How much for your surname?

What assumptions do you make about a woman when you hear that she has changed her surname after getting married? And what assumptions do you make about her when you hear she kept her surname after getting married? Do you think those assumptions would affect her success in getting a job? On her eventual income?

What’s in a Name? The Effects of Marital Name Change is an interesting recent study from the Netherlands that shows that we do indeed make judgements about women according to whether they change or keep their name after getting married (to a man). (Well, I guess a big duh! from all of us who have ever participated in a bitter debate about the topic on a feminist blog).

Essentially, the study found that when we learn a woman has changed her surname after marriage (henceforth to be known as name-changers) it becomes a trigger for female stereotypes, and consequently on this basis she will be seen as more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, more communal and a little less competent than other women who kept their name after marrying (henceforth to be known as name-keepers). Additionally, name-keepers were seen as more independent, more ambitious and more intelligent than their name-changing colleagues. Basically, they were seen as being more like men.

So what happens when these women apply for a job? Women with more stereotypical female features, like having your partner’s surname are likely to be judged more in accordance with the female stereotype, which surprise, surprise is not such a good thing when you’re going for a job in a patriarchal world. These judgements would make it less likely the name-changer would be hired. The study also found that people’s judgements included assuming that the name-changer would earn considerably less than her name-keeper colleague for the same job. And I do mean considerably less. For example if the name-changer’s monthly salary was AU$ 3100 her name-keeper colleague was perceived to be worth AU$4,300 for the same job. (Or US$2800 compared to US$3900).

Interestingly, women with hyphenated surnames (their original surname and their husband’s) were also judged more in accordance with female stereotypes even though they themselves were likely to see their surname choice as non-traditional – and in reality were found to have more feminist attitudes and higher personal agency scores than name-changers making them pretty close in attitude to name-keepers. (In part these results may reflect Dutch-specific attitudes where hyphenating is still associated with quite a traditional approach to marital identity whereas in other Western countries hyphenating might be a more radical choice after marriage).

All the same, surname changing is set to continue. Another study conducted by the same authors found that more than 80% of female university students in the Netherlands said they intended to change their name upon marrying. And when you consider that higher education levels are associated with name-keeping that is a pretty high number for that particular sample group. And a similar number of male university students hoped their future wife would change their surname to that of their husband’s. Why do women change their name? Studies have found that it is mainly on account of tradition, family unity and social norms, while women who keep their name or who hyphenated it with their husband’s have been found to do so because they feel their name is part of their identity.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, relationships, work and family

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23 replies

  1. Sadly, these results don’t surprise me much…
    On a different note though, I’d be very interested to see where a couple like my husband and I would fit into public perception – he changed his name to mine when we got married… I suspect most people would just be too blown away by the idea to have much preconception attached to that situation though.

  2. Whoa. I changed my name to become more anonymous (I’m related to all 50 people with my original last name), and because my original last name was one where no one who only saw it written could pronounce it, and no one who only heard it could spell it.
    Now, as I become less enamored of anonymity, I regret that decision.
    .-= liz´s last blog ..VOTE TODAY!!!! =-.

  3. I changed my name because I didn’t want to be forever reminded of my family of origin, or to be more specific, my abuser. Before I ever thought I was going to be married, I entertained the notion of changing my name legally to my mother’s original last name when I turned 18, but even that would be buying into the patriarchy, since it was *her* father’s name. Sigh.

  4. I’m confused — how would an employer know whether or not the name I had was mine at birth unless we had gotten to the point of a background check, at which point the judgments they may or may not have are not as relevant as in a first interview?
    I wonder what, if someone can adequately explain the above, interviewers think of men who hyphenated their names, as my husband did.

