According to a 2006 telephone survey of adults in Indiana and around the continental U.S., more than 70 percent of U.S. adults think women should change their surnames when they marry men. About 50 percent think women should be required by law to do so. In that study, researchers found that attitudes about women’s names in marriage were more predictive of several other individual characteristics, including political beliefs, religion, fertility choices, and feelings about homosexuality, than attitudes about women’s employment or other gender issues. About half the people who said women should change their last names to their husbands’ said their reasoning rested on the belief that women should prioritize their families and marriages over their own needs.
A new study published in Gender Issues earlier this month offers a little more insight on the potential tangible effects of this belief system. Author Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer of Portland State University surveyed more than 1,200 people in a national online poll. Each participant evaluated a scenario in which a wife spends “a lot of extra hours at her office job hoping for a promotion.” Her husband begins to “feel burdened by her absence, as he is picking up her slack in housework.” Participants were asked to rate the wife, Carol, on her commitment to wifedom and decide how many days per week her husband, Bill, should accept her working late. They also rated how justified Bill would be if he divorced Carol.
Survey respondents were randomly assigned one of three variations on Carol’s last name: Sherman, Sherman-Cook, or Cook. (Bill’s last name was always Cook.) Shafer chose these surnames because they were rated similarly attractive in a previous study by different authors.
Shafer found that women and highly educated men didn’t rate Carol’s wifely competence significantly differently based on whether she took her husband’s last name, kept her own, or hyphenated the two. But men with lower levels of education saw Carol Sherman as less committed a wife than Carol Cook. They also gave Carol Sherman less leeway in terms of the number of days she comes home late and thought her husband would have more reason to divorce her.
This finding aligns with class-based masculinities theory, an animating concept behind Shafer’s research. The theory holds that upper-class men can maintain feelings of (and access to) power based on their class status alone. “Because their earnings do not grant them the same degree of power in their relationships with women, men of lower classes must rely on more explicit tactics in maintaining patriarchy,” Shafer writes.
The idea that women might be punished or given less leeway if they stray from gender norms tracks with research that’s shown that women face backlash if they’re too independent, assertive, and self-interested—read: stereotypically manlike—in the workplace. “My work shows that women can face backlash at home as well if they're not acting ‘properly’ as wives,” Shafer told Broadly. She cites one study that, using data from 1997, found that men are more likely to cheat on their wives if those wives earn more money than them.
But the leading anecdote in Shafer’s study comes from a famous transgressor of gender norms who was punished in the most public and memorable way. After husband Bill lost a re-election campaign for Arkansas governor in 1980, some suggested that his wife’s untraditional name led voters to question the values of his family. And that, the story goes, is how Hillary Rodham became Hillary Clinton.