Prepare for the longest post in history!
Some years ago, before I got married, I was conflicted by something that many people do not even question. After I had decided to marry the man who is now my ex-husband, I had a conversation with him about retaining my surname after marriage as opposed to taking his last name. This discussion caused a huge conflict. It wasn’t so much a conflict with him, but with his family members and even a few of mine.
The result was that, although I was in serious reluctance, I went ahead and conformed to the societal expectations as well as the expectations of certain family members, and took his last name after we married. I was left with some level of resentment afterwards and because of that I administered and performed a sociological study on this topic.
Have you ever wondered how this “tradition” began or why we continue to follow it? If you have, this will answer those questions.
Modern Society’s View on Women’s Naming Choice: Why I do or do not?
The tradition of women adopting their husband’s surname after marriage began during a time when women were viewed as the property of a man, their husband, who was the head of household. Society has endured dramatic progress in the women’s movement for equal rights and research of naming trends has continued to fluctuate. Research has shown naming choice is dependent on age, education level and having children. My survey questionnaire was an attempt to find the reasons people in today’s society continue to follow this tradition and their knowledge of how the tradition began. The results I obtained show that the majority of those surveyed do not know the history behind a woman taking her husband’s surname, but still believe in and partake in this tradition. It would be interesting to conduct this research on a national level and expand the questionnaire/survey began by adding more specific questions in an attempt to discover specific variables pertinent to the continuance of this tradition.
HISTORY OF THE NAME
In England, before the 10th century, people were only identified by their first names, which were Christian names such as Matthew, Peter and John. Last names, otherwise identified as birth names or surnames, were created by the description of a person’s trade or who their father was. For example, the article, “A Woman’s Freedom to Choose her surname: Is it Really a Matter of Choice?”, written by Esther Suarez, states the following, “Surnames arose as descriptive terms. Thus, Benjamin, son of Peter would be called Benjamin Peterson, Matthew the Blacksmith became Matthew Blacksmith. And John, who lived in or near a manor house, was “John Hall” (1997). The tradition spread, making it common practice during the 13th and 14th century in England for married women to take their father’s surnames. However, after certain laws were put in place that viewed husband and wife as being one person, women were then expected to take their husband’s last name. These laws addressed men as head of household and provided them with primary ownership of property obtained before and throughout his marriage.
Before the 1800’s, in the United States, all possessions a woman had previous to a marriage became her husband’s upon marriage. The journal of Women and Language v.28 (no. 2);1-11 includes a study titled: “Women and Surnames Across Cultures: Reconstituting Identity in Marriage”, written by Diana Boxer and Elena Gritsenko states the following:
“Women themselves were clearly seen as property, just as slaves were in that era. Obviously, both groups took on the surname of the head of household to which they became attached” (2005). “Married Women’s Property Acts” were later passed in the mid-19th century in many states that gave women the right to retain property held before marriage (Boxer and Gritsenko 2005).
An early women’s rights advocate named Elizabeth Cady Stanton, became one of the first women to consider the right to retain one’s birth surname. Despite how unusual this was at this point in history, Elizabeth kept her birth surname as a middle name after marrying her husband, Henry Stanton.
Although there are not many records of marital naming selection in the United States dating back as far as the 1800s, we do know that despite society’s expectation that a woman will adopt her husband’s name after marriage, there was at least one woman on record who did not. In the year 1855 Lucy Stone, an antislavery and female suffrage crusader, married and became the first known woman in the United States to retain her surname (Goldin and Shim 2004).
Women have been expected to take their husband’s surname after marriage since before the 19th century. The act of women adopting their husband’s surname began for reasons many in today’s society are completely unaware of. What some may wonder is why society still holds the overall expectation of this practice and also, for what reason is this practice still being carried out?
Previous research has found that the majority of women who opt to keep their surnames after marriage can be categorized into specific groups. Society’s attempt at equality for women, which was most apparent in the 1970s, has caused changes in this practice, leaving many to wonder how family members may be affected by a woman’s choice of her last name. Furthermore, for what reasons are the majority of women in today’s society, including feminists, still adopting their husband’s surname after marriage?
