Seventy percent of Americans think it’s beneficial for women to take her husband’s last name when they marry, while half say the government should require women to change their names when they marry, according to a new survey by researchers from Indiana University and the University of Utah. Responses were immediate.
“What women’s lib?” asked a headline in the New York Daily News. “Taking away choice from something so wholly personal is quite another—and is one of those awful things that, like Michael Jackson’s death, is initially shocking—and then, after a moment’s depressed reflection, not at all,” wrote Jezebel.com.
But it’s dangerous to buy these headlines hook, line, and sinker because survey results like these are almost always more complicated than they seem. So before you schedule your move to Canada, let’s get one thing straight: Academic research on the topic of married names is limited, but it points to increasing use of and positive perceptions of nontraditional last names, NOT to scary scenarios like government mandated married names.
As a family naming consultant with a degree in psychology, I spent two years researching trends and attitudes about nontraditional last names. The Name Survey included data from 1000 respondents and—although not intended to be academic—I found attitudes about nontraditional last names to be overwhelmingly positive. In my survey, three out of four people thought using something besides just a man’s last name was a good idea.
A 2002 study conducted by researchers at Millikin University indicates that married men and women with hyphenated last names were perceived differently than other people—women with a hyphenated last name were perceived as more friendly, industrious and intellectually curious, while men with hyphenated last names were seem as accommodating, good-natured and committed to his marriage. A 2004 Harvard University study found that the number of college-educated women who kept their surnames upon marriage rose from about 3 percent in 1975 to nearly 20 percent in 2001. My 2006 Name Survey—which admittedly consisted of mostly college-educated Caucasian females—found as many as 25 percent of married women choosing something other than their husband’s last name.
Let’s go back to the Indiana-Utah study to see exactly why you can put away the suitcases. The 70 percent of Americans who agree it’s beneficial for women to take her husband’s last name, did so either somewhat or strongly. Those terms can mean very different things, especially if respondents assume that taking a husband’s name or keeping a maiden name are the only options. Furthermore, the word “beneficial” is misleading because many respondents may claim taking a husband’s last name is easier due to the logistical hassles that go along with bucking tradition. Many participants in The Name Survey claimed they had considered using a nontraditional last name but decided against it primarily because of those logistical difficulties.
While I have utmost respect for academic researchers, findings in a study like this are only one piece of the equation. I talk about last names every day on my blog, with Name Counsel clients, journalists, and even friends, and a government-mandated married name change hasn’t come up in any of my conversations. I don’t advocate for any specific choice, but rather for choice in general—and there are lots of choices. The most common ones keeping your last names or hyphenating. Other creative solutions include using the woman’s maiden name for the whole family or choosing a completely new last name of special significance.
So yes, these findings are significant in the strictest sense of the word “beneficial.” But fear not my friends; the government will not be getting in the middle of your naming business anytime soon.
By Kelly Utt-Grubb for YourTango