'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
—Juliet Capulet; Act II, Scene II; Romeo and Juliet
“The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” – Marshall McLuhan
If we met on the street and I introduced myself as Krystal D’Costa and that was all I said, what information would you have about me?
Well, you’d know my name is Krystal D’Costa. And since we’d be meeting in person, you’d also be able to observe any number of physical characteristics: height, relative age, hair color, etc. My guess is that you wouldn’t be able to tell too much about my family history from shaking my hand. If I were wearing a wedding band, you might determine that I am or had been married at some point. But bear in mind that even without the ring, I could still be married. (Maybe I left my ring in the soap dish, or maybe I don't like jewelry.) You wouldn't know how many children I have. Or anything about my personality. So what would you really know about me?
Would you think by hearing my name that I am more traditional in my views about gender roles? Would you think me more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, and perhaps slightly less competent than any other female on the street? Yes, I’m asking you to make these determinations based on learning my name.
Impossible, you say?
What if I told you D’Costa was not my birth name—that I changed my name at marriage? How would your perception of me change if I told you that D’Costa was my mother’s name? Or a name I chose for myself in an attempt to reconstruct my identity?
Names are important. Juliet’s concern was that Romeo was a Montague. The Montague identity and family history created a real problem for their relationship, which Juliet noted could be avoided if Romeo would give up the Montague name. The names by which we are known carry heavy associations and can color our interactions with others, shaping our identities and our histories.
A few weeks ago, I came across this study that investigated the “costly consequences” of taking your partner’s name. Researchers found that a woman’s surname is associated with certain perceptions:
Women with their partner’s name are associated with tradition, family unity, social norms, being a mother, and lower educational level (more stereotypical female), whereas women with their own name are associated with personal identity, feminism, personal agency, lower likelihood of being a mother, and higher educational level (less stereotypical female) (Noordewier et. al. 2010: 18).
Apparently, taking your partner’s name indicates you are “more dependent, less ambitious, and less intelligent,” and when these factors are combined, it means that a woman with her partner’s last name may be passed over for a job or awarded a lesser salary when compared to a woman who has kept her birth name (Noordewier et. al. 2010: 22).
I am not making this up. I don’t think I could if I tried.
Regardless of which side of the camp you’re on for this one (to keep one’s birth name or to change it at marriage), I hope some alarm bells are going off. Let’s walk through this study, shall we, and perhaps you can determine for yourself whether the scientific basis for these conclusions is sound? Stand back, ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to plumb the depths of poor social science.
Correlation and Causation
Using a sample of Dutch women from an existing large sociological study on family solidarity, researchers determined that most married women (N= 2,464) took the name of their partner (74.8%; 7.3% hyphenated; 15.4% own name). The researchers connected marital name choice to other variables and found that when compared to women who kept their birth name, women who took their partner’s name:
- are older
- have a lower education level
- have more children
- have more conservative family norms (“women should stop working when they have their first child,” “education is more important for boys,” “working mothers are egoistic,” etc.)
- score higher on work ethics
- work fewer hours per week
- have a lower salary
The Dutch sample was determined to be comparable to women in the United States based on prior research on names and perceived identity, which helped researchers predict these findings and formed the foundation for this study. The researchers maintain that the associations linked to surnames can affect the ways in which women are perceived by others.
However, the link between surnames and the variables above is tenuous at best. Approximately 75% of married women took their partners name. They appear to older than women who kept their names. Were they older at the moment of marriage? Or do they represent a specific generation? Are older women more likely to keep their names than younger ones? What is the connection between age and surname and marital status? These women have lower education levels—because of a particular surname? Or because larger socio-economic factors may have prohibited them from obtaining advanced degrees? Or because women who have advanced degrees often have long professional histories attached to their surnames and opt to keep them?
What do surnames have to do with the number of children in a family or the family social norms? Are we discussing clan systems where these issues might be more readily apparent? Do married women with their partner’s surname work fewer hours because they have caregiving responsibilities or other activities that require more of their time?
What have we really learned here? There are some interesting overall patterns that may warrant a closer look, but the variables discussed may be more directly linked to relationship status than surname. In essence, correlation does not imply causation, folks:
That is, there is little proof that differences in surnames caused these variables to exist. And if that’s the case, what question are we really trying to answer here?
What Are We Testing?
The researchers followed this discussion of variables with several exercises to determine how women are perceived based on their surnames. In one exercise, participants were given a scenario where they were introduced to a married couple and told whether the woman had kept her own name or taken her partner’s name. They were asked to rate the woman on five stereotypical female attributes (caring, competent, dependent, intelligent, and emotional). Participants matched the woman who had taken her partner’s name with the stereotypical traits more consistently than the woman who had kept her birth name.
