As the institution of marriage evolves, some things seem to be staying the same for many. A survey released by the Pew Research Center on Thursday reveals that 70% of American women took their husband’s last name after marriage. Just 14% of women in opposite-sex marriages kept their maiden name and 5% hyphenated their maiden name and their husband’s last name.
“It was interesting to see women across various age, socioeconomic and education groups decide to take their husband’s last name,” Juliana Horowitz, associate director for social trends research at the Pew Research Center, told CBS News.
Some women were more likely than others to keep their names, researchers found. This was particularly true of younger women, women with a postgraduate degree and liberal or Democratic women. Hispanic women led the pack, with about 30% keeping their names, while about 10% of White women and 9% of Black women didn’t change their names, the survey showed.
Researchers asked 2,437 U.S. adults in opposite-sex marriages whether they changed or kept their last name after marriage. The research was conducted as part of a broader survey of American families.
In 1855, suffragist Lucy Stone famously refused to take her husband’s last name, forging a brave new trail. But it took more than a century to become a broader trend. For years, various states did not allow women to register to vote or obtain a driver’s license unless they took their husband’s surnames. Court rulings in the 1970s struck down these laws and a growing number of women and couples made less traditional choices about names when they married. Yet, as this new research shows, they remain a relatively small share of the public overall.
Simon Duncan, a professor of social policy at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, has written extensively about marital name changes. His research found two basic reasons most women decide to take their husband’s last name. Historical connections to a patriarchal society were a powerful force for many women — and men — who favored sticking with the traditional way, Duncan found.
The second reason, he writes, has been the idea of a “good family,” in which the mother, father and children all share the same last name. Some women have struggled with these assumptions.
Bala Chaudhary, a scientist and professor at Dartmouth, wrote a commentary in Nature about her decision to not change her name “to minimize any potential negative effects on my career.” She noted that name changes for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics can affect their publishing records, and in turn, their careers.
But Chaudhary also wrote about how, because her children are biracial, she carries “more documentation proving my motherhood than I would if I shared a last name with my children.”
Horowitz says the next steps for researchers would be to further understand why so many women still decide to keep their husband’s last name even during an era when calls for gender equality have grown within the U.S.
Answers provided in the Pew survey by 955 people who have never been married might provide some insight into the future of this trend: 33% said they would take their spouse’s last name, 23% would keep their own last name, 17% would hyphenate both names and 24% aren’t sure, the research found.
Still, Horowitz said, researchers need to explore whether women change their names for “their own personal reasons” or as “part of something larger.”