Name-changes, social science research, and USA Today.

I'm not a regular reader of USA Today, but Maria tweeted this story, and I feel like I need to say something about it or else risk leaving it rattling around in my head like marbles under a hubcap:

About 70% of Americans agree, either somewhat or strongly, that it's beneficial for women to take her husband's last name when they marry, while 29% say it's better for women to keep their own names, finds a study being presented today at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in San Francisco.

Researchers from Indiana University and the University of Utah asked about 815 people a combination of multiple choice and open-ended questions to come up with the findings.

Laura Hamilton, a sociology researcher at Indiana University and one of the study authors, says that while gender-neutral terms such as "chairperson" have become commonplace, the same logic hasn't carried over to name change.

"One of the most interesting things is that a lot of people assume that because language in general is gender-neutral, that name change would also be one of those things in which attitudes would be shifting towards being much more liberal," she says.

But she says some studies have found that younger women are as likely or more likely to change their name when they marry as their baby boom counterparts. "It's not a straight age trend."

Respondents who said that women should change their names tended to view it as important for establishing a marital and family identity, she says, while those who thought women should keep their own names focused on the importance of a woman establishing a professional or individual identity.

Hamilton says that about half of respondents went so far as to say that the government should mandate women to change their names when they marry, a finding she called "really interesting," considering typical attitudes towards government intervention. "Americans tend to be very cautious when it comes to state intervention in family life," she says.

Here, of course, I'm terribly curious about the composition of the group of 815 people surveyed. What was the gender balance of this group? What was the age range? How many of the respondents were married? Was this a standard round-up-some-college-students sample, or were the respondents drawn from the general population (and if so, how geographically heterogenous was that population)?

Also, although I'm pretty sure the researchers are smart enough not to make this mistake, I'm willing to bet money that there are readers of USA Today who are going to walk away from this article believing that the research shows that it is important that a woman take her husband's surname to establish marital and family identity. Of course, what it really shows is that a large number of the people surveyed in this study believe that a wifely name-change will confer these benefits.

And now I can't help but wonder what kind of research has been done on actual correlations between taking a spouse's name and family unity (how would you measure that empirically?), professional identity, and so forth -- or, for that matter, whether any such studies have been done looking at which of these observables might show a correlation with a husband changing his name upon marriage.

The 50% of respondents who think it ought to be the law that women change their names when they get married are a puzzle to me, given typical American antipathy to having the government run much of anything. I guess "big government" is only a problem in certain spheres (like health care). I'd be curious to hear a detailed explanation about what pressing public interest would be served in forcing someone who did not want to change her name when she got married.

Of course, as it turns out, the point of the research was not to establish what 815 people think about whether a woman ought to take her husband's surname. Rather, from what I can gather from the USA Today article, it was to find a reliable indicator of other attitudes that might be trickier to gauge directly in a survey:

[B]ecause name changing isn't a hot-button political issue, Hamilton says attitudes about names are a good predictor of how respondents feel about a host of other issues. For example those who believe women should change their names are also often more religious and more politically conservative.

"Because it's not politicized, people just answer the question without really thinking about it," she says. "It sort of taps into people's views about all kinds of things."

To me, the question of how to make reliable empirical measurements in social science research is way more interesting than the question of the opinions a relative handful of people have about the name-change question. I guess this is more evidence that I m not the sort of reader USA Today is most interesting in reaching.

More like this

"It's not politicized", Prof. Hamilton says, referring to changing one's name. Um, really?

Also: isn't the obvious solution to simply prevent people from getting married?

By philosoraptor (not verified) on 13 Aug 2009 #permalink

I hate the fact that I took my husband's name. But I hate even more what my father's name represents for me. I chose my husband but, of course, you can't choose your father. Looking back, I regret that I didn't have the sense to come up with a third alternative.

By Catharine (not verified) on 13 Aug 2009 #permalink

Two couples in my circuit of friends took the woman's name when they married, and one couple kept separate names. In both those cases the man's name was rather common and bland (you don't exactly stand out from the crowd in Sweden with a name like "Johansson") while the woman had an unusual family name. The couple that kept separate names did so because both are in a line of work where keeping your own name throughout your career is important (she's a researcher, for instance).

It's worth noting that here in Japan, which is a very conservative society regarding family matters, changing your name is more than a label; it determines whose household you belong to. Japanese couples must take the same name in other words, but even here you can choose whose name to take (who enters whose household). The by far most common case is the woman entering her husbands family's household and changing her name. But if she comes from a high-ranked family and he does not he may enter her household. Or if she is the last young member of her family he may enter her household so that the family name and line doesn't die out. Or she may be the inheritor of the family business and the couple wants to continue running it.

I would have liked to see the actual talk, I bet it was much less about attitudes towards a woman taking her husbands name and much more about establishing new methods in social sciences. Sigh.

By Psych PostDoc (not verified) on 13 Aug 2009 #permalink

When we first got married my wife kept her name. This was done in California, where we owned a house. In accordance with CA's Common Property marriage laws we added her name to the mortgage and property title. At which the IRS promptly sent her a tax demand for the value of the house treated as income. It took a little while, but we did finally convince them it was not income, merely that we had married, but had she taken my name this would not have happened.

Just a vignette of bureaucratic position on married naming.

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 13 Aug 2009 #permalink

I first encountered Mexico's system in 1969, when I was 14. There, the kids use both parent's names; the woman keeps a form of her maiden name. I kept my name because I *like* my last name. I thought that was what the 1960s were for--to free us from ridiculous conventions such as taking a man's name at marriage. But I frequently encounter teenagers who question this sort of freedom. For example, one young person at my high school encouraged me to wear makeup. I told her that I'd made a conscious decision *not* to wear makeup when I was 15, and I'd never found a good reason to change my mind. I made many such conscious decisions during adolescence--about being a vegetarian, about religion, about clothing--and I think it's in part because the world was turned topsy-turvy with the old rules thrown out so we *had* to rethink things for ourselves. I've encountered many people who are hostile to the idea that a female would keep her own name, although they begrudgingly accept "Ms." as a title.

