“How did it go?” my college roommate asked about my first official date with Paul. “Do you like him?”
“Great. Great. He’s great,” I replied. “I wouldn’t marry him, though, who would want to be Susie Swift?”
Contrary to the evidence of post first-date musings of marriage, as an 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I was in the middle of a feminist awakening. By the next year, I had been introduced to cutting edge research on how language shapes thinking. I had also met Betsy DeCourcey-Wernette, a teaching assistant and hyphenated-name mentor.
I first knew Betsy as Betsy Elliott, Elliott being her husband’s last name. Still married, Betsy decided to return to an enhanced version of her given name, hyphenating both her mother’s and father’s last name. She researched the legalities and the process and shared her new-found expertise with the zeal of an evangelist.
By senior year, Paul and I were engaged. Our friends Mariana (Nana) and Teresa had us over for a celebration dinner. Our conversation that evening including married naming. From Mexico, they didn’t see the problem. “We always hyphenate our family names when we get married.”
Really? “Well, maybe I’ll be Edison-Swift,” I said aloud.
“Could I be Edison-Swift, too?” said Paul.
I was marrying the right man. And so it came to be that on our wedding day, August 14, 1976, our name would reflect a merger and not a take-over. And so it came to be that we regularly repeat, “Edison-Swift. It’s a hyphenated last name. E-d-i-s-o-n-hyphen-S-w-i-f-t. You file it under ‘E.’ No, not Swift. Edison-Swift. E-d-i-s-o-n-dash-S-w-i-f-t.”
At my wedding shower, the hot topic of conversation was “What will your children do if they marry someone else with a hyphenated last name?” Since my question was “What in the world am I doing getting married so young?” I did not take the bait about the potential last names of my potential children. “I guess they’ll do whatever they want,” I said, and had some more chicken salad.
Betsy taught us how to change our names using the standard, no-cost common-law process: Start using “Edison-Swift” immediately after saying “I do.” Check. Go to the Social Security office with a typed statement saying that the name change is because of marriage and not for any illegal purpose. Check. Go to the bank and set the record straight there. Check. Consistently and always use “Edison-Swift.” Check. Check. Check. Next stop, new drivers licenses.
The man behind the DMV counter in Oshkosh, Wis. declared “Our keyboard doesn’t have hyphens. You can’t have that name.”
After much conversation it was finally decided that I would fill in the space between Edison and Swift with a black pen. I found out later that I should have insisted that he run the names together. Here’s the deal: a hyphen is a legal letter. Without the hyphen our last name is Swift.
Two years later, we were back in Madison and I had an official hyphenated name on my new driver’s license.
Thirty-five years of hyphenated life later, I returned to the DMV in Kenosha to get my new Wisconsin drivers license. The last step was “Check it over and sign here.” I almost missed it: SUSAN E EDISON SWIFT. “The hyphen is missing,” I said. “I have to have the hyphen.”
I was told to go back to the supervisor-type woman who had processed my application. “We don’t have a hyphen on the keyboard,” she said with final authority.
It was the end of the day, my first functional day after a week of dealing with medical issue, and I was tired. I didn’t think to say, “my daughter and son-in-law have hyphenated names and Wisconsin drivers licenses.” I didn’t think to say, “Twenty-three years ago I had a Wisconsin Drivers license with a hyphen…did Governor Walker remove your hyphens in a budget-cutting measure?”
All I could think to say was “Then the names have to be run together.”
It was only after I sat back down to wait for the new license that I thought of the mess this was going to cause with airline tickets and credit cards. Post 9-11, all naming, not just hyphenated naming, is more complicated. That evening I connected with Annie and she confirmed that she and Sean (E-d-i-s-o-n-hyphen-A-l-b-r-i-g-h-t) have an official hyphen on their State of Wisconsin drivers licenses.
Happy 35th anniversary, darling. It’s been, and continues to be, a wonderful hyphenated life.
P.S. Don’t miss the next post, “Hyphen8d2: The Next Generation,” written by the Rev. Annie Edison-Albright.
—Sue Edison-Swift (7/31/2011)