MotherTalkers

Where real moms tell it like it is.

Monday, December 05, 2005

What's in a Name?

As evidence that this country is growing more conservative and male-dominated, more women are choosing to take their husbands' last name, according to recent research by a University of Florida professor.

The study, written by UF linguistics professor Diana Boxer, found that "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."

For her research, Boxer's team interviewed 134 married women in their 20s and 70s who live in different parts of the country. Boxer found that only 24 of the women -- or 18 percent of the participants -- kept their own surnames, compared to 107 women -- or 77 percent -- who took their husband's name. The rest of the study's participants -- or three of the women -- used hyphenated or other last names.

Most of the women cited family unity -- "for the kids" -- as the reason they took their husband's name. But Boxer listed examples that suggest otherwise. For example, divorced women who kept their married name to share with their children, did not hesitate to adopt a new husband’s name at remarriage, even though it meant their name differed from their children's.

As a woman who proudly kept her last name and even gave her son a long-ass, hyphenated-last name, this study struck a deep nerve with me:

Understanding naming traditions is important because they give clues about underlying social patterns and shifts in attitudes about expected roles for women, said Boxer, who presented some of the findings at the International Association of Applied Linguistics meeting in Madison, Wis., 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 said. “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 said. From then on, women who retained their birth names after marriage came to be called “Lucy Stoners,” with negative connotations, she said.

“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 said.

My family -- except for my father! -- and my husband's family have given me grief for my decision not to change my last name. It's amazing that after 5 years of marriage I still receive holiday cards from well-meaning family members and friends who assume I have taken my husband's surname. This should not be happening in an egalitarian society.

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