Women Are Still Being Judged for Not Taking Their Husbands' Last Names

Right now in the most of the developed world, it could be argued, women are considered about as "equal" to men as they have ever been. Yet there are deep, abiding problems that we're still working through.

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Right now in the most of the developed world, it could be argued, women are considered about as "equal" to men as they have ever been. And yet, countering any "We've come a long way, baby"-type sentiment you might cheer about (intelligence in a woman is now considered by men to be more important than being pleasant and a good housekeeper; France is doing away with the term "mademoiselle"), there are deep, abiding problems that we're still working through. Some, like birth control access, are matters of health and freedom, while others are more "semantic," though no less problematic.

A disturbing example of the latter is a recent study regarding attitudes about women changing, or not changing, their names after marriage, undertaken by Pennsylvania State University sociologists Laurie Scheuble and David Johnson. Given that most research into name-changing had focused on well-off liberal types living on the East Coast (New York Times wedding announcements have been one way to track this "rite of passage"), Scheuble and Johnson looked at data from two surveys, one from 1990 and the other from 2006, taken at an unidentified Midwestern university with approximately 1,000 students. The survey responses came from about 250 men and women each time. Additionally, the sociologists asked 369 students at Penn State if they planned to keep their own last names, and whether they thought lack of name-changing showed a lack of commitment.

In the 2006 survey, students were three times more likely to say that if a woman didn't take her husband's last name upon marriage, she was less committed to him and their future together. Predictably, these Midwestern women were also less likely than those at Penn State to say they wanted to keep their own names. What's weird is, this marked a change from how people answered the same question in 1990, when they responded more favorably to the concept:

In 1990, only 2.7 percent of students surveyed agreed with the statement that a woman keeping her name was less committed to her marriage. In 2006, that number jumped to 10.1 percent.

Yet it would seem clear that these students are wrong: Changing one's name has absolutely nothing to do with one's level of commitment to one's relationship. Take the fact that educated women, who are more likely to marry at a later age, also tend to have the must sustaining (and happiest) marriages. There are no ready statistics on how many of these women are actually keeping their names, but it's not much of a leap to assume that a woman is more likely to hang onto her own name after years of having it, establishing herself and her career under that "brand." (Which, it must be pointed out, likely came from her father.)

It's hard to know, though, whether this research indicates that attitudes about marriage are "becoming more conservative" among at least young Midwesterners, as the study suggests. Could something else be at work here? In fact, research indicates something like 90 percent or more of women do change their names (11.6 percent of East Coasters don't, compared to 4.3 percent of Midwesterners). Is that huge stat scary enough to make people think that women who don't change their names don't really want to be married at all?

Like views on name-changing, views about marriage vary widely depending on what part of the country you're in, with all involved becoming more rooted to what they think is right, or wrong. As conservatives get more conservative and liberals get more liberal, it's harder to find a middle-ground state of acceptance for everybody's opinion. Johnson explained of the 2006 data, "This might just be reflecting this increased polarization we're seeing in American society, and it's coming across in terms of family and gender values." Maybe, as not taking one's husband's name grows more acceptable in one part of the country, a backlash is simply inspired in other parts.

But, as one of those East Coasters, I'd argue that whether or not one takes a husband's name upon marriage is no big deal, really; everyone should do what they want, and may the best name win. Judging someone for doing whatever it is they decide to do for themselves is the problem. And the "woman on woman" judgment reflected by the survey answers makes that problem even worse.

Image by Shutterstock via Nito.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.