Step aside, Mr. Smith. Mrs. Smith may be going by Mrs. Johnson, or Mrs. Johnson-Smith. And new research shows what she prefers to be called probably doesn't really matter, except to men who are less educated.
In a recent study published in Gender Issues, a researcher from Portland State University found that most Americans don't think women who take their husbands' last names are any more committed to their husbands, nor do they hold women with their own surnames to a different standard. However, lower educated men on all measures seem to have more of an issue with women who kept their maiden name.
The study builds on existing research around perceptions of surname choice for women. A survey conducted in 2006 found that 50% of Americans think women should be legally obligated to take their husbands' last names, and 70% said it would be better if a woman changed her name.
"Women have made a lot of inroads in terms of employment, but what is more stalled in terms of gender inequality is in terms of what goes on in the home," said Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer, the study's author. Shafer said, though, that the results of her study did surprise her.
The survey, conducted in 2010, presented respondents with a fictitious scenario: Carol has spent extra time in the office working toward a promotion while her husband, Bill Cook, is having to do more around the house. Respondents were then randomly assigned to situations where Carol took Bill's last name, kept her maiden name, Sherman, or hyphenated to Sherman-Cook.
The survey asked how committed Carol was to her husband, how many days each week Bill should be OK with Carol working late and how justified Bill would be in divorcing Carol. On all three questions, Shafer found that almost all respondents did not think differently of the woman regardless of surname choice. Yet men with low education did think that Carol was less committed if she kept her name and that Bill would be more justified in divorcing her.
Shafer said she included information about Carol's job as a way to eliminate bias for people who may think they were supposed to say that they do not care whether the woman changed her name.
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The results highlight how women could still receive backlash in their personal lives if they are perceived as putting themselves before their marriage or their family, Shafer said. While people may not judge a woman who keeps her surname, they might have strong opinions as to what is best for a woman, Shafer added.
The issue extends outside of people's homes, too. Hillary Clinton once went by her maiden name Hillary Rodham, but she changed it after her husband lost a 1980 gubernatorial re-election, in part because she was seen by many as a bad wife for sticking with Rodham, the study noted.
While Shafer's overall findings indicate these perceptions around surname are changing somewhat, she still thinks the issue is here to stay.
"Surname choice is one of those things that has really stuck," she said. "The changes in women’s personal lives are behind those in their professional lives."