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Married vs. Maiden Names: What the Research Says

May 4, 2010

Growing up, I had always assumed that I would take my husband’s name when I got married. Doing anything else just seemed weird. When I was younger, I don’t think I came into contact with even  one married woman who had chosen to keep her maiden name, either in hyphenated form or on its own. Even amongst my classmates, I have only ever known one person with a hyphenated last name, and certainly, no one that I knew had ever taken on their mom’s maiden name instead of their dad’s name.

But when I finally did get married in 2004, the idea of changing my last name just seemed unnecessary. I thought carefully about the various possibilities mentioned in this article for new brides: hyphenation, keeping my maiden name as a middle name, etc.  It wasn’t just that getting new documents and ID cards would be a huge pain or that keeping my maiden name made more professional sense. There was something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on that made me want to stay Christine Cheng instead of becoming Christine Scott.

(At this point, I should mention that the blog is entitled christinescottcheng.wordpress.com because christinecheng.wordpress.com was already taken. Most of the time though, I just go by Christine Cheng.)

Looking back, there were lots of reasons why I decided to keep my maiden name– all of them entwined with one another. The first reason was that I wasn’t ready to give up such a critical part of my identity. Wrapped up in that identity was having my last name reflect my appearance: given that I am a Chinese-Canadian, there would have been some cognitive dissonance between what I looked like and what my last name suggested I looked like. At the same time, I think I was also trying to find a way of asserting my continued independence, in spite of being married. To me, getting married did not mean becoming Mrs. Housewife. I was looking for a way to express these feelings more publicly; keeping my maiden name was my way of articulating these values without saying a word. In the same way that some people wear Gucci sunglasses and others dye their hair pink, I think that I was doing something similar by keeping my maiden name– even if I wasn’t totally conscious of my motivations at the time.

What I found interesting was that most, but not all, of my friends had chosen to keep their maiden names in one form or another. Many of them took on their husbands’ names as middle names, formally or informally; others opted to hyphenate; some made up new blended names which husband and wife both used. Some stuck with tradition and took their husbands’ names, and a few of my male friends even took on their wives’ last names. In my social circle, the norm around married vs. maiden has become a free-for-all: anything goes. What a contrast with my parents’ generation!

I started thinking about all of this recently when I read this article on why married women should keep their maiden names.

The article refers to a series of studies conducted by psychologists at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. There were two sets of interesting findings from this study that were highlighted by the article. The first one is that:

Dutch women who adopted their partner’s name actually possessed different characteristics than those who kept their own, supporting previous U.S. research. On average, those who had changed their name were older, had lower educational levels, had more children and held more conservative family values. And although they tended to display a stronger work ethic, they also worked fewer hours per week and earned a lower salary than those who did not change their names.

The second set of findings have to do with others’ perceptions of women who take their husband’s name. Here is the abstract of their paper, What’s in a Name?

A woman who took her partner’s name or a hyphenated name was judged as more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, less competent, and less ambitious in comparison with a woman who kept her own name. A woman with her own name, on the other hand, was judged as less caring, more independent, more ambitious, more intelligent, and more competent, which was similar to an unmarried woman living together or a man. Finally, a job applicant who took her partner’s name, in comparison with one with her own name, was less likely to be hired for a job and her monthly salary was estimated €861,21 lower (calculated to a working life, €361.708,20).

The way the experiments themselves were set up are interesting in themselves:

…the researchers asked 90 participants to imagine they were invited to a party where they were introduced either to a married couple named Peter Bosboom and Helga Kuipers, who had kept her maiden name, or to a married couple named Peter and Helga Kuipers, Helga having taken her husband’s name.

When Helga shared her partner’s last name, both male and female participants perceived her as more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional and less competent – that is, the researchers say, more aligned with female stereotypes.

Similarly, when 113 other participants were asked to form an impression of a female character in an ambiguous story, they judged her, again, as more “stereotypically female” if they were told she had taken her partner’s name, or had a hyphenated last name.