A research study performed by Diana Boxer and Elana Gritsenko from the Academic Journal Women and Language titled, “Women and Surnames Across Cultures: Reconstituting Identity in Marriage”, is an analysis of how women in the United States and Russia compare when facing the surname issue after marrying. This article uses an analysis from the perspective views of cultural anthropological linguistics.
To come up with the quantitative data for this study, Boxer and Gritsenko surveyed 174 women in the US and 103 women in Russia who were located in different regions, had various education levels, and were of multiple age groups. The questionnaire type distributed included written comments with the rest of their data being obtained from oral interviews. What the survey results showed in relation to reasons why women were continuing the tradition was that it was done more so to gain a sense of unity as a family, and also as a sign of commitment to their husbands and families. The results also showed that women with children tend to keep their husband’s surname after divorce. Women with higher levels of education were more likely to retain their birth surname, usually for professional reasons (Boxer and Gritsenko 1995). Boxer and Gritsenko label this as “professional identity”.
It is interesting to find that most women’s choices in Russia were based on tradition, as opposed to a woman’s personal choice or preference. Another interesting result obtained through this study is that 12% of those surveyed said they didn’t even think about the option of keeping their own last names after marriage because they feel that women are simply supposed to take their husband’s name. In other words, these women did not even consider what they may prefer at all. They simply did what was expected of them. This study also portrayed a similar trend that can be seen in many other research articles pertaining to this topic, which is the notion that woman’s education level plays a huge role in her choice to retain her own surname after marriage.
It appears that women who are more accomplished in education, and in their professional lives, make up the highest percentage within the group of women who opt to keep their own surnames after marriage. This trend can be seen in nearly all of the research studies related to this topic. Laurie K. Scheuble and David R. Johnson (2005) performed a study titled, “Married Women’s Situational Use of Last Names: An Empirical Study”, which was published in the Academic Journal Sex Roles, Vol. 53, Nos. 1/2, July 2005, which basically discusses the trends in naming choice in relation to specific situations.
This study found that much of the reasoning behind situational last name use is derived from an identity conflict within that person and society’s expectations of gender roles. For example, women who chose to keep their surnames after marriage would end up addressing themselves by their husband’s surname when they were speaking to their children’s teachers or their husband’s family, but would then address themselves as their own surnames at work and with their own families.
The means of distribution for this survey was via mail and went out to 600 married women: With 388 of them already having a name that was not the same as their husband’s last name. An interesting result obtained by this study was that the women who interchanged how they addressed themselves in specific social situations the most, were those with hyphenated names.
It could be said that the choice to hyphenate one’s own surname with that of their husband’s surname, is a way of compromising one’s own identity with society’s gender role expectations. With a hyphenated name, a woman can still retain her own identity around certain groups in her life and address herself as her husband’s last name in other situations. Many of these women did so because it seemed easier for them to go along with that expectation.
Once again, society’s expectation that women should adopt her husband’s last name upon marriage has clearly developed into what most perceive as “tradition”, or more specifically, “gender role tradition”. A study performed on a two-generational, national level, was performed by David R. Johnson and Laurie K. Schebule as well, to see if generational influence affected naming choice at all. This study titled, “Women’s Marital Naming in Two Generations: A National Study”, published in the Journal of Marriage & Family 57.3 (1995): 724-732, surveyed 929 married persons and 180 of those married persons grown children.
The results of the study, as with many other similar studies in pertinence to this topic, confirmed that most women end up taking their husband’s last name upon marriage; In fact, only 1.4% of the main group surveyed didn’t use a conventional last name. There was a shift in their children’s generation though, because that number increased to 4.7% of the offspring group who chose to retain their surnames.
One important bit of information acquired through this study is that although there was a slight increase of women retaining their birth names upon marriage, between these two generations, 95 out of 100 people in recent society is still following the tradition. Another important result obtained from this particular study was that there does seem to be a correlation between the naming choices a daughter makes based on her mother’s choice. Johnson and Schebule found that it was 5 1/2 times more likely for daughters to choose nontraditional names if their mothers had chosen nontraditional names. What some may wonder is whether or not the majority of mothers studied had grown up in the 1970s, during the struggle for women’s rights, and if that had any affect on those that chose the non-conventional names.