  5. First, a short detour into advocacy: the rise of widely read online commentary on scientific results like Hoyden does makes the practice of publishing science for profit (for the publisher’s profit usually, not the researcher’s, the peer reviewers’ or even the editor’s, all of whom are normally doing it as part of their salaried job) extra bad. Roll on widespread open access.
    That rant done, I downloaded the full article via my university and here’s the answer to Emily WK’s question:

    STUDY 4
    In Study 4, we tested if these stereotypical judgments [sic] have more practical consequences… When women with their partner’s name are judged more in accordance with the female stereotype, this can have negative consequences for the chances that she will be hired for a job and estimates for her salary as compared to women who keep their own name.
    Fifty Dutch students (30 female, 20 male; M age = 20.2, SD age = 1.8) were randomly assigned to one of two conditions (partner’s name, own name).
    The task for the participants was to judge an applicant for the position of Human Resource Manager, based on an e-mail… Participants received an e-mail text in which information about a female candidate was given… Besides the message from the candidate, the e-mail also contained a memo. This memo showed information about the candidate, for example, the name and the civil state of the applicant [civil state here including such things as birth name, marital status, and birth and present name of spouse]… After participants examined the e-mail, they were asked to judge the candidate… to estimate her potential salary (open question, net per month).

    Note that the parts I’ve elided are specific details of the setup and are relevant to judging the methodology, I’ve just removed them so as to answer the question without setting a local record in quote length.

  6. Thanks Mary for responding to Emily WK’s question.

  7. Looks like I’m keeping my father’s last name then. Or at least changing it to something completely different independantly of when I get married.

  8. I hope I didn’t overplay the job discrimination aspect of this study because I didn’t intend to – the researchers acknowledge the limitations of this part of their conclusions in the paper and I agree with them – eg. the participants in the experiment did not have actual HR experience in recruitment.
    Basically the study is showing that name-changing triggers a female stereotype and that in lots of situations this will be to the disadvantage of that woman. Of course, there are plenty of other paths to gender discrimination besides name-changing, as we all well know.

  9. Looks like I’m keeping my father’s last name then.
    I mentioned this over at Bluemilk but I think that’s an oversimplification. It isn’t JUST my father’s surname. My name exists as a whole and as a whole I am keeping it. The reason I kept it is because as a whole it’s mine, my relationship with my father was not part of it. If I were to erase all vestiges of my father from my name I’d be left with my middle name (I was named after his mother). It isn’t just about where my name comes from – it’s about what I’ve got published under my name, it’s about the degrees under my name, it’s about my comfort with my name. Dismissing all that as ‘keeping my father’s surname’ misses the point and trivialises the decision.

  10. I hear what you’re saying there geek anachronism and that’s the part of the decision I struggle with. Because while it is the name I’ve published, given birth, and obtained a degree with, it overwhelmingly reminds *me* of my father’s side of the family, a rough, nasty, judgmental group of people who were at pains to ensure I didn’t think anything particularly good of myself. So I am then caught: on the one hand it’s mine. On the other, it’s mine simply by default societal tradition and certainly carries baggage. Sometimes I toy with dropping the surname and just having my middle name as my surname. It sounds quite good, quite strong (it’s my mother’s middle name). But then I break with the 33 years in which this *has* been my surname.
    .-= fuckpoliteness´s last blog ..Skinny jeans…is dack an emo for rape awareness taking it too far? =-.

  11. Because while it is the name I’ve published, given birth, and obtained a degree with, it overwhelmingly reminds *me* of my father’s side of the family, a rough, nasty, judgmental group of people who were at pains to ensure I didn’t think anything particularly good of myself.
    Yeah, that’s the other side of it – I don’t have an overly antagonistic relationship with my father’s family, or my father for the most part, so that negative association isn’t there for me. There’s isn’t a positive one either, just that this is my name and I see no reason to change it and no reason to call it anything my my name. So I understand the impetus to change your name, I just dislike the rhetoric of ‘well, it’s all patriarchal naming anyway so why bother’.

  12. I’ve changed my name (partly… my passport is in my married name, my drivers licence is still in my original name… bleh, administration) – and the only time I seem to get any dramas is when people hear I’m married and then try and run with MRS Marriedname, rather than my preferred MS Marriedname. There seems to be a particular *tone* to it that I can’t quite place… its almost… an “oh arn’t you cute being all married and stuff!”. Very odd, as I’m in my late twenties…
    So I much prefer Ms. Random people don’t need to know my marital status, it is none of their business. (I do, however, make an exception to the “Ms” rule for my Grandmother, who is weirdly delighted to send me cards with Mrs Marriedname – clearly I am fulfilling my role as Daughter Of Patriarchy effectively).

