More College Grads Drop Surnames

More college-educated women are adopting their husbands’ surnames than in past decades, according to a recent study by two Harvard researchers.

The study, published in the spring 2004 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, found that recent numbers point to a downward shift in the proportion of women retaining their own surnames—breaking a three-decade-long trend in which that proportion had risen.

Lee Professor of Economics Claudia Goldin and former student Maria Shim ’01 suggested that the rising median age at first marriage, proliferation of contraceptive pills and the increasing number of women pursuing “advanced academic degrees” were among the social factors contributing to the trend towards women keeping their maiden names, which they traced back to the late 1970s.

Oral contraceptives, the study said, enabled women to “plan an independent existence at an early age—one not defined solely by marriage and motherhood.”

But Goldin credited women’s success in the workforce and larger social arena before marriage as a primary factor in the initial trend.

“The most important reason is that women began making names for themselves,” Goldin said.

“Like the brand names of consumer goods, women elected to keep their surnames to protect the value of their contacts, publications and professional goodwill,” the study said.

But Goldin and Shim noted a trend reversal in recent years.

Culling from Massachusetts birth records, Goldin and Shim concluded that the number of “name-keepers” among married college graduates across the state was 23 percent in 1990. The figure dipped to 20 percent in 1995, falling to 17 percent in 2000.

The study found that Harvard alum data indicates a decline in name retention as well.

Among female Harvard graduates in 1980, 44 percent who reported being married chose to use their own names 10 years after graduation.

For members of the class of 1990, this figure tumbled to 32 percent.

And among college-educated women in the U.S., currently under 20 percent kept their surnames at marriage, the study said.

The study speculated that the shift could be attributed to several factors.

“Perhaps surname-keeping seems less salient as a way of publicly supporting equality for women than it did in the late 1970s and 1980s,” the study said.

The study also suggested that “a general shift to more conservative social values” contributed to the downward trend.

But in spite of the dipping figures, the study found that highly educated women are still more likely than less-educated ones to retain their surnames upon marriage.

The study, Goldin said, intended to examine “one part of a larger set of social changes—the integration of women in society and social equality.”

—Staff writer Margaret W. Ho can be reached at mwho@fas.harvard.edu.