Sloppy statistics: Do 50% of Americans really think married women should be legally obligated to change their names?

Jill Filipovic wrote an opinion column for The Guardian yesterday, arguing against the practice of women taking their husbands' names when they get married. It ended up linked on Jezebel and found its way to my Facebook feed where one particular statistic caught my eye. Filipovic claimed that 50% of Americans think a women should be legally required to take her husband's name.

First, some quick clarification of my biases here. Although I write under a hyphenate, I never have legally changed my name. I've never had a desire to do so. In my private life, I'm just Maggie Koerth and always will be. That said, I personally take issue with the implication at the center of Filipovic's article — that women shouldn't change their names and that to do so makes you a bad feminist. For me, this is one of those personal decisions where I'm like, whatever. Make your own choice. Just because I don't get it doesn't mean you're wrong.

But just like I take objection to being all judgey about personal choices, I also take objection to legally mandating personal choices, and I was kind of blown away by the idea that 50% of my fellow Americans think my last name should be illegal.

So I looked into that statistic. And then I got really annoyed.

First off, Filipovic doesn't cite a source for that stat. Some of her other numbers — specifically, that 10% of Americans think that keeping your name means you aren't dedicated to your marriage — are cited, with a link to an Atlantic Wire article that links to a Livescience piece about a survey of a couple hundred students at a small Midwestern college. That study, itself, wasn't actually meant to tell you what the American public thinks as a whole. It was meant to compare changing attitudes between 1990 and 2006 in a place that was specifically chosen because it was likely to be fairly conservative. It was specifically meant to contrast with previous research that had overly focused on the choices and attitudes of upper-income East Coasters. In other words, the data doesn't say what Filipovic says it does.

The 50% statistic comes from a 2011 paper, published in the journal Gender & Society. The whole PDF is online, if you want to read it.

In that survey, 22.3% of respondents strongly agreed with the question, "In the past, some states legally required a woman to change her name to her husband's name. Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree that this was a good idea?" Another 27.6% somewhat agreed. And that adds up to 49.9%.

But it doesn't tell the full story.

First off, this was a survey of a little more than 800 people, almost half of whom were from Indiana. They were randomly chosen — so that's better than, say, a survey of college students — but it's still a far cry from saying, "This is what half of all Americans believe."

Second, there's a difference between "strongly agree" and "somewhat agree". Just like there's a difference between "somewhat disagree" and "strongly disagree". If you've ever taken a survey where those were your only choices, you know that it's often difficult to fit your actual beliefs into the boxes. Although the authors did ask follow-up questions, the paper doesn't discuss them in this particular context, so it's hard to say exactly what the people answering "somewhat agree" actually meant to say. There is some evidence in the paper, though, that what was really being expressed here was a belief in the rightness of families sharing an identity. On another question, "It's okay for a man to take his wife's name when he marries," a full 53.5% either agreed or strongly agreed. (Although some of those people seemed to agree with the idea in a way that suggested they found it unlikely to actually happen.) And the authors of the paper even ended up connecting both these responses to strong "collectivist" or "individualist" ideas about marriage and family.

Finally, while there were certainly people surveyed who thought women should change their names because of religious ideology or what many of us would probably consider outdated notions of who in the relationship "belongs" to whom, what respondents thought about name changes didn't necessarily reflect what they thought about female equality. Sixty-seven percent of these people disagreed with the idea of strict "man as breadwinner, woman in the home" gender roles. Eighty-two percent thought that working mothers could have just as good of a relationship with their children as stay-at-home moms. And 80% disagreed with the idea that it was more important for a woman to support her husband's career and goals than her own.

Oh, and it's also worth noting that the answers on name-change questions split much more obviously along cultural lines — race, education level, income, where you live in the country — than did the answers to the questions on gender roles, which were much more uniform. Essentially, there's some evidence here that what you think about name changes has more to do with the cultural expectations you live with than it does with what you actually think about women.

All of that kind of serves to undermine, rather than support, Filipovic's position. The survey doesn't tell us what all Americans believe. But it does tell us that it's perfectly possible to feel uncomfortable with the idea of a woman not changing her name upon marriage and still feel pretty comfortable with the idea that women are people. As a feminist, it's that latter idea I actually care about.

So why does this bother me so much?

Here's the thing. I grew up in a fairly conservative and religious culture, listening to Christian radio and hearing all sorts of "outrageous" news about how liberals were oppressing people and trying to take away our ability to choose our own way of life.

As a teenager and young adult, I started looking into those claims more closely and found that the vast majority weren't true. These situations and statistics weren't ever just made up out of whole cloth, but they were deeply misrepresented and contorted in order to support a pre-determined thesis. The closer you looked at what actually happened, what had actually been said, how people surveyed had actually responded, the more the intended sense of outrage and oppression vanished in a puff of logic.

That experience made me a skeptic. It also made me feel pretty damn betrayed and used.

Today, I'd classify myself as fairly liberal. But it still makes me angry when people misuse, misconstrue, and misrepresent information in order to manipulate me into feeling oppressed and outraged. It still pisses me off when all I have to do is spend 15 minutes reading in order to easily figure out that "those people" are not actually out to get me. And I don't really care whether it's "my side" or "their side" doing it. Either way, it makes me angry.

Half the people I meet in my daily life do not want to take away my right to choose my own last name. (Or, at least, there's no evidence of that here.) Whether or not you change your last name — and whether or not you think married women should change their last name — is not the strongest predictor of what you think about women's equality. (At least, that doesn't seem to be the case according to this survey.)

If Jill Filipovic thinks women should keep their own last names, well, great. I enjoy keeping mine. But she should be able to make that point without trying to scare people and without trying to misrepresent what a name change does and doesn't mean about our personal beliefs.

Image: marriage license, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from sadsnaps's photostream