News and Events

Surnames and the Modern Woman

This article was originally printed in the December 2005 issue of CLASnotes.

A growing number of brides are returning to tradition when taking a man’s hand in marriage

What’s in a name—or two names? Quite a bit, says Linguistics Professor Diana Boxer, whose research finds that a growing number of brides are returning to tradition when taking a man’s hand in marriage, assuming his name instead of keeping their own as a symbol of independent identity.

Adopting a husband’s last name remains an entrenched tradition that is on the upswing, despite a temporary blip in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s when many young women tended to want to hold on to their birth names,” says Boxer, who led a series of studies. “I think it reflects how men’s power continues to influence American society despite the fact that women have made great advances economically and socially.”

The survey involved 134 married women ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s who lived in various parts of the United States. Boxer found that only 24, or 18 percent, had kept their own names, compared with 107, or 77 percent, who took a husband’s name. The rest used hyphenated or other names. Family unity was the most frequently mentioned reason.

“Taking on my husband’s last name was an outward sign of our union,” explained one woman. “It served to make me feel that I was ‘really married’ and that we were forming a brand new family.”

Children were the most important issue of family unity for these women, who sought to avoid the hassle and confusion of having more than one surname in the family, Boxer says. But while divorced women would not return to their birth surname because they wanted the same name as their children, they did not hesitate to adopt a new husband’s name at remarriage, even though it meant their name now differed from that of their children, she says.

While all the women who retained their birth surnames were satisfied with their choice, some who changed expressed regret, Boxer says. “I associate my new surname with my husband’s relatives, whom I dislike,” says one participant. Another woman was disappointed to lose a symbol of her ethnic heritage in giving up her Italian name.

Understanding naming traditions is important because they give clues about underlying social patterns and shifts in attitudes about expected roles for women, says Boxer, who presented some of the findings at the International Association of Applied Linguistics meeting in Madison, Wisconsin, in July. “People say ‘It’s only a name, what’s in a name?’ Well, we think there’s a lot in a name,” she says. “Linguistic symbols tell us how people are treated in society.”

The practice of women automatically taking their husband’s surnames was first challenged in the mid-19th century by abolitionist Lucy Stone, Boxer says. From then on, women who retained their birth names after marriage came to be called “Lucy Stoners,” with negative connotations, she says.

“In a 1997 study of more than 10,000 Midwesterners, men thought women who kept their surnames were more likely to work outside the home, less likely to enjoy cooking, less likely to attend church and—this is the clincher—less likely to make good wives,” she says.

Other cultures are more accepting, Boxer says. In rural Pakistan, women retain their birth names unless they need to request a government document, while in Norway children automatically receive the mother’s name unless a couple tells authorities otherwise, she says.

Among 18 female students in Boxer’s sociolinguistics class that she interviewed as part of a separate study, 11 say they would take their husband’s surname, three would hyphenate, three would use both names, and only one says she would retain her birth surname.

While women say taking their partner’s surname symbolizes their union, few men have such sentiments, says Boxer, noting that it is rare for the male partner to consider changing his surname. “Why do even young women who hold feminist viewpoints look forward to taking their husband’s surname?” she asks. “Why do women do the merging?”

—Cathy Keen, UF News Bureau

Photo by Jane Dominguez/Buffy Lockette

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