marry men have limited options when it comes to names. Sure, women can choose their names, which is better than having to take their husbands’ names, as used to be required in some states. But kids almost always have their father’s name. So a woman can either share a name with her past life and family, or share a name with her children. In other words, men get to have continuity with both past and future; women have to choose. (And of course this practice of patrilineal descent of names doesn’t provide any guidance for same-sex couples.)

What’s the solution? I vote for hyphenation (though there’s also a lot to be said for merged names). Hyphenated names provide continuity across generations, but not exclusively along the male line. Spouses can choose whether to hyphenate their own names, or just the kids’ names. And at the next generation, each party drops one name. So when Ms. Smith-Jones marries Mr. Lee-Miller, they make Smith-Millers. The decision of which names to keep will be easier in some cases — for aesthetic or emotional reasons — and harder in others. And in hard cases, is a coin flip really less appealing than a rule that says that men’s names matter and women’s names don’t?

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