In regards to non-conventional naming choices, it seems likely that because the number of college graduate women has increased over the past 30 years, that would then cause the number of women who opt to keep their surnames to increase as well. After all, data collected from every research study pertaining to the retention of surnames after marriage clearly shows that education level plays a huge role in this decision.
To get an idea of the fraction of women who retained their surnames and the reasons behind that retention, Claudia Goldin and Maria Shim (2004) performed a study titled, “Making a Name: Women’s Surnames at Marriage and Beyond”, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives 18.2 (2004): 143-160. The means of researching this were obtained through comparing patterns of surname retention between three sources. The New York Times wedding announcements, Harvard Alumni records, and Massachusetts birth records.
Their research found that there was a rise in name retention by U.S. college graduate women. The retention rate rose from 2 to 4 percent during the mid 1970s and by 2001, it had increased to a tad fewer than 20%. It appears that despite the boom of name retention that occurred during the 1970s and 1980s, that many women had reverted back to tradition, and the number of retainers has tapered down or remained within a common percentage range over recent years. One common factor throughout all of this data, in comparison to other research, is that women who retain their surnames after marriage, also addressed as “keepers”, by Goldin and Shim, mainly consisted of the Harvard Alumni.
It is interesting to see that although laws have changed to verify that women have the right to choose their last name after marriage, that most have continued to adopt their husband’s surnames anyway. Goldin and Shim explain that although tradition plays a huge role in the decision, there were other laws that made it hard for a woman who kept her surname in the 1970s.
An interesting fact that is seemingly unknown to many people in today’s society, is that there has never been a law in any state within this nation, that specifically states that women have to take their husband’s last name upon marriage. The assumption that women should and will take her husband’s surname upon marriage became the expectation, and society created laws that made it hard for women who opted to retain her surname.
Esther Suarez wrote an article published in the Journal Women’s Rights Law Reporter Vol. 18 no. 2, (1997) titled, “A Woman’s Freedom to Choose Her Surname: Is it Really a Matter of Choice? In this article she states:
“In the eyes of the common law, a husband and wife become one unit upon marriage, and that unit is given only to the husband’s identity…In the past, women have been denied that right based on a court’s determination that it was not in the best interests of their children.”
In today’s society, women do not have to request a change of name after divorce through the court system, but there still exist laws that make the process of name changing difficult. After marriage and taking her husband’s surname, a woman signs a certificate to establish her name change, then she has to take that marriage certificate to the social security office to request a new social security card, and to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to request a new driver’s license or state issued identification card with her new last name. A woman also has to notify the Internal Revenue Service of this change (Suarez 1997).
Among many other changes, if a woman has bills in her name or credit cards, she also has to call those companies to have her name changed, of which, are usually companies that require proof of identity to make such changes. Another potential problem, is that once a woman is married and has her husband’s surname, anything she and her husband acquires to establish credit, will only be recorded under his record of credit history, unless they specifically add her name to everything.
Basically, a woman has to deal with a lot of different companies for a process that should be quite simple, being as it is also highly expected in society. The fact of the matter is, that despite the hassle women endure to adopt their husband’s surname upon marriage, the expectation to do so is so powerful, the majority of women still choose to do it anyway.
Suarez states that a woman loses herself when she changes her last name. “Her maiden name is the name that has identified her up to the point of marriage. Research has suggested that we do tend to relate an identity of ourselves with our name. Or, in other words, our identities become strongly associated with our names.
