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.