The XX Factor

[CORRECTED] Women Who Take Their Husband’s Name Perceived as Less Competent but More Caring

Correction, Jan. 18, 2014: This post was based on a Dutch study referenced in Daniel Luzer’s Pacific Standard piece. The study was retracted in 2012 and much of this post is therefore based on invalid information. The original post remains printed below.

The debate over whether women should take their husband’s names when they get married is one of the most tedious, go-nowhere fights in the world of feminism. Publicly suggesting that the tradition is, you know, sexist is a surefire way to bring a ton of defensive responses down on your head. The reasons women cite for changing their names are varied (though, anecdotally, “I didn’t like my last name” comes up a lot, causing one to wonder why only women have bad last names they’re eager to get rid of) and often have a protesting-too-much flavor for my taste, but you’ll pretty much never hear a woman say she changed her name for the traditional reason: to show to the world that her husband is the head honcho of the household. (I know, you changed it to have the same last name as your kids—but there is another way to have the same last name as your kids, just FYI.) Since participants in the tradition reliably deny that there’s a display of submission going on, the discourse usually peters out, with nothing getting accomplished.

Over at Pacific Standard, Daniel Luzer decided to wade into this contentious territory with an examination of the tradition, but with a twist: actual research. As expected, young married women today are much more likely to have kept their name than their grandmothers—a third of married women in their 20s kept their names, whereas only 9 percent of women in their 60s today have their birth name—and Luzer argues that this is more a reflection of younger women’s need to maintain professional identities than because of an ideological commitment to feminism. (Of course, that women have professional identities to maintain is a result of feminism.) But what really stands out is how changing your name (or not) impacts the way others see you.

In 2010, Dutch researchers thought to compare people’s perception of women who changed their names versus those who didn’t upon marriage, and found that the differences were stark. Luzer quotes the study:

A woman who took her partner’s name … was judged as more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, less competent, and less ambitious in comparison with a woman who kept her own name. A woman with her own name, on the other hand, was judged as less caring, more independent, more ambitious, more intelligent, and more competent.

While it’s tempting to chalk these perceptions up to baseless stereotypes, U.S. researchers in 2009 found that there’s a strong link between changing your name and adherence to other traditional gender role expectations. As Luzer says, “the older the bride, and the better her job, the more likely she is to keep her name.” (Millennials are more likely to wait until they’re older to get married than their grandmothers did, and the longer you wait, the more likely you are to keep your name.) Also, the more religious the bride, the more likely she was to change her name. While not all religions teach female submission—there was a lot of variety within the “religious” group depending on their religion—the fact that many religions do teach it likely explains the correlation. In other words, if people perceive women who don’t change their names as more independent, then that’s because, statistically speaking, they are. Of course, the American researchers couldn’t measure abstractions like how smart or caring you are, but the link between the name change and qualities like ambition and independence is sturdier.

The difference in perception matters on an individual level, as the Dutch researchers found that name-keepers are more likely to be hired for jobs and are hired at higher salaries. Much higher salaries, in fact, making nearly $500 a month more. 

Of course, women who don’t change their names are, while considered smarter and more independent, also considered less caring. That goes a long way toward explaining why some women continue to change their names and also why it’s so hard to have an honest discussion about it. The traditional female model for demonstrating affection for men has been to take a submissive role. The more egalitarian model of couplehood is still new and frankly experimental. Research shows, for instance, that while men deny that they feel threatened when their female partner excels, many of them subconsciously feel threatened. We may know intellectually that it’s deeply unfair to expect women to stifle their individuality in order to make their male partners feel good about themselves, but emotionally, the pressure to do so still exists.

As Luzer notes, the younger generations are more at ease with women not changing their name, suggesting that as each generation of men grows more accustomed to female power than the generation before, the subtle pressure on women to demonstrate their fealty by changing their name will lessen. In the meantime, however, it would be wise for women who are facing this decision to take that $500 extra a month into consideration before they make the leap. That number sounds like a nice bargaining chip with which to tip a reluctant husband into accepting your decision not to bother with the name change.