Despite its archaic origins, the question of whether or not a woman should take on her husband's last name remains relevant. Just ask any of your engaged friends. Researchers have found that more than 70 percent of US adults believe a woman should change her name, and approximately half felt that doing so should be required by law. A study, published in 2017 in Gender Issues, seeks to find out why this belief is so persistent.
"The most common reason (approximately 50 percent of the cases) given by individuals who advocated women's name change was the belief that women should prioritize their marriage and their family ahead of themselves," Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer, a sociology professor at Portland State University, notes in her study.
Shafer was interested in understanding how people perceived women based on their last name choice, and whether keeping one's maiden name could cause backlash. More than 1,200 people from a national sample participated in her survey. Respondents were introduced in a randomly assigned vignette to the fictional Carol Sherman, Carol Sherman-Cook, or Carol Cook, who is married to Bill Cook: "Carol has been spending a lot of extra hours at her office job hoping for a promotion. Bill is starting to feel burdened by her absence, as he is picking up her slack in housework." Respondents were then asked to rate how committed they thought Carol was to being a wife, and assess what standards they held her to. This was determined by answering how many days Carol's husband should be okay with her working late per week (zero to five) and rating how justified he would be in divorcing her.
Shafer notes that her results were surprising. "Among women and highly educated men, women's surname choice seems to have little effect on their perceptions of women as a wife or the standards to which she is held in marriage." Low-educated men, however, thought a woman who chose a different last name from her husband's was less committed to the marriage and that her husband would be more justified in filing for a divorce "for her perceived neglect of the marriage (as measured through repeated lateness)," she writes.
it's a reflection of our cultural views, that women should put their families ahead of themselves: a view that we don't have for men.
It's important to understand how people view marital name choices because those attitudes speak to gender attitudes in general, Shafer says. "On a larger level," she tells Broadly, "there is a body of literature that shows that when women act too agentic—which is to say they act too much like men in the workplace, they act in their own self-interest, if they're not warm, if they're good managers—they face backlash in the workplace context. My work shows that women can face backlash at home as well if they're not acting 'properly' as wives."
Moreover, woman's decision to take on her husband's surname is far more than simply a name change, Shafer points out. If that were the case, she says, "why don't we see even a sizeable minority of men changing their names to their wives'? We still see that it's the vast majority of women doing it… Clearly, it's a reflection of our cultural views, that women should put their families ahead of themselves: a view that we don't have for men."
When asked what it's going to take for women to be able to make their own choice—whether they have to do with surnames, reproductive rights, or what have you—without fear of backlash, Shafer says her "pessimistic answer is dismantling the patriarchy."
Until then, "there's great work that points to when it's economically beneficial to women to do things, then people start to accept it," she continues. "Most people accept that [women] can both work and be a good mom at the same time. That's because the vast majority of women do it now. Maybe it takes a certain amount of women to do a certain act before people start to accept it."
If more women simply kept their last names when they got married, Shafer adds, "people would see it as normalized."