UPDATE: Why so many women still take their husband's last name

12/03/17 10:04 PM EST

By Jillian Berman

A recent study suggests men whose wives keep their name are viewed as more feminine

Visiting my family in the Midwest over Thanksgiving, I returned to a topic that's become very familiar ever since I became engaged a little more than a year ago: Whether I plan to change my last name after I get married.

Given that I'm the youngest person in my family to have the name Berman, my relatives were eager to know whether that lineage would end with my wedding in about a month or with my death (hopefully a long time from now). I assured them I'd stay a Berman forever.

This is something I've known for some time. A college friend recently told me he remembers my answer when asked about a future name change well before I knew whether I'd get married or my fiancé appeared on the scene. Incredulously, I apparently said something along the lines of: "I have a byline to maintain."

Certainly, my career provides a valid rationale for keeping my name, but I've never understood why I have to give one. If I'm being honest, it's hard for me to wrap my head around the logic behind why a recently married woman would change her name (except in a few, very exceptional circumstances).

I was recently reminded that this opinion is very much in the minority: A study published earlier this month (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-017-0856-6) in the journal Sex Roles found that the husbands of women who chose to keep their surname were more likely to be perceived as feminine than those whose wives changed their names.

"There are stereotypes about men whose wives retain their surnames after marriage," said Rachael Robnett, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and one of the authors of the study. That may be in part because the notion that a woman who marries a man is supposed to change her name is so entrenched in our society, she said.

Robnett's research is only the latest evidence that the name change tradition has held on in a very strong way. According to a 2009 analysis of 2004 government data (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0192513X09344688), just 6% of married, native-born American women had an "unconventional" last name, which includes keeping their maiden name, hyphenating their last name or taking on two last names. There's some indication this trend may be shifting; about 20% of women (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/upshot/maiden-names-on-the-rise-again.html?_r=0) who married relatively recently kept their last names, according to a Google survey conducted by the New York Times. But the bulk of women marrying men still appear to be changing their names.

"As a gender researcher, I've noticed that there is pretty strong adherence to gender roles within heterosexual relationships," Robnett said. "In so many other domains of society we actually see people pushing against traditional gender roles" like in the workplace, she added. So why is this one of the few traditions that continues to persist with little question? There are a variety of reasons, according to researchers:

-- "It's hard to make an argument for why it's important other than it's just important to the woman," said Emily Shafer, a sociologist at Portland State University. And in the family or personal realm, we expect women to be "other interested" instead of self-interested, she said.

"To say I want to keep my name is in a way saying I'm going to put my identity ahead of traditional norms surrounding family," she said.

-- "There's no good solution when kids show up," Shafer said. We're still at a point where it's incredibly rare for a child to take on their mother's last name or receive a hyphenated last name. That means that even when a woman keeps her surname, it ultimately gets lost in the next generation in many cases. That may be motivation for women to simply give into the tradition and change their names, she said.

-- Fear of scrutiny: Robnett said she decided to look into how men whose wives kept their last names were perceived because she wanted to get a sense of whether husbands' opinions were playing a role in their wives' choices. "Obviously this isn't a decision that women are making in a vacuum," she said. "Maybe men are somewhat aware that these stereotypes exist."

Other research indicates women who keep their names may also face scrutiny after they make that decision, which they'd rather avoid, Robnett said.

-- It seems romantic: Robnett notes the idea of a woman changing her name when she marries a man is tied up in a lot of the romantic ideas we have about love and marriage, which can be hard to push back on. In many cases the decision to change a last name is viewed as a signal of "devotion and love for their spouse" as well as "a show of family unity," Robnett said.

But, she notes, the power of those ideas may be helping to maintain the stereotypes surrounding women who keep their last names and the stereotypes surrounding their husbands.

-- Perhaps the most salient reason for why women by and large change their last names upon marrying a man: It's what we're used to, according to Laurie Scheuble, a sociologist at Penn State University.

The tradition of women changing their last names to match their husbands' has its origins in the property transfer that took place upon marriage, Scheuble said. Essentially, women went from being part of their parents' family to becoming their husbands' property.

"Although we don't have that property aspect anymore, we still have this whole gendered notion that women somehow are obligated to take the last names of their husbands," she said. "It's turned over to normative tradition."

For the majority of boys and girls, the heterosexual couples they see have the same last name and so they don't imagine doing anything different, Scheuble said. That was the case for my fiancé, who says that before we started dating he assumed that if he married, his wife would take his last name. He adjusted pretty easily to the idea that I'd be keeping my name, but nonetheless, it wasn't what he'd grown up expecting.

My comfort in keeping my name may extend in part from having had the opposite experience. My mom kept her last name and, as it happens, so did most of the moms of my friends. And in my experience, many of the concerns that are often raised by the notion of a woman keeping her last name -- that the family wouldn't feel like a unit, that there would be challenges traveling or picking up kids from school, etc. -- never came to pass.

But for people whose mothers changed their names after marrying, it can be hard to convince them that there won't be challenges to having a partner with a different surname. Scheuble says she often talks with her college students about why they plan to change their names or expect their future wives to, and will play Devil's Advocate. For example, she may respond to concerns that everyone should have the same last name with a question about why it can't be the wife's, but it does little to change their minds.

"The big thing about marital naming is that women still take their husband's last name, that's a big thing," she said. "It's the last socially acceptable sexism."

-Jillian Berman; 415-439-6400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

12-03-17 2204ET

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