How Women Who Keep Their Names Are Perceived Is BS

In news that will probably surprise absolutely no one, new research has shown that women who don’t change their names when they get married are perceived by other people to be much less committed to their marriages than those who do are. According to study author Rachael Robnett of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who recently spoke to PsyPost, the goal of the study was to “examine whether women who retain their surnames after marriage encounter negative stereotypes”; explained Robnett, “Before conducting this research, my co-authors and I had come across anecdotal evidence of this stereotype, but it hadn’t yet received empirical attention.” Now it has, and the results are disheartening, to say the least. In fact, I would go so far as to call it bullsh*t.

I don't mean that the study itself is bullsh*t; although it has its flaws, namely that the sample size was rather imbalanced in its gender composition, it’s still research worth examining. I’m talking about the very fact that women’s level of commitment is so harshly judged based simply on what they decide to do with their names. What’s more, the idea that a woman who doesn’t change her name is less committed than her partner erases literally every kind of relationship that exists besides heterosexual ones. So, what I’m really saying is, how our culture thinks about marriage as a whole is bullsh*t.

For their research, which was published in the journal Sex Roles, Robnett and her team carried out three different studies encompassing a total of 1,201 participants — 912 women and 289 men, all undergraduates hailing from one of two U.S. universities. (It’s interesting to me, by the way, that the sample size was comprised overwhelmingly of women.) In the first study, participants rated women as being lower in commitment to their marriages when they kept their original names, compared with those who took their husbands’; additionally, women who didn’t change their names were evaluated as having a higher proportion of “agentic traits” — that is, traits that communicate agency, like intelligence and leadership ability. (As a different study from 2014, Feminist Stereotypes: Communal vs. Agentic, pointed out, we tend to code agentic traits as masculine, while we code “communal traits” — things attractiveness, warmth, and cooperativeness — as feminine. Just, y'know... FYI.)

Then, in the second and third studies, it was discovered that both women and men who scored highly in social dominance orientation (SDO) — that is, “a measure of the preference one has for inequality when that inequality leads to one group’s dominating over another’s,” according to Ian P. Smith at Penn State’s Moving Psychology blog — were “especially likely” to rate women who didn’t change their names as being lower in commitment to their marriages.

Concluded the researchers, “Collectively, findings indicate that women who violate the marital surname tradition may encounter negative stereotypes about their marriage commitment and that these stereotypes may be particularly likely to originate from people with a preference for group-based inequality. Implications center on links between marriage traditions and broader patterns of gender inequality.”

My own conclusion, meanwhile, is that our culture is really, really effed up. This isn’t exactly a surprise — as Jaya Saxena pointed out at the Daily Dot, the current study is far from the only one to have found that women who don’t change their names upon getting married are viewed as being much less invested in their relationships than those who do — but it’s yet another reminder of that we really, really still need feminism. It is, as I said before, bullsh*t.

I’ll admit that my gut reaction to the implications of the study results was to want to explain that women might have a good many reasons for not changing their name when they get married, none of which necessarily have anything to do with how committed they are to their spouses. (Mine, for example, came down to the fact that changing your name is both unnecessary and a pain in the butt.) And this is true. But you know what? Even that is bullsh*t — because women shouldn’t have to justify their choices to anyone else. Nor should we have to worry about whether or not our justifications are “good enough” for whoever is questioning us in the first place. We don’t expect men to give any explanation for what they do with their names when they get married, let alone a “good” one; ergo, no one else should be required to do so, either.

What’s more, the cultural expectation to explain your decision to keep or change your name upon marriage is just one example of the countless choices women in our society are expected to justify that men simply aren’t. When they become parents, men aren’t expected to explain why they chose to come back to work; women, on the other hand, are, and no matter what their explanation might be, they’re judged for it. Men aren’t expected to explain why they did or didn’t have sex with someone on a first date (or at any time, really); women are, and again, no matter what their explanation might be, they’re judged for it. We are expected, time and time again, to defend our choices in a way that men rarely are — and if our justifications are found somehow lacking (which they almost inevitably will be), then we are penalized for it.

The litmus test is always this: Would you ask a man that same question? And would you judge him based on his response? If your answer to those questions is “yes,” then it’s sexism in action. Plain and simple.

Is the issue of how women are perceived based on whether they change their names huge in the grand scheme of things? Probably not; especially at this particular moment, other feminist issues are both objectively and subjectively more important: Things like the right to bodily autonomy, the importance of equal pay for equal work, the need to put into place legal protections for groups still facing a huge amount of discrimination, and the fight to prevent the White House being full of white supremacists, for example. In the big picture, some random person passing judgment on your marriage purely because you kept your own name is small potatoes.

But the little things add up. When your daily experience consists of microaggressions, it all starts to weigh down on you sooner or later. And when microaggressions are so normalized as to be continually unquestioned, it becomes one of the biggest hurdles to achieving the equality our country (and our world) so desperately needs.

That’s why we’re still having to call out sexist behavior when we see it — and racist behavior, and homophobic behavior, and transphobic behavior, and ableist behavior, and every other form of discrimination that persists, whether it's subtle or overt. Because despite the fact that some like to claim that all of those -isms are already over, they are clearly, clearly not.

We can only change our behavior when we know we’re doing it in the first place. Start small. Change little things. Get bigger. Change big things. It’s all connected, and it all matters. What’s in a name? A lot, it turns out.