Every time a woman keeps her maiden name, a male angel loses his wings. Or at least that seems to be our enduring belief, according to a new study measuring social perception of men married to women who keep their last names. In short, we think those men are weak-willed ninnies married to power-hungry feminists.
The research, published in Sex Roles, comes courtesy of a question asked by researcher Rachael Robnett in the psychology department at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. She, along with her colleagues, wondered if a woman’s marital surname choice affects how society views not just her, but also her husband.
First off, most women still take their husband’s names when they marry — only about 20 percent don’t. Women who decide to keep their maiden names still face stereotypes and judgment, and recent research even found that about half of Americans think a woman should still have to take her husband’s name. Oof. That much we already knew, but Robnett and her colleagues wanted to know if the men who marry those bold, pioneering women also face stereotyping and judgment. The answer: Duh.
Robnett conducted the study of U.S. and U.K. undergraduates and community members. She found that when participants described the sort of men who marry women who keep their maiden names, they described them as less powerful, or rated them in more emotional terms, rather than proactive, useful ones.
The study, the researchers say, is the first of its kind looking at perceptions of the men in these partnerships. But similar research has given us a clue as to what people probably think of dudes who marry women who won’t change their names. In one study, researchers found that in partnerships where wives merely hyphenate their last names, their husbands are viewed as less powerful. Similarly, in a study of women who are the primary breadwinners, men are viewed as less powerful or instrumental in the relationship.
Robnett asked 139 undergraduates at a four-year university in the United States (mostly women; mostly heterosexual) to imagine a situation where a couple is getting married and the woman decides to keep her name. They asked them to describe the woman’s personality, the man’s, and the relationship more generally. They grouped those responses into categories that described the men as either expressive (emotional), instrumental (aggressive/dominant), open-minded or nothing noteworthy. Some 54 percent of the responses fell into the emotional or expressive category describing the man, whether positive or negative. In some instances the man was described as caring or understanding when his wife kept her surname, but in others, as “timid.” One respondent wrote, point-blank: “The man is weak, and the woman is strong.”
What to make of this? At bare minimum, we (women included) have a skewed perception of what equality means if we think men and women are equal when women continue to follow the same script they’ve been adhering to for centuries. Weirder still is that we don’t think it’s equal when a woman refuses — we think women are actually wearing the pants.
What you decide to do or not do with your name upon marriage is a highly personal choice that depends on any number of factors that have virtually nothing to do with the rest of us. Women may have a professional identity with their maiden name they don’t want to give up upon marriage — ahem, just like men. Couples may hyphenate to share a new family name, or invent one altogether. Men may actually take their wife’s surname to show solidarity toward a family name that’s more meaningful to their heritage and future offspring. Some people are making radical political choices to give the patriarchy the finger, but some are simply making practical ones that work for their families. What of it?
But that’s not really the point. The point is why we interpret name-changing in couples as a power game in the first place. The researchers say their work in these studies is not meant to be prescriptive, but meant to “work toward more egalitarian marital naming practices.” Their hope is to work toward a world in which men and women are free to do as they like without hitting up against harsh, outdated stereotypes that punish them for acting out against gender norms.
We should all want as much. One of the biggest follies in the highly politicized war on equality is the idea that any progress for marginalized groups is, in effect, a kind of zero-sum game where the marginalized group gains something only at the dominant group’s expense. Laws may change, but attitudes keep us all in the same old roles, fearful of the scorn that comes from doing it our own way.
By keeping a name, a woman takes nothing from the man she chooses to throw in with. And if we really think she does drain his man power like some kind of witchy succubus, then it only follows that the reverse is true, too — that by a woman giving up her surname, her husband is taking something from her. Either they both are, or neither are. We have to pick a side. But either way, it’s still really none of our business, is it?