Why Hillary Rodham Became Hillary Clinton: Consequences of Non-Traditional Last Name Choice in Marriage

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Principal investigator:

Emily Shafer

Portland State University

Email: emily.shafer@pdx.edu

Homepage: http://www.pdx.edu/sociology/emily-shafer

Sample size: 2592

Field period: 2/26/2010-5/17/2010

Scholarship regarding women's surname choice in marriage reveals that the majority of Americans think that it is better for women to take their husbands' names in marriage and approximately half think women should be legally required to do so. Do these attitudes towards surname choice in marriage affect how individuals perceive women based on their last name choice? In this paper I present results from a vignette experiment conducted using a nationally representative sample (N=2,503) of the U.S. to evaluate attitudes toward women by their last name choice in marriage. While overall, last name choice appears to have little impact on how women are viewed among women and highly educated men, I find that men of low education view women who retain their surnames in marriage as less committed wives who should be held to higher standards than women with their husbands' last names, but only when the women's behavior is gender non-traditional. My results follow scholarship that finds that men of lower education are more protective of overt instances of the gender hierarchy, of which surname practices are an example, because their disadvantaged class position prevents them from using material resources to subordinate women.

Does a woman's last name choice affect how committed and capable individuals think she is as a wife and employee? Does a woman's last name choice affect the standards to which individuals think a woman should be held? Does a woman's gender-traditional or gender non-traditional behavior moderate any effects of last name choice on perceptions? And do any effects vary by gender and class?

Experimental Manipulations
The woman's last name is either the same as her husband's', different than her husband's, or a hyphenated version of her husband's.

How committed and capable she is as a wife
How committed and capable she is as an employee
How many days she should be "allowed" late
How justified her husband would be in divorcing her
How justified her boss would be in firing her

Summary of Results
Among women and highly educated men, women's surname choice seems to have little effect on their perceptions of a woman as an employee or wife. Nor did they hold women with non-traditional surnames to higher standards. This is surprising given that most individuals in the US think women should change their names in marriage and approximately half think that name change should be required by law (Hamilton et al. 2011). Although individuals hold strong opinions about surname choice in marriage, a woman's marital name choice does not bias how they view her in the context of information on how she is behaving as a wife or employee. For the most part, my empirical predictions were not supported, but I do not believe that these null results indicate that the experimental manipulation failed. For those who I hypothesize would be most invested in women taking their husbands' surnames in marriage – low educated men – women's surname choice does impact how they view her.
The major finding in this paper is that, among men with low education, a woman with a last name that is different than her husband's is seen as being less committed as a wife and she is held to a higher standard than a woman who did take her husband's name in marriage in the gender non-traditional vignette. These less educated men feel that women who didn't take their husbands' names should be allowed fewer days late than women who have the same last name as their husbands'. And they believe that the women's husbands would be more justified in divorcing them. Middle class men, because of their greater resources, can espouse gender egalitarian beliefs - for example, not judging a woman by her last name choice – because their economic position over their wives grants them marital power (Pyke 1996 1994; Rubin 1976).
Additional Information
Interestingly, last name choice only matters in low educated men's ratings of the woman who is not putting her husband before herself (by coming home late) and not in the vignette in which the woman is acting communal (by arriving to work late). In other words, there is no backlash effect if the woman is behaving "properly" as a wife. This finding is consistent with research that shows when women temper their agency with niceness, they are less likely to be punished – experience backlash - in hiring recommendation experiments using undergraduates in the U.S. (Rudman and Glick 1999 2001).


Shafer, Emily Fitzgibbons and MacKenzie A. Christensen. 2018. "Flipping the surname script: Men's non-traditional surname choice in marriage." Journal of Family Issues, 39(11): 3055-3074.

Shafer, Emily Fitzgibbons. 2017. "Why Hillary Rodham became Hillary Clinton: Consequences of Surname Choice in Marriage." Gender Issues 34(4): 316-332.