We already know that what people think about married, heterosexual women who don’t take their husband’s name when they get married is BS; women are typically on the receiving end of our culture’s sexist views on marriage, so it’s not surprising that a woman not taking her husband’s name is generally perceived unfavorably. But hey, guess what? What people think about heterosexual men whose wives don’t take their last name is also BS. Recent research conducted by Rachael Robnett of the University of Nevada and published in the journal Sex Roles has unearthed some truly disheartening things about how whether a heterosexual woman changes her name upon marriage affects how people think of her husband. It’s yet another example of how sexism is bad for everyone, no matter what gender you identify as — and a reminder of how much work we still have left to do to dismantle the cultural tyranny of rigidly-defined gender roles.
The current research (which you can read in full here) consisted of three studies. The first was geared towards examining how participants describe heterosexual men whose wives keep their own names after marriage; the second explored how a woman’s choice to keep her name after marriage influences perceptions both of the husband’s gender-typed traits and his power level in the relationship; and the third both sought to go a little deeper with the second study’s ideas and determine whether people with certain ideas about gender roles are more or less likely to perceive heterosexual men negatively if their wives retain their own names after marriage.
The results are… upsetting.
In the first study, participants first answered questions on an online survey about the tradition of heterosexual women changing their names to their husbands’ when they get married, as well as about a few other related marriage and wedding traditions. Then, the participants were asked to imagine a situation in which a married, heterosexual woman decided to keep her own name and answer three open-ended questions. These questions prompted participants to describe the woman’s personality, the man’s personality, and the “general characteristics of their relationship.” In this study, participants tended to describe the man’s personality with expressive traits—that is, participants responded with answers like, “The man in my scenario was a little more passive” and “The man seemed to be more warm-hearted and interested in pleasing than causing an argument to jeopardize the fate of the relationship” — while they describe the woman’s personality with instrumental traits — things like “logical,” “practical,” and “self-confident.” These results suggest that, in heterosexualmarriages where the woman keeps her own name, the man is subsequently perceived as less masculine and more feminine.
This in and of itself isn’t terrible; it gets problematic, however, when you take into account the fact that our culture has a habit both of revering traits coded as “masculine”(as long as it’s a man who’s displaying them, of course) and devaluing traits coded as “feminine.” The implication here is that men whose wives don’t take their names are less manly and therefore weaker, purely because their partners decided to keep their own names.
It gets worse, too. In the second study, participants again took an online survey which began with presenting them with a vignette about a heterosexual couple who had been dating for five years and were planning to get married. The participants were also randomly assigned one of two conditions: One in which the woman in the vignette had decided to take her partner’s name upon marrying, and one in which the woman decided to keep her name. Then, the participants were asked to rate the man on both his gender-typed attributes and on how much power he holds in the relationship. In the condition where the woman kept her name, participants rated the man as higher in expressivity, lower in instrumentality, and holding less power in the relationship — basically the sexist stereotype of the “whipped” husband who is controlled by his wife. Again, the implication here is that this dynamic is “bad”; the “norm” dictated by society insists that the man should be the one in control and the woman should be subservient,which means that in this situation, the man is perceived as less manly and therefore weak.
But wait! There’s more! The final study once again presented participants with a vignette and used an online survey to assess their responses to it. The vignette again involved a heterosexual couple who had been dating for five years and were planning to get married, and again, participants were randomly assigned either to a condition where the woman was planning on changing her name or one where the woman was planning on keeping her name. This time, though, the participants were asked to rate the distribution of power in the relationship on a scale of one to 10, where the “one” endpoint represented the woman holding all the power and the “10” endpoint represented the man holding all the power. The responses were rounded to the nearest tenth. Additionally, the participants’ tendency towards hostile sexism was assessed using the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory; participants also answered questions about their mothers’ education and religiosity.
Guess what this study revealed? Yep: First, when the woman retained her name, the man was again perceived to have much less power in the relationship; and second, people who scored highly in hostile sexism — sexism wherein the attitude towards women is outright antagonistic (think the ideas that women hate men, or that women are inherently manipulative, or that feminism is about controlling and subjugating men — none of which is, of course, true) — were a lot more likely to rate the man as having significantly less power in the relationship when the woman kept her name.
These results suggest that, when it comes to heterosexual relationships, men are perceived as less masculine, more feminine, less powerful, and much weaker if their wives keep their own names after they get married — and, given how deeply entrenched sexism still is in our culture, also that all of those things are bad and should be avoided if at all possible. And that, I say again, is BS.
It’s particularly upsetting when you take this research in conjunction with two other studies that were published at the beginning of 2017: One in which it came out that fully half of adults in the United States think aheterosexual woman should be legally required to change her name to her husband’s upon marriage (yes, really), and one which found that women who don’t change their name after marriage are perceived as “less committed” to their relationships than those who do. (That second study was also conducted by Rachael Robnett, by the way.) Both of those studies highlighted how the sexist attitudes towards marriage that still exist in our society today harm women; the current study, meanwhile, reminds us that it’s not just women who are hurt by it — widespread sexism and patriarchy is bad for everyone, including men.
Whether or not someone changes their name when they get married has nothing to do with how committed they are. It has nothing to do with how much power they have in a relationship. One person not changing their name doesn’t make the other person less powerful. Femininity is not inherently bad, and masculinity is not inherently good. Men should be free to be however they want to be, whether that’s traditionally “masculine” or not; the same goes for people of all genders. And gender roles do not have to define your relationship if you don’t want them to.
It kills me that we keep having to make these points over and over again — but clearly, we do. Which means we’ll just have to keep making them until we don’t have to make them anymore. Feminism is about choice — about being able to make the best choice for you, whatever that choice may be. And until we all have the freedom to make those choices for ourselves… well, we’ll just have to keep shouting it from the rooftops for as long as it takes.