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Study Shows 50 Percent of Women Should be Legally Required to Take Husband's Name?

5:50 PM, Aug 12, 2009 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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Unlike Jessica Valenti, I do not have thousands of words to write about the gender constructs, ingrained sexism, and patriarchal sensibilities inherent in the great debate over whether women should take their husbands' last names when they marry.

I like my name. It's part of who I am, and the identity I've forged, and Ham comes in rather useful for branding and such. It should be noted the sexist commenters on my YouTube videos also find it useful for bad puns, but I digress. I'd likely keep my last name professionally but change it legally if I were to get married. If I were working somewhere where name recognition were less important, I'd change it on both fronts, for practical and traditional reasons.

That's about the extent of my feelings on the matter. My grandmother changed her name to my grandfather's, and she was still an independent, college-attending, Navy-volunteering, basketball-playing admirable woman ahead of her time in many ways. My mother took my father's name, but she was always a full-time working, master's-degree-getting, competitive, take-no-nonsense woman. It never occurred to me to wonder if their independence was dependent on their names, and their experiences imparted to me that mine wouldn't be, either.

Nonetheless (perhaps more from a libertarian perspective than a feminist one, but both), I find some of the results of this survey troubling.

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.

I'm tracking with this one. It doesn't strike me as surprising or terribly offensive that most Americans come down on the traditionalist side of this one. Siding with "the way things are done" is pretty predictable, especially when the idea of a woman taking a man's name is both rather benign and pretty practical. As someone who grew up in neighborhoods and schools with more hyphenated names than the Feministing comment section, I can attest to the mix-ups and confusion it can cause. Given that taking a husband's name remains fairly popular among young women, whom you'd expect to more often buck tradition, that may be a consideration among women who grew up in similar areas. I don't know the numbers on that, so just a thought.

Only 5 to 10 percent of women keep the name they were born with when they marry, Hamilton says. She notes that some studies show that younger women are more likely or as likely to change their name as baby boom brides. "It's not a straight age trend," she said, according to USA Today.

Here's the part that jumps out, though:

"The results were surprisingly conservative," she says. "Even though there is a general movement toward neutral language, like saying chairperson instead of chairwoman, people seemed to feel it was better for a woman to change her last name to her husband's."

She said that the fact that half of American thought this should be a legal requirement was also surprising.

"Americans don't want much government intervention in family life, so for 50 percent of Americans to feel this way was interesting," she said.

Fully 50 percent surveyed think women should be legally required to take a husband's name? That sounds unlikely to me, and Jessica Valenti has been sent into paroxysms of shock and depression (somewhat understandably, given that this is appalling, even for a woman who has a different take on such issues):

Things like this - deeply ingrained sexism - rarely shock me. But I am actually astounded that such an antiquated notion could be held onto by so many. (Though I'm still holding out hope that this study is proven to be bunk. Sigh.)

Let's consider this seed of doubt, based on another write-up of the study, which includes this:

It was part of a larger survey probing public opinion of a range of gender- and family-related topics. Somewhat contradictory, almost half the people surveyed said it would be "OK" for a man to change his name to that of his wife.

Now, the reasons many say it's "OK," according to researchers, are because they either find it implausible, or because men should be able to change their names if they want because they're men.

Surely those results won't please Valenti, but I'm a bit suspicious of a study with such unlikely and divergent results. If fully half of the people surveyed believe a woman should be legally required to change her name to her husband's, then almost all of the left-over folks would have to believe that it's "OK" for a man to change his name to his wife's name (unless you assume the latter segment is encompassed by the former percentage, which would put those folks in an odd position).

Because 70 percent of people believe women should change their names, those folks would inevitably overlap with the percentage that thinks it's "OK" for a man to change his name, which is a much less mainstream position.

It all seems a bit odd, and more than enough reason to be doubtful, especially of that 50 percent figure, until I read more about the methodology and questions used.