In the final part of the study, 50 other participants were asked to judge a female job applicant, for a human-resources-manager position, based on an e-mail. They were also asked to estimate her potential salary. The participants considered her less likely to be hired if they knew she had taken her partner’s name. Moreover, they estimated she would earn €861 (about $1,150) per month less than a woman who kept her own name.

Keep in mind that Dutch society is, by most measures, one of the more egalitarian cultures in the world. If these are the results for the Netherlands, then on balance, it’s reasonable to expect similar results in other Western countries.

It seems unfair that married women are judged in this way when married men aren’t. It’s a no-win situation for married women– you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Those who keep their maiden name reap the professional benefits but may have to put up with social judgement being passed on them– often from other women. On the other hand, for those who choose to take on their husband’s name, it’s clear that there is a professional penalty to be paid.

We’ve come a long way baby, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

Photo credit: Lel4nd.

Update: It looks like this issue has been a longstanding one in Japan where couples must register under the same last name when they get married. See Women’s Surnames a Hot-Button Topic.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Jack Blammer permalink
    November 1, 2010 3:59 am

    curious on your thoughts regarding the recent comedy film “Hot Tub Time-Machine” wherein this issue is turned into comic fodder…

  2. Casey Kelso permalink
    April 1, 2011 11:02 pm

    And just wait until you have children, Christine. Then comes the dilemma of which last name the children will have: yours or his? Most people will assume that the man’s family name must be used. Or a hyphenated double-barrelled name that once seemed akward becomes a preferable way to ensure equality. In my case, we made a bet: if it’s a boy, then my last name, while a girl would get hers.

    • April 2, 2011 1:09 pm

      A bet! Now there’s an innovative solution =)
      We’ve actually had the last name conversation already- I have a toddler!

  3. April 2, 2013 12:40 am

    That is very interesting to read and it is different than my situation. Growing up in Quebec, I never even thought about changing my name if I ever got married. Women cannot change their name because of marriage and incidentally, getting married itself is not a big thing. The option to change my name only came to me because I moved elsewhere. I had the same concerns as you, taking my husband’s name was never a problem for me but giving up my name meant giving up a side of my background and culture (being francophone). After a lot of thinking, and considering the different options, I decided that I liked the idea of having the same name as my husband and future children. I also liked the idea of having an Asian name and not being Asian myself as I figure that nowadays, it is impossible to tell where someone is from, their situation or their background just by what they look like or what their name is. Or at least, it is unsafe to assume anything anymore. I liked that taken up a new name went in that sense too.
    To add to this. I have decided to continue using my maiden name at work. That makes sense because it is the main part of my life that is lived in French and therefore, I will continue using my Francophone name. I also do not intend to make a big deal if someone chooses to continue using my maiden name or adopt my new name when refering to me. After all, I’m still the same person.

  4. Wechseln permalink
    April 3, 2013 3:17 pm

    Interesting. Identity and emotional issues aside, how is a current or prospective employer to know where a woman’s name came from?

    • April 7, 2013 7:38 am

      It depends. Sometimes it’s obvious. For example, if you marry someone whose last name clearly does not match your ethnicity, then it’s obvious. Or if you are a professional then there is often a record of you in the public domain which your prospective employer would need to reference. For example, as an academic, I have a publication record. But you’re right that it is not always obvious. After you get the job though, people will eventually find out and these biases still exist.

  5. Maryline permalink
    November 20, 2013 10:46 am

    Interesting article christine…i sort of havent changed my maiden name officially but adopt my husbands name when it suits 🙂

    • November 21, 2013 11:10 pm

      You’re not alone- I know quite a few professional women who use this strategy. Married name in social situations and maiden name professionally.

  6. October 16, 2014 4:09 pm

    Was it not hard at all? I mean, what if you will travel with your children? Will they still require some legal documents so as to just prove that you are their parents? I got curious on this matter as I am about to have all my legal documents changed to married, and take my husband’s last name. Thanks!

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