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Do Contemporary American Women Take Their Husband’s Surnames?

Maiden names, husbands’ surnames, and women’s education levels.


When it comes to this issue, the American legal system is not quite as liberal as that of Quebec. Women are granted the choice to change their surnames to that of their husband's or they can opt for one of several "nonconventional" options including keeping their maiden names, choosing the hyphenated option wherein both surnames are used, or using both surnames separated by a space. How common is it for contemporary American women to change their family names to that of their husband's, and what are some variables that might affect the likelihood of doing so (e.g., educational level of the women)?

In a recent paper published in the Journal of Family Issues, Gretchen E. Gooding and Rose M. Kreider explored this exact matter using data from the 2004 American Community Survey. Women who were 15 years or older, were born in the United States (to control for cultural variations in naming practices), and who lived with their husbands were retained for the final analyses (n = 251,358).

Here are some of the key findings:

(1) 93.3% of the women had the same surname as their husband

(2) Of the variables that were investigated as possible moderators of this particular practice (e.g., woman's age, age difference between the husband and wife, race of the husband and wife, woman's educational attainment, woman's occupation, income share across the husband and wife), the overwhelmingly strongest predictor was educational level of the wives. Here are the odds ratios (as compared to women whose educational levels were less than a bachelor's degree):

Women who hold a bachelor's degree: 1.7

Women who hold a master's: 2.8

Women who hold a professional degree: 5.0

Women who hold a doctoral degree: 9.8

The latter odds ratios (all of which are highly statistically significant; p < .001) capture the increased likelihood of not using a husband's last name. For example, women who hold doctoral degrees are 9.8 times more likely to use a "nonconventional" surname (i.e., something other than simply their husbands' family names) as compared to women whose educational level is less than a bachelor's degree.

The authors argue that more educated women are more likely to be already publicly known by their maiden names (e.g., a physician or a professor). Alternatively, it might also be the case that more educated women might hold more egalitarian attitudes regarding accepted norms and dynamics between the sexes, in which case they might not support the traditional naming practice.

Are you surprised by these findings? Do you think that this cultural practice is a vestige of patriarchal sexism, and as such should be abolished (as is the case in Quebec), or are there perhaps benefits to all members of a nuclear family sharing the same last name?

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