The name game

Wedding season is off to an early start this year. My best friend married last month; another close friend will tie the knot this weekend. Both have opted to legally change their names to reflect this new status.

These two examples, along with countless others, have made me realize that I’m in the minority when it comes to the marital name game.

Indeed, nearly 90 percent of women take their husband’s name upon marriage. A 2009 American Sociological Association study revealed that 70 percent of Americans believe a woman should change her name after taking a trip down the wedding aisle. Moreover, half the respondents also believed changing one’s name should be more than just a social norm—it should be a legal requirement.

Is it a sign that feminism is on the decline, or do women simply have more important things on their minds?

Doesn’t matter, because as it turns out, we’re in trouble either way: A new study suggests that women face unfair perceptions in the workplace—no matter which option they choose.

According to a report released this month by the Netherland’s Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research, women who adopt their husband’s last name are likely to be viewed as “more caring” but also “more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, less competent and less ambitious.”

But a woman who hangs on to her “maiden” name (oh, how I love that quaint term) isn’t viewed in a more favorable light.

Nope, respondents who kept their names were judged as “more independent, more ambitious and more intelligent” but also “less caring.”

So, yeah, sucks to be you and me.

The Dutch group also conducted an experiment using fictional job candidates and found that not only were women who changed their names “less likely” to be hired, they also were apt to earn significantly less than their non-name-changing counterparts.

Granted, the research, which was based largely on hypotheticals and fictional job applicants and limited to Dutch respondents, is more than a bit flawed, but questionable parameters aside, one thing is clear: The name game is sticky. Keep it and you’re one of those radical, self-serving feminists; change it and you’re willingly subjecting to yourself to the oppression that is our culture’s patriarchal hierarchy.

What’s the alternative? Hyphenation? While that works well for some, it can create an unwieldy mouthful for others. Create a new last name? Certainly, that’s a brave, forward-thinking option in our persistently traditional society.

To this day, my husband and I have friends and relatives who insist upon giving me his last name. Sometimes, in a superfun twist of convention, people assume my last name is his and throw a “Mrs.” in front of it for good measure. It doesn’t matter how many times I pointedly use “Ms.” or how often I “casually” drop my husband’s last name, a surprisingly large number people assume we share the same last name and ignore clues to the contrary.

Members of the Lucy Stone League, an organization with roots in the early 20th-century women’s suffragette movement, view such attitudes and behaviors as nothing short of gender tyranny:

“This absence of name choice freedom at marriage … communicates a major sexist message to those who have changed their names [that] women are not important.”

Sexist, yes—also ridiculous and rude.

And yet, somehow, it’s never really bothered me. I’m surprised more women don’t opt to keep the names they were born with, and I think it’s interesting that the custom is important enough for others to try to preserve it on my behalf. But, studies and salaries aside, it will take a lot more than someone calling me “Mrs.” to make me feel oppressed.

What’s in a name? Everything and nothing. Call me whatever you want, because I know exactly who I am.