In another exercise, researchers created a scenario around a person who was either a woman with her partner’s name, a woman with a hyphenated name, a woman who was not married but living with a man, a woman with no surname, or a man. In this case, the woman with the name of her partner and the woman with the hyphenated name were judged more stereotypically than the latter three individuals.
But these scenarios introduced other factors that may have swayed the decisions made by participants. In the first exercise, participants are told a very important piece of information—that the woman is married. She is not being judged on the basis of her name, but her choice to keep or change her name. In the second example, an unmarried man and woman who live together may be viewed as a more liberal arrangement, which could color the perception of the woman as independent and less traditional. Once more, the exercises seemed more in line with investigating perceptions relating to relationship status than perception of last name.
Judged By the Weirdest People in the World
In the last exercise, researchers asked a group of Dutch students to judge an applicant for a job based on a profile assembled from information found online, which included the civil status of the individual and the partner’s name condition. Participants were asked to rate the dependence, ambition, and intelligence of the applicant. The ratings were consistent with the results from the other exercises: married applicants with their partner’s name were judged as more dependent, less ambitious, and less intelligent when compared to women who kept their own names.
However, the researchers rightly point out that the participants in this study were students, also known as “The Weirdest People in the World.” College-aged participants fall in the realm of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic samples, who tend to have particular views and are poor representatives for broader population discussions. They're WEIRD. In short, they are poor guides to understanding human nature, including tendencies to stereotype and judge women based on their surnames.
What’s in a Name?
To the researchers’ credit, they do acknowledge that judgments based on marital name status are more likely to occur when the name change is apparent. (They also do note that they could have benefited from a more diverse participant group.) But this brings me to the real issue I have with this study— how does anyone really know the name you have is not your own? Sure, if there are signifiers that might indicate otherwise (e.g., a wedding band), people may assume a woman has taken her partner’s name, but given the changing practices surrounding names today, this assumption seems less likely—depending, of course, on the prevailing cultural norms.
In the United States, it was common practice until the 1970s for a woman to take their partner’s surname following marriage. The height of the feminist movement gave rise to the hyphenated name, and this was soon followed by the blended name (a combination of both partner’s names: Gold + Scottlash = Goldlash). More recently, some couples have taken to creating a completely new name at marriage.
There are many reasons a woman may want to keep her birth name—first and foremost, it is her name after all. And if she marries later in life, she may have a long list of professional accomplishments attached to that name. Even if she doesn’t marry later in life, for that matter, and is thinking of the professional aspirations that may become attached to her name, she may want to keep it.
There are also the long touted arguments about property and ownership that certainly have some merit to them, but in terms of being judged as a “particular” sort of female based on the choice you make to assume a new name at marriage, it comes back to the same question for me: how does anyone know it’s not "your" name? Particularly in this landscape of hyphenation and blending and even new names—why does it matter?
My surname is not my birth name. I didn’t change my name immediately following marriage for a few reasons, including that I needed to call each and every single credit card company and visit the DMV which just seemed like a huge pain. I eventually got around to making the switch and when I did, it raised a few eyebrows. Some of my female friends—contemporaries as well as older women—were surprised, and perhaps in that moment they did view me as more traditional than they originally had, but today it certainly is my name. It has its own history and identity.
But the issue is not really about whether or not to keep or change your name after marriage—that, thanks to the hard work of women like Lucy Stone, is a matter of choice—this is about how you’re perceived as a woman if you choose one over the other. Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin reports that the number of college-educated women in their 30s keeping their name has dropped from 23% in 1990 to 17% in 2000. Like these women, when I’m introduced today as Krystal D’Costa, there is no way a stranger can know that it’s not “my” name. If I chose to introduce myself as Krystal Camelot, it would tell them no more about me, my family history, and my name choice, than if I used my birth name.
Do these sorts of biases exist? Yes, it is likely, but the research discussed here does not indicate a strong link between the two. In any event, the naming landscape is changing rapidly, and after all, as Juliet wisely noted: "that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet."
1. Rather than use the term “maiden name,” I’ve opted to use the gender neutral term “birth name.”
2. Goldin and Shim (2004)
Image credit: Flickr, Carole Carey
Goldin, C., & Shim, M. (2004). Making a Name: Women's Surnames at Marriage and Beyond Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18 (2), 143-160 DOI: 10.1257/0895330041371268
Noordewier, M., Horen, F., Ruys, K., & Stapel, D. (2010). What's in a Name? 361.708 Euros: The Effects of Marital Name Change Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 32 (1), 17-25 DOI: 10.1080/01973530903539812