Where Are the Women — And Their Names?

It seems that as women yield corner offices to men, they are also giving up their names.

A new study finds that more college-educated women are adopting their husbands' surnames after marriage, reversing a three-decade-long trend toward more women keeping their own names.

Done by a Harvard economic historian, Claudia Goldin, and a former student of hers, Maria Shim, the study shows that the feminist movement in the late 1970s, which emboldened more women to reject tradition and keep their own names when married, has given way to a drift to more conservative social values.

Is it a coincidence that Fast Company senior writer Linda Tischler finds that women are under-represented in top executive positions? She says for the most part, men just compete harder than women. They put in more hours. They're more willing to relocate. They're more comfortable putting work ahead of personal commitments. And they just want the top job more. In other words, women have simply "opted out."

Interestingly, Fast Company columnist Shoshana Zuboff presents a different view in her column Career Taxidermy. She says highly trained women leaving work aren't opting out. Torn up by conflicts between motherly love, inflexible career structures, and substandard childcare, they're being "squeezed out" of organizations that have quietly but determinedly resisted their presence by not adapting to their needs.

Go back to the name-change study. Does it tell us something about how the system is resistant to changes favorable to women? Is it time for the feminist movement to receive a backlash, which has given women their (deserved) right to keep their names? Why is it always women who make the compromise?

Yes, you may very well say women have "opted" to change their names. But the study shows another reason for women to adopt their husbands' surnames is frustration with the logistical problems a husband and wife — particularly those with children — confront when using different names, especially when traveling. The system — the nuptial-nomenclature taxidermy — works against women.

In China, women rarely change their names when they marry. Children may adopt their father's name or their mother's. It's not uncommon for the first child to use the father's surname, and the second the mother's. They rarely have trouble when traveling together.

What is your take on the name-change trend?

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  • Lisa

    I am happy for Tiffany that being "sqeezed out" of corporate America was the best thing that ever happened to her. However, the fact is that for many women with children, working is an economic neccessity and not a "choice." I am always surprised how rarely this fact comes up in these discussions.

    To quote Seinfeld's George Costanza "you know, we're living in a society!" Giving support to working mothers (and fathers) is a matter of extreme importance to everybody. It not only behooves companies to think of ways to do this but also our government. Two little words would be a good start: affordable childcare.

    I wonder if it is widely known that gender/wage gap has been recently analyzed and it was found that childless women now earn 90% of what their male counterparts earn, while mothers earn only 73%. That is quite simply unacceptable.

    Raising children is enormously expensive, which of course everyone knows (or should) going into it, but it is society who will benefit from well-raised and cared for children. Helping to make that possible is in everyone's best interest.

    Well, as Paula says, this too may be obvious, but I think it's worth reminding people about.

  • Paula S

    I agree that choosing to keep/change your marital name, just as in choosing to stay at home or work, or to what degree to mix the two -- these are all very personal choices, and it would be difficult for anyone on the outside to judge -- nor should they. It's hard to achieve everything, and I think we all recognize that we often have to choose between a number of outcomes that we want.

    In response to Tiffany's question, however:
    "Has women's liberation/feminism given us more or less freedom since it began July 13, 1848?"
    I'd find it difficult to believe that we have LESS freedom now, because freedom is about choices, and we simply do have those choices now, and didn't before. Could a woman in 1848 have been allowed to not choose her husband's name? Or in many cases, work outside the home? Or vote, or own property, or have her own bank account? We've certainly come a long way, and I for one do not wish to go back to those dark ages.

    But I wish that if you wanted to be a "careerist mom" this could be a viable choice, more so than it is now, and I feel that is the frustration that many of us feel. I was born in 1977, and honestly couldn't imagine either not staying home with my children for a few years, or not wanting to aspire to an executive position. I want both. Many do. From the women who have gone before us, we have seen that the costs of this are to sleep, health, and integrity of self -- if the corporations that we work for it even allow it.

    Simultaneously, I can also feel the simple tiredness that some women feel -- motherhood is fulfilling and all-encompassing and immensely rewarding soul work. I too, sometimes wish to completely reject the corporatist ethic. Until I hear a business idea, or read about the current state of politics in the paper, and want to participate. The "I can do that too!" moment, or even "I can do it better." Then I'm back where I started: torn in two.

    I feel that the way corporations are currently structured ignores a lot of what women bring to the table, and because of that, they are at a competitive disadvantage. It's to their loss -- adapt or go the way of the dinosaur! I am hopeful overall.