Judy Jones (1991), a reporter for The Independent Newspaper London, wrote an article on December 18, 1991 about the correlation of child naming choice and adult sex roles. This article is titled, “Girls names shape adult sex roles: The annual conference of British Psychological Society opened at the City University in London yesterday”. Although this study did not pertain specifically to surname choices after marriage, it does pertain to naming choices in general, and the effect the choice of names seems to have on adult gender roles. What Jones reported was based on a research study performed by psychologists Carol Johnson and Helen Petrie, who distributed questionnaires to 255 students at the University of Sussex. The results obtained from this study suggest that women’s personalities are, in fact, affected by even their first names. This is because there are differences in how society perceives certain names.
Some names are considered more masculine, some more feminine, as some are even considered unisex names that can be used for either gender. This can be seen even in baby name books. In almost all of the baby naming books available for sale in the United States, first names are grouped into sections by feminine names, masculine names and unisex names. The results suggest that women with more feminine names are perceived as more feminine by society, or are at least expected to act more feminine. The women with names that could go either way (male or female), tend to have more masculine gender role traits than those with highly feminine names. It is very interesting to see how research suggests that even a first name can affect the way a woman is perceived in regards to society’s expectations of gender roles.
With regards to society’s perception of names pertinent to gender role expectation, many may wonder how the women in today’s society who opt to keep their surname upon marriage are perceived by others. Furthermore, although it is even more unusual for a man to take on a hyphenated name upon marriage, there are those in today’s society who do so. It would be interesting to know how those men are perceived by society as well.
A study titled, Perceptions of Married Women and Married Men with Hyphenated Surnames, published in the Journal titled Sex Roles vol. 46, p. 5-6, was conducted by Gordon B. Forbes, Leah E. Adams-Curtis, Kay B. White and Nicole R. Hamm as an attempt to find out if and how married men and women with hyphenated names are perceived differently by those in society.
They surveyed 197 middle-class college students by way of a questionnaire that focused on personal character attributes or qualities, and contained questions that used descriptive words, such as masculine and feminine. The results obtained by this study found that the majority of students surveyed perceive married persons, male or female, with hyphenated names as being better people in general, since they scored them high in positive marital attributes and personality attributes.
If this can be said to be the general consensus of how those with hyphenated last names are perceived in recent society, why then are there still so many women adhering to the expectation or tradition of adopting their husband’s surname upon marriage? If so many in society associate positive character traits to those who choose non-traditional names, such as hyphenated names, why aren’t the majority of them doing the same? These questions, among others similar to it, are the basis for my own research study based on this topic.
MY METHODS AND RESULTS
I conducted a research study using a questionnaire with 10 statements that could be answered by level of agreeableness or disagreeableness; 0 meaning the participant strongly disagrees with the statement and 10 meaning the participant strongly agrees with the statement. Section 2 of the questionnaire included five yes or no questions. The participants I surveyed are all people I know, and are within an age range of 21-63 years of age, are a variety of race and ethnic backgrounds, and have various levels of education. There are fourteen total participants, of which an equal ratio of male to female participants were surveyed; 7 male and 7 female.
The statement section of the survey contains questions that ask for the level to which the participant believes in the tradition of a woman taking her husband’s surname, how the participant views women who opt to retain their surname, how strongly the participant believes in children taking their father’s surname, the level at which they believe or disbelieve a man’s name is more important than a woman’s name, and the level at which they feel a husband’s feelings should be considered in a woman’s naming choice.
I included these particular statements because I wanted to see if there was any relation between the level of traditionalism and how the participants viewed or perceived those who are more unconventional.
Previous research done regarding this topic suggests that women who chose unconventional last names could be perceived as being less serious about their marriage, disrespectful and less committed. My results showed the opposite of that perception. Although these participants were generally more conventional in naming choice, they do not feel women who opt to keep their surnames are less committed and do not believe those marriages would be any more likely to end in divorce.
I selected statements that were intended to make the participant delve deeper into the topic, in an attempt to get the truest answers. I achieved this by being particular about the order of the questions and by including one common question, multiple times with a bold face word that distinguished the statements meaning. I wanted to see if the level of agreeableness or disagreeableness fluctuated at all as the statements became more direct and intense. For the most part, the answers stayed within a consistent range, but I did see some fluctuation of a point or two as the survey progressed.
