Take your husband's name... or face jail time?

A new survey suggests half of Americans think women should be required to change their names when they marry

Published August 12, 2009 5:13PM (EDT)

"What's women's lib?" begins the headline to a story in Wednesday's NY Daily News. It's an apt question to attach to an article that reveals that 70 percent of Americans believe women should take their husband's name after marriage. Even scarier, no fewer than half of respondents feel it should be a legal requirement. Uh, America? Are you serious?

The study, which was presented Tuesday at the American Sociological Association's annual conference, surveyed 815 respondents using both multiple-choice and open-ended questions. Even the team of researchers was unprepared for its dramatic findings. "The results were surprisingly conservative," Laura Hamilton, an Indiana University sociologist and co-author of the study, told the Daily News. "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." And, according to Hamilton, this isn't a case in which younger people are more liberal than their parents: The number of women (5-10 percent) who have kept their names has held steady since the baby-boom generation began to marry.

Hamilton was especially shocked that so many respondents wanted the government to require the name change. As she told USA Today, "Americans tend to be very cautious when it comes to state intervention in family life." (Except, I guess, when they're voting to prohibit gay families from existing.)

As for why Americans believe so strongly that women should take their husband's names, well, that's equally depressing. "They told us that women should lose their own identity when they marry and become a part of the man and his family," Hamilton told the Daily News. "This was a reason given by many." Other respondents cited religious reasons or practical considerations.

Now, don't get me wrong: I think requiring women to keep their birth names would be as silly as demanding that they change them. As my own friends start to get married, I'm learning that everyone has her own reasons for making a particular decision -- many of them completely unrelated to their political views. Some women simply prefer their husband's last name. (Likewise, some men prefer their wife's.) Others who may be inclined to make the switch decide against it because they've already made their professional reputation under their birth name. And then there are those who plan to hyphenate, only to decide against it after imagining what might happen should their hyphenated offspring wed someone else with two last names.

So while this study seems like perfect fodder for the culture war, I'd like to see both sides of the debate acknowledge that this is not a simple case of feminism vs. conservatism. Of course it shocks and saddens me to hear that so many Americans believe "women should lose their identity when they marry." But, as Hamilton implies, this survey is really about the extent to which government should interfere in our private lives. Whether we choose to keep, change, blend or hyphenate our names, our decisions regarding our own marriages should be personal ones.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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