When I was in college years ago, I waitressed at a place that wanted to serve the upper crust white business crowd, so I was instructed to give out a survey that included asking folks what brand of cigarettes they smoked. Because a persons socioeconomic status and race correlated to cigarette brand. I guess it can be useful to know if someone is conservative without asking them, too, but it seems devious to me, although not as purely unethical and horrible as guessing someone's race by their brand of cigarettes in order to avoid marketing to that person. I guess it depends what you want to do with the info.

"I guess "big government" is only a problem in certain spheres (like health care)"

"Big Government" is a problem when they are doing something you don't like. When it's something you do like - eg, dropping cluster bombs on brown-coloured civilians - it's peachy.

It's particularly fun to watch them in one breath howl about judicial activism, and in the next apply to the courts for redress against the government.

As to name changes - matrilineal names make oodles more sense. Heck - the woman usually keeps the kids after the divorce, so why not?

The answer to "how to make reliable empirical measurements in social science research" is simple: it's not possible (at least not consistently so); the variables are too complex, undefinable, imprecise, and interactive. Most of science deals in approximations, and social science in rough approximations of rough approximations.

@Paul Murray: lol.

hey, i wonder, if a GLB couple marries, do they keep their own names?

My husband is British, where the woman's last name changes automatically to her husband's when she marries. I am Quebecois, where it is illegal for a woman to take her husband's name. Children in Quebec may use either parent's surname.

Now, in Ontario, when people realise that we have different names, they assume we're not really married. It's farm country, I don't think feminism has really caught on here.

Jude @ 6

If kids get both names from their parents, how does one solve the exponential growth of surname length problem? I'm just curious - it always struck me as a nice but impractical method.

Mind you, I know someone who got his father's surname, and his mother's maiden name as a middle name. Of course, then the mother's name isn't passed on down the generations.

It is not true that in the UK a married woman's name automatically changes to that of her husband. The marriage certificate is legally sufficient for a name change should the woman chose to change her name, but if you want to change you have to provide evidence and fill in forms for new passport, bankcards etc, whereas if you do nothing you retain your previous name. I think the marriage certificate is also legally sufficient for the husband to change his name should he chose to do so, but I'm not sure.

I did not change my surname, because I like the one I have. We don't believe in double-barrelling, so our children will take my husband's surname because my brother already has a child with his (and my) surname.

I'm 35 and I would say of my friends who have married about half have kept there own names and have half have changed them. Other than a handful of cases where the woman's original name belonged to a father that she serious issues with, I would say that the decision to change or not change was mostly related to profession and the importance of publishing within that profession.

Women in fields where publishing was very important seem to have kept there own names. Women in fields where publishing was not very important seem more likely to change their names.

I'm kind unsure about what I would do if the boyfriend and I ever get married. On the one hand it would be a huge amount of paperwork change my name. On the other hand, I like having an identity as a family. Since, I'm a civil servant and I work at government agency where my written work is tied to my name for public consumption, professional it only matters that nine people can remember that I changed my name, the next time they meet to discuss promotions. At least one of the would be able to say "remember she got married last year, she used to be called X."

All of these women come down left of center on social issues so I can't imagine that finding out if they changed their name or not would predict much more about them than being in publishing occupation vs a non-publishing occupation.

In my ideal world, I would be able to be Ms. Original Name professionally, and Ms. Husband's Name personally. However, that would mean that I would not have legal identification that matched one identity, which at least in DC we live to ask for ID, is a problem.

By katydid13 (not verified) on 17 Aug 2009 #permalink

I recently polled my boyfriend for his views on this subject (it came up). He expressed these opinions:

-Having the same last name (both parents and kids) is important to establish family identity and teamwork.

-If the couple doesn't share the same last name, there could be problems with inheritance, social security, joint property ownership, and so on.

The first is a pretty reasonable point, but it's astounding that there are men and women out there who think that if the wife doesn't change her name, then the couple isn't "really" married in the eyes of the law.

"If kids get both names from their parents, how does one solve the exponential growth of surname length problem? I'm just curious - it always struck me as a nice but impractical method."

For heterosexual parents and children, the children could retain their same-sex parent's name and replace their opposite-sex parent's name with that of their spouse. Thus, men would have a heritable patronymic that identifies their patrilineality, women would have a corresponding matronymic matrilinearity.

I never found a good solution for same-sex parents and children.

I was married in the early 90s and this was the system I proposed to my spouse. We hyphenated our names together and we both used the new hyphenated name on a daily basis (I suspect many men who hyphenate their names with their spouse do not do so.)

Interestingly, a close friend and her husband also hyphenated their names at that time. They are both physicians. I strongly suspect they are no longer using their hyphenated names, but I could be wrong.

I've only heard of one other person who came up with the same long-term solution to the problem as I.

My impression is that the mid-90s were the cultural American high water mark for hyphenated names. It's also my impression that women who've come of age since then are, on average, more regressive with regard to sexism (though unevenly so).

I love the Latin American example of naming traditions, and will follow it in my family. I added my husband's name to my father's last name, and our kids will have both of our last names. They can choose to use just their dad's or both. When they marry (normally when a daughter marries), they can drop my name and add their spouse's.

It's not that complicated and because it's traditional, you know what to expect. I love honoring both our family's, I can't imagine my children not having my last name, plus I love confusing the gringos a little bit!

By Jennifer P (not verified) on 26 Oct 2009 #permalink