  13. Although I understand name-changing, I opted to keep my birth name when I married. Other considerations aside, perhaps age and stage of life is a factor. If someone had asked me about it when I was the same age as those Dutch students, I probably would’ve opted for name-changing. However, I married at 36- I’d lived, loved and achieved with it and found I couldn’t let it go. I’m fortunate that my name of origin has no negative associations.
    Agree with MsLaurie about titles and the automatic application of ‘Mrs’ annoys the hell out of me. It seems to be the default form of address for telephone canvasers et at, and the idea that to be ‘Mrs’ is higher status than ‘Miss’ seems to be behind it. This I definitely have a problem with.

  14. I should probably add the comment here that I added to this post on my own blog:

    Sorry to all the name-changer feminists, I know this topic always ends up feeling pretty accusatory to you.

    On a personal level I firmly believe that whatever choice you made is your choice, is the best choice for you (only you can know what works for you) and is none of our business.

    On a more general level I believe there is merit in examining decisions/choices made by women in order to explore capitulation to the patriarchy, lack of real choice and to what degree our personal decisions have political impact.

  15. Mmmm. Bluemilk, kudos on your very measured post and comments.
    Interesting research. The trends make sense for me in terms of people I don’t know and then meet (not approving or disapproving, just saying it makes sense). It’s a bit more difficult when I have friends who seemed/are feminist and then decided to change their names on marriage. Inevitably it’s because ‘I want to have the same name as my kids’, ‘I want to create a family unit’. I’ve tried to reconcile myself to this concept but it’s haaaarrrd.
    I feel part of the problem is that, in Australia anyway, we’re so strict about our naming conventions. you :must: have a first name and you :should: have :one: middle name and you :must: have :one: last name which was passed down from the patriarchal side of your family. Hyphens, lack of middle name, multiple middle names, and God forbid multiple last names just create difficulties and you should just shut right up and not rock the boat. In less strict societies you can have first name, any number of middle names, your mother’s last name and your father’s last name and / or a generation last name…
    And Geek_anachronism, I hear ya. I hate that line ‘but it’s my father’s name anyway’. No. It’s MY name. Some of my dad’s family are great, some aren’t, some I don’t know. Like my mum’s family, funnily enough. My last name is unusual so you’d think I might care about the ones I don’t think are great, but actually… I don’t… because that is not what my life is about.
    Thinking about changing my middle name to my mother’s maiden name, though – am named for my paternal grandmother – she was lovely I’m sure but she died the year I was born, and I already have the same last name. So I’d like my mother’s name in mine somewhere.

  16. Funny, I was thinking about this yesterday.
    Not being married myself, I haven’t made this decision, but it does fill me with surprise when a woman suddenly starts signing her emails with a different name. It’s like that label in my head for that person has changed and I have to refile her in my mental database, under B for Brown instead of S for Smith, or whatever. It’s not really a judgment that I’m making on that choice, because I know there are plenty of reasons to make it, it just reinforces the oddness to my mind of changing the name one’s carried for their whole life.

  17. Huh, this is funny – I have had this exact conversation today.
    I am also in the name-keeper camp. I just don’t see why I should have to announce to all and sundry that I am married? I was Ms Lastname when I got married, and I’m Ms Lastname now. Just like my partner has always been Mr Hislastname.
    I also gnash my teeth a bit at the ‘it’s only my fathers name anyway’ argument – yes, it’s your fathers name, but it was his fathers name too! And your (male) partner – his surname is his fathers too! I don’t (often) see guys from bad families changing their surname for that reason.
    My last name has been mine my whole life, thus it is *my* name now, wherever it came from.

  18. It’s funny. Only two of my sisters actually got married, and of those, one of them keeps her name in her art career, cause it’s the one she started with. There’s a certain pride among us for our surname, mainly because in school it was spoken with such loathing. We’re honoured to be identified by that name, and we feel a close togetherness. So I don’t see the surname as such a “male” thing in my context, just a family thing. So much that I don’t want to change my name if I ever get married. I have a whole career tied to that name, and I’ve been identified this way for thirty years now. I’m a creature of habit, and all.
    I mean, unless my future partner has a spectacularly beautiful surname that goes better with my name than the one I’ve got. But my current full name is pretty lyrical. It’d break my heart to change it.
    To the actual topic – women are penalised for being women. What a surprise.