Before I conducted the survey, I had the notion that most of the younger generation, those in their 20s and 30s, was likely to have less traditional views on the subject, and that the older generation would be strictly traditional in their answers. This is an assumption I made based on the research I had read previous to the survey. What I found was that the majority of the participants, including the youngest ones, were more traditional than I suspected.
In fact, the youngest participant surveyed was 21 years of age and scored with high agreeableness to the majority of the statements pertaining to the belief that a woman should take her husband’s last name. This participant also agreed more than any other participant on the statement that said that a man’s last name is more important than a woman’s last name, and that the statement claiming that it is disrespectful to a man and his family when his new wife chooses not to take his last name.
She verbally mentioned after answering these statements that she felt that since a man cannot experience pregnancy or childbirth, which creates a type of natural bond between mother and child, then it is only fair that the father should at least be able to give his children his last name as a means to create a bond between father and child.
At first I thought this reasoning was unusual, since I have not seen it in any of the research I have read. Then I realized it was similar in some ways. What I did gather from other research conducted on this subject, was that many women chose to adopt their husband’s surname upon marriage because they saw it as the means of showing they care about a man’s feelings, and that it shows her level of commitment to him and their family. If the man felt strongly about wife and children taking his name, then she felt it was only right to do so. The woman is usually the one willing to make the change because women are the ones expected to do so by society.
The oldest participant, who was 63 years old, yielded similar results to the youngest participant, excluding the fact that he didn’t relate disrespect or level of commitment to women who opt out of taking their husband’s last name upon marriage. The youngest participants answers actually suggest she is seemingly, more traditional and conventional than even the oldest participant in the study. That was something I did not expect to see.
It was surprising to me that of the 14 participants surveyed, only three of them answered in a way that suggests that they are overall, less conventional than the rest of the participants. Since I know these three people personally, I know that two of them are women in their late 20’s, the third is a male in his mid 30’s and that all three of these participants are college-educated. It’s interesting to see this because although my research study was performed on a much smaller scale than those of which I had read about, I could see that education level truly does seem to play a role in the process of naming choices, and the overall idea of traditionalism in general.
The results of this survey also suggests that despite the fact that the general consensus of the participants did not feel a man’s last name was more important than a woman’s last name, did not feel it was disrespectful to a man or his family for women to keep her name, and did not perceive women who keep their name as less committed or feel those marriages were less likely to last, most of them still felt a woman should take her husband’s surname upon marriage. This is why I included the yes or no section in the questionnaire.
The yes or no questions were more direct and intended for the purpose of just that; obtaining a direct yes or no answer without the option of playing it safe. I wanted to find out why the majority of people in today’s society, including the participants of my study, still choose to follow society’s expectation that a woman will take her husband’s last name upon marriage. This section of questions also left room for me to have a bit of an oral discussion with the participants regarding reasons behind their answers. What made that easy was the fact that all 14 of the participants willingly explained their reasons to me without even being asked to.
The first question in this section is the “kicker”, meaning it kick-starts the mind and leaves people wondering, “Hey, why am I following this tradition?” Question one sounds simple but is, in actuality, a huge question:
Do you know the history of why women started taking their husband’s last names after marriage?
Most would think that since the good people of this country have been following this tradition for centuries that they would have some type of knowledge as to why they do it, but the interesting thing I found from this study is that the majority of those surveyed have absolutely no idea how it began. More specifically, only 5 participants answered yes to this question, but I only account for 4 being correct in their answer. The 5th participant gave an answer that was not completely accurate by stating that the tradition began based on biblical reasons since man is stated as head of household in the Bible.
The other participants who did not know were curious for information after being asked that question. Now, all of a sudden, they wanted to know why this practice started. Because of this I verbally told them the history behind this tradition and continued to the next question, which is number 4 that asks whether or not they believe a woman should take her husband’s last name after marriage.
