While most women still take their husband's surname after they marry, various alternatives have become more popular in recent years. Husbands take their wives' surnames, some couples combine their surnames and, of course, women are increasingly shunning the practice altogether and keeping their own names.
While this subversion of the marital tradition is a positive choice for many women, it could affect how people perceive their husband. According to a new study, men whose wives don't take their surname are seen as disempowered and less masculine by their peers, while the women are considered high-status, powerful, ambitious and assertive.
Researchers from the University of Nevada carried out three studies, asking U.K. and U.S.-based undergraduates to fill out an online survey in which they were asked to imagine a hypothetical scenario where a heterosexual woman kept her name after marrying. They then had to describe what they thought of the husband's personality.
In the first two studies, the husbands whose wives kept their surnames were considered to be less powerful in the relationship and were described with "terms that are counter to the gender-typical personality traits and power framework used for men."
"A woman's marital surname choice, therefore, has implications for perceptions of her husband's instrumentality, expressivity, and the distribution of power in the relationship," said Rachael Robnett, the study's lead author. "Our findings indicate that people extrapolate from marital surname choices to make more general inferences about a couple's gender-typed personality traits."
This perception isn't universal, however, with people who cling on to traditional gender roles and "hostile sexists" having particularly strong opinions about men whose wives retain their surnames and negative reactions to women who violate gender norms.
Robnett said this was just the latest study to point towards a link between traditions in heterosexual romantic relationships and power structures benefiting men. "The marital surname tradition is more than just a tradition. It reflects subtle gender-role norms and ideologies that often remain unquestioned despite privileging men."
Nevertheless, taking a man's surname remains popular – even among young women. A YouGov poll last year found that most women (59%) would like to take their spouse's surname, with just 2% more men wanting them to do so. Surprisingly, given the push against outdated gender norms among younger women, they were just as likely as older women to want to give up their name for their husband's.