  19. @Genstar with the teeth gnashing, me too. It might have been my father’s name to start with, but it’s been my name now for 34 years.
    And as for the argument that people want the same last name as their kids, gah. Women are the ones who gestate them, birth them, and in most cases, do most of the parenting of them. Why on earth should it continually go unquestioned that kids automatically get their dad’s last name??
    I can’t imagine getting married (I’m happily in a relationship, but have no wish to sign up for anything else) but if we did have kids, I can tell you now, unless my partner wants to gestate them and birth them (which currently is not so much a possibility, him being male and all) then they’d be getting my last name, without question. And if he wanted us all to “match” he can change his (which actually is his mum’s last name).

  20. Longtime lurker here; it’s horrible to hear of outright prejudice against women who change their names, but I’m not sure that any woman is excepted from it if she’s known to be married, because it is almost always *assumed* that she changed her name. As a name-keeper, most of the people I’ve met since I married apply my surname to my husband, assuming it to be his. In the study, the subjects were given more information on women’s marital status and name than would often be provided; if the study is correct in its conclusions, then this is the stereotype that is held of *all* married women unless they have had cause to explain that they kept their birth name.

  21. I was not fully cognizant of feminism when I got married at 19, so I took my husband’s name (also, the repercussions would have been too much to handle). Then, when I divorced him and married another man, I took his name, because it was beautiful, and sounded lovely with my first name, and (no small thing, this), got rid of my first married name, which I hated.
    That said, everyone has a reason for changing or not changing that seems totally personal, but I’m very aware of the larger narrative within which we keep/don’t keep. This was brought home to me a couple of years ago when a male friend said he was thinking of changing his name to match his wife’s – she’s the one with a name business, she’s the artist, and he wanted to take her name. I thought it was cool, but my husband (a real feminist ally), had a “moment”, because it was honestly something he’d never thought about. The Patriarchy catches him unawares, sometimes. 🙂

  22. How interesting that this study comes from the Netherlands. It surprised me enormously. My previous nationality is Dutch.
    A Dutch woman’s name doesn’t change after marriage on her passport, driver’s licence or for voting purposes. She remains, whether she’s an 80 year old 57 year married woman (as my mother is) Mrs Herbirthname. If she wishes, like my mother did, in her passport it will state: married to Hubby HisLastname, to clarify, if she goes through life as Mrs HisLastname.
    In the Netherlands there is no ‘Ms’. A woman on turning about 18 is automatically addressed as Mrs (Mevrouw), whether married or not, whether she uses her husband’s name or her own. A Miss is a young girl, like Master is in English usage.
    Most of my female cousins kept their own names, children ended up having father’s surname. It never was any deal whatsoever. It made it easier that the name your known with is also the name on your passport!
    I wonder if this is some new kind of conservative wind blowing through Holland. Admittedly, the Netherlands has never had such a conservative government for so long.
    On the change of name, because my background IS Dutch, I could never fathom why on marriage a woman would change HER name, because it doesn’t on her birth certificate.
    Surely, after naming on birth, a person’s name is their own? Jerks aren’t only present in the male line. Once named the name is yours. Whether your parents were traditional or not with what they registered is as much an issue of chance as is whether or not they decided to brainwash you with some kind of supernatural beliefs.
    Where a name comes from is only of interest if you are thinking of laying a claim on some kind of inherited title through a male line. There are few of us who need to worry about that.
    So, if a woman, or man, changes their name on marriage surely should only be because that new name would sound rather cool with your first name to make it worth while to go through all the hassle of change in the first place.

  23. In my family all the women but one have changed their names and another one will in a few months. Admittedly the one who will is going to end up with a more exotic name than Smith, but it also means that, because my mother’s family consisted of five girls and one boy, the original name has all but died out. One of my cousins did keep her name when she married, but took her husband’s name after the husband died.
    A big problem with name-changing is that it makes tracing people difficult (this can be an advantage, sometimes, as some commenters have pointed out already). My cousin told me of a friend of hers from school who had to leave her school at 14 due to severe ME, and told me her name. I contacted some local and national ME charities in the UK but got no luck, and looked in the phone book and could find nobody with that surname. I mentioned that to my aunt and she said, “maybe she’s married”.
    By the way, some women change their names not because they want to but simply to avoid trouble with any bureaucracy after marriage. This is why my mother told me she’d changed her name; she said it was difficult to get used to her new name (her maiden name is Irish and much less common than Smith).

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