    If only, everyone could choose their path and their mix of work/family, but companies made it easier to be mothers and have flexible career schedules! I guess this is obvious, but no one's saying it. And how can we argue with the fact that the men that work longer and harder always come out ahead? Deservedly? That's what they're telling us... still murky for me.

  • Tiffany Weaver

    I agree with Avonelle Lovhaug. "Choice" is the operative word. I am a woman of God, a citzen of the United States and a college graduate; which means I enjoy freedom daily.
    I chose the school I attended, Christianity and my husband's surname, however I did not choose my birthplace. Either way, as an adult I have the choice.
    Corporate America "squeezed" me out of a position almost three years ago and it was the best thing that ever happened to me and my children. I realize that now, prior to that, I "chose" rather adopted the philosophy that having a title was more valuable to me than having the most significant title of them all, they call me Mom.

    Ultimately, the choice is ours. However the question today's woman is forced to ask herself is, "Has women's liberation/feminism given us more or less freedom since it began July 13, 1848?
    Finally, I will add that I also agree with "claudia".

  • Lisa

    After ten years of marriage and the birth of two children, I decided to change my last name to my husband's. I totally did it for the practical reasons that Shasha mentioned. I was tired of all the confusion whether while travelling or scheduling an appointment with the pediatrician.

    I find it interesting that it works differently in other countries, but the fact is that I live here, and it's a huge pain.

    Besides, I like that fact that I can go into a store in town and when people see my last name (I live in a small town) they say, Oh, are you Jasper's mom? To me, this enhances the idea that our family is a unit.

    By the way, to anyone that questions my feminist credentials: I did work at Ms. Magazine for seven years!

    PS I like what Claudia says.

  • claudia

    My only hope is that - as women - we support each other's choices - keep your name, take your husband's name - be a stay home mom, be a working mom. However, I think we need to work together to change how corporate culture values diversity. If you could "sex" organizations I'd say that a large majority are male and fail to value the contributions women can make by providing a different perspective, relationship style etc. Women - typically - relate, communicate very differently then men and it is often viewed as "soft" rather then open & collaborative. I'd like to see more women start their own organizations with a corporate culture that values diversity of styles - the resulting success could change the existing "male" model.

  • Valeria Maltoni

    Taking or not taking someone else's name is a matter of personal choic. Sometimes it's also a cultural inheritance.

    I was made in Italy where women do not usually take their husbands' surnames. So I never even entertained the thought. And my name has a nice foreign ring to it that goes with the accent.

    As far as organizations go, they are just entities and as such they do not have a face. The people working for those organizations come in all kinds... including those that do not feel comfortable working with women, no matter what year we're in. That has more to do with personal insecuries and cultural heritage than with anything else, I found.

    With personal life as well as corporate life it is very risky to generalize. We all make compromises one time or another. The true motives may not be so obvious.

  • Avonelle Lovhaug

    The notion that women are "compromising" when taking the surnames of their husbands is ridiculous. When I married, I took my husband's surname because I wanted to stick with tradition, and also because I wanted to demonstrate my commitment to my new spouse. My husband didn't care either way, but it was something that was important to me. Women are certainly entitled to do whatever they like in this regard, but kindly stop applying your values to my decision. I didn't *compromise*; I made a choice.

    Further, the notion that businesses need to adapt to fit the needs of women is completely backwards. Organizations should hire and promote the best individual for the job. It may be true that organizations who change their culture, benefits, etc. have a wider group of candidates (that includes more women) from which to choose. On the other hand, organizations are unlikely to make those kinds of changes unless they are having difficulty finding good quality candidates in the first place.

    I despise the suggestion that businesses should change to accommodate the needs and desires of female candidates. Apparently, individuals who make this argument think that women can't be successful on their own. This is a pretty insulting view, in my opinion.

  • Johanna Rothman

    I hope the trend is for people to make choices that fit for them. My daughters have my husband's name. We only have trouble traveling when I want to use my frequent flyer miles for them. For some reason, airlines make it incomprehensively difficult for a person to use miles for someone with another last name. You'd think with all the divorces and recreated families, they'd have caught on by now.

    I'm of the opinion that feminism is really for everyone. The more one sex placates the other (at home, in the workplace, wherever), the less society as a whole can use the talents of that sex. Children need all the parents they can get -- if Mommy or Daddy is working all the time, that's just like a single-parent home. Single parent homes can work; it's just harder.

    A trap that too many execs (women and men) seem to fall into is: work more hours and get more done. People don't work more hours and get more done. They work stupider and make more work for other people. I blogged a bit about this a while ago: here. My hope is that feminism (peoplelism??) will help everyone make choices that fit for them, depending on their circumstances.