At this point in the study the participants know the history behind it all so I suspected their feelings regarding this question may change, even if I had asked it 2 different times already. The results overall show that knowing the history didn’t matter as much as I suspected it would. People still felt it was still tradition and is still expected by society and verbally expressed this to me by saying things such as, ” Oh well, that’s not the reason we do it now, I do it because that’s how it’s supposed to be and that’s how it’s been.” One of the participants even stated that she could not think of a single woman, even women she knew at work, who didn’t take her husband’s last name after marriage.
Lastly, the question pertaining to life being easier when all members of a family share the same last name yielded interesting results as well. The majority of those surveyed said it does make life easier. Their examples were for doctors visits, school records, and also to show the extent to which a person is related to one another. Those that said it did not make life any easier expressed that there are so many children born out-of-wedlock or who have divorced parents now, that it really doesn’t matter whether you share a common name anymore.
They feel society has changed in regards to divorce and an increase of single mothers with children, that sharing a common name with your child should not be the reason a woman takes her husband’s last name or gives her children their father’s last name. The oral discussion consensus was basically wrapped around the idea that society expects this from women, most husbands expect this of their wife, and that they do not see this practice as a sign of inequality. They instead, simply do what they’re expected to do because it seems easier to do so and, because it’s an expected tradition.
Summary and Reflection
A historical society established man as head of household and his surname was used to represent his authority over family and property. Despite the fact that women are still, in many ways, struggling to gain equality in a society that has seemingly preferred men over women for centuries, the increase in the number of women choosing to retain their surname after marriage in the 1970s appears to be coming to a standstill.
With research suggesting that a mere 20% of American women in today’s society are retaining their surnames upon marriage (Goldin and Shim 2004) it’s safe to assume that it can only mean that the vast majority of them are continuing the tradition that began from and continues to be a societal expectation. A similar trend can be seen from the results I obtained from my own study.
It could be that most women just don’t perceive the name change as a sign of inequality. The research I reviewed, as well as the study I conducted, suggests this theory may be a logical possibility. Many women view the act of taking their husband’s name as a sign of commitment, as a representation of closeness or unity, and largely because they have or plan on having children who have or will have their husband’s last name.
I used much of what I learned from the research articles and studies I read to come up with some of the questions and statements made in my own study. I felt it was interesting to use the data and information collected from previous research in an attempt to get reasons for why those particular results or trends occur, and also to see if I would gain similar results on a smaller scale.
For example, much other research suggests that women feel it is easier when a family shares the same last name, so I asked this question at the end of my survey. The majority of the participants in my study answered yes to this question. Many of them expressed orally, that without a doubt, it is much easier when all members of a family share the same last name.
One of the participants works in a dental office and said the reason she answered yes to this question is because she knows how complicating it is to search for records of someone who has a hyphenated name or children with names that didn’t match the insurance policy holders name.
Another participant, who is unmarried with three children, stated that she knows it makes life more difficult when mother and child have different last names because her children ask her all the time why her name is different from their father’s name and their own last names.
What I really felt was interesting about the entire project was the fact that only three of the 14 people I surveyed knew the history of women taking a man’s surname upon marriage, yet the majority of them still strongly believe and partake in this tradition.
This is an important sociological topic because society created the expectation that women should take their husband’s surname upon marriage, which arose from gender inequality and helped to form gender role establishment. Despite changes in laws, this tradition based on a society created expectation is still prominent in today’s society.
Even after women have fought and continue fighting for equality, many of us still simply adhere to what is expected of our gender role. It seems clear that a changing society in which there is an increased number of children born out-of-wedlock, an increased number of divorces, and more women who have built a name for themselves in the professional world, has created a sense of gender role confusion for some.
For others, following the tradition of adopting a man’s surname after marriage, and giving that name to any children fathered by that man, is perceived as the easiest option. What is most interesting to me is that a woman truly believes that it’s easier to change her name, considering the fact that upon taking her husband’s name, she has to drop her name and follow a list of procedures with several different state and government agencies, as well as credit agencies, among others, to establish her new identity.
This is probably the longest post in the history of blogging, but my research and the study I did deserved no less. I hope some of you learned something new. Pretty interesting that this tradition has carried on this long, despite knowledge or lack of knowledge as to why it began in the first place.