There are so many gendered questions women are sick of answering: "Why are you still single?" "Are you really going out wearing that outfit?" "When are you going to have kids?" "How do you manage to balance work and family?" And my favorite: "When you get married, are you going to take your husband’s last name?"
It’s a longstanding tradition for women to change their surnames to match their partner’s once they get married. A 2015 survey found that only 22 percent of women married in recent years have kept their maiden names.
However, a small segment of men does decide to change their names after they get married. (I personally know of, well, one.) Researchers out of Portland State University were curious about just who these husbands were. In other words, what kind of guy would take his wife's last name? Their study, which focused on the likelihood a man would change his name based on his level of education, were published in the Journal of Family Issues in May.
To get a better understanding of what they consider “[o]ne of the most persistent gendered aspects of modern heterosexual marriage,” the study’s authors analyzed the national survey responses of 877 men who were married or previously married. They found that in their sample, only 27—or 3 percent—changed their name. Of those, 25 dropped their last name to take their wives', while the other two went with the classic but cumbersome hyphenation.
Interestingly, when researchers looked at the reported education levels of the men who decided to change their names, none of them had advanced degrees. In fact, as men’s education increased, the odds of taking on their wives' names decreased.
“Among men with less than a high school degree, 10.3 percent reported making a nontraditional surname choice in marriage,” they wrote. “Among men with a high school degree but no college, this percentage is 3.6, and among men with any college, only 2 percent changed their name in marriage.”
Additionally, the study’s authors found that the men who were most likely to take their wife’s name had about the same amount of education as she did. Also, if a husband had less schooling than his wife, he was less likely to take on any part of her name.
Lower class are more likely to endorse sexist beliefs, but their behavior is often more egalitarian compared with their more educated counterparts. Surname choice in marriage, it turns out, is an excellent example of this.
Overall, the results are a bit surprising because we generally think men who are more educated are also more likely to endorse and support gender equality. However, as the study’s authors write: “Lower class are more likely to endorse sexist beliefs, but their behavior is often more egalitarian compared with their more educated counterparts. Surname choice in marriage, it turns out, is an excellent example of this.”
It’s important to point out that this isn’t just about what name you or your partner sign on your checks; rather, it’s about the different, and sometimes unfair, expectations society places on men and women. After all, if changing one’s name was just that, wouldn’t more men be doing it?
Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer is a sociology professor at Portland State University and the lead author of the study. In 2017, she authored another paper that looked into why so many Americans believe a married woman should change her name. The most common reason she found was the belief that women should prioritize their marriage and their family ahead of themselves.
"Sometimes people think that if women keep their own name and make men change their name, it's women being selfish or bucking tradition when they should follow gender norms," Shafer said in a statement. "We expect women to be the ones to caretake and give to their families in a way that we don't expect of men."