Attitudes regarding whether women should take their husbands' names at marriage are becoming more conservative, at least among young Midwesterners.
According to a new study, one of the few to look at name-changing attitudes over time, Midwestern college students were three times more likely to say that women who don't take their husbands' names are less committed to the relationship in 2006 compared with when the same question was asked in 1990. Midwestern women are also less likely than women living in the Eastern U.S. to say they want to keep their birth name at marriage.
In both groups, name-keepers are the minority, however. No national statistics are kept, but previous research suggests at least 90 percent, and possibly up to 98 percent, of American women change their names upon marriage.
Most studies on name-changing have been conducted on East Coast residents. And the very few studies that have looked at change over time have relied heavily on upper-income study subjects. One popular study method, for example, has been to track name-changing brides over the years through the pages of the New York Times wedding announcements.
Pennsylvania State University sociologists Laurie Scheuble and David Johnson, along with graduate student Katherine Johnson, wanted to look outside the realm of well-off East Coasters. So they took data from two surveys at a small Midwestern university with fewer than 1,000 students, one conducted in 1990 and the other in 2006. The first survey queried 258 men and women, and the second 246. Though the sample is not representative of America at large, it has the advantage of allowing for a comparison across time.
The researchers also collected 369 student surveys from their own university in 2006. The surveys asked the students whether they planned to keep their last name upon marriage and whether or not they thought that women who kept their name were less committed to their husbands. [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]
The results revealed that East Coast women are more likely to say they want to keep their names than their Midwestern counterparts, at 11.6 percent and 4.3 percent, respectively. (Men almost never said they'd change their name.)
The rates of actual name-change intentions in the Midwestern women between 1990 and 2006 stayed constant, perhaps because a woman keeping her own name is so rare in general, Johnson told LiveScience.
"It's a strong, traditional practice," Johnson said. "There's a lot of pressure from family members and parents. … And men tend to have pretty conservative attitudes about whether the person they marry should keep her own name."
Both men and women, however, seem to be becoming more conservative about name changes, at least at this university. In 1990, only 2.7 percent of students surveyed agreed with the statement that a woman keeping her name was less committed to her marriage. In 2006, that number jumped to 10.1 percent. (Easterners in 2006 had similar responses.)
It's hard to tell if that change represents an attitude change among young people or if a different demographic of students is now attending the college compared with that in 1990, Johnson said. But the researchers found few demographic differences between the samples and controlled for those they did find.
Women who did plan to keep their birth surnames did not believe that plan made them less committed to marriage, the data showed. Instead, the researchers reported in the journal Sex Roles, the attitude shift took place among women who didn't have any intention of keeping their name. In other words, these conservative women were becoming more conservative. The trend could trace back to the political polarization of American society over the last several decades, Johnson suggested.
"This might just be reflecting this increased polarization we're seeing in American society, and it's coming across in terms of family and gender values," he said.
You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.