academic name changes

OW’s post about her problems from not changing her name reminds me of a question that came up last week in Bloomington over lunch. The question concerns women scientists — well, let’s start out by restricting attention to women sociologists — who are placed in tenure-line academic jobs. Some women have publication records in which they publish under one surname, and then later on–say, no earlier than after completion of their PhD–switch and publish under an entirely different surname. Leave the matter of name hyphenation out of this: I’m talking about case where if my CV went from publications as “Jeremy Freese” to publications as, say, “Jeremy McDonald”.

The question: when this happens, how much of the time is it because the woman has gotten married, and how much of the time is it because the woman has gotten divorced? This is in principle an empicial question that has an answer, but I don’t know what the answer is, so I invite your speculation. (Or, if this actually a question with a known answer out there somewhere and somebody wants to offer that, all the better.)

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

18 thoughts on “academic name changes”

  1. In addition to the odds of name change for each event (marriage and divorce), it depends how old they are:

    American Community Survey, 2010-2012: Women with PhDs:
    Age 25-39
    Married in previous year: 14,392
    Divorced in previous year: 2,682
    (This includes 154 who were both married and divorced in the last year)

    Age 40-64
    Married in previous year: 4,856
    Divorced in previous year: 5,327
    (This includes 273 who were both married and divorced in the last year)

    Save the ACS Marital Events/History Questions! (


  2. My gut feeling is that it’s much more likely to be divorce. A woman who chooses to take her husband’s name (or adopt a new, shared option) after marriage can easily keep her original professional name without a lot of dissonance. There is more baggage retaining a name that was one’s husband’s when he’s no longer around, especially when it’s not rooted in one’s history like a maiden/family name might be. There is also more pressure in sociological circles (if we restrict it like you suggest) to not change one’s name with marriage and/or to embrace one’s maiden/family name.

    As an aside, I also think that this is much more common for contemporary women. My advisor in grad school (and another woman in the department) both kept their married names post-divorce because they were their professional names. That stability was likely more important to them, especially with all the other issues they faced as women academics at the time, as name changes were something that only women would do (then, that’s also less the case now) and could be seen a flitting around or unserious.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The cases I know of from women older than I am are (1) married name–>birth name upon divorce; (2) birth name ->married named upon marriage –> birth name upon divorce. (3) birth name –> married name (upon marriage) –> married name #2 (upon divorce/remarriage).

    I know of a young man who changed his name between first and second publications upon marriage, but the first publication was pre-PhD.


  4. There is another issue with alphabetizing when people use three names, which sometimes reflects a birth name or married name (e.g., Evelyn Nakano Glenn is sometimes alphabetized under Nakano. I’m not commenting on the story of her names, just that she uses three)


      1. I would bet that number is lower among sociologists, OW, and especially those who got married during or after graduate training, rather than before.


      2. Jessica: even so. Women taking their husband’s names dates from the doctrine of coverture, in which a married woman ceased to exist as a separate legal being and was subsumed into her husband. It’s like celebrating slavery. The numbers depress me because it means that the legal system is geared up to facilitate women changing their names (and thus having no stable identity) with every marriage, which makes it all that much harder for anyone who wants to resist the tide. Keeping your own name becomes some kind of symbol of not loving your husband enough instead of what it is, seeing yourself as a consistent human being through space and time with a consistent identity. Given the high divorce rates and the probability that women will be changing their names multiple times, it seems either that women have (once again) been browbeaten into believing that having a name and a consistent identity across time is irrelevant, or that patriarchy and male dominance are back in the saddle, or that women imagine that they can ward off the risk of divorce by changing their identity when they marry. None of these are very cheerful thoughts. (I do know that people talk about “families should have one name” and “I didn’t like my name anyway” but those discourses don’t account for the main effect, as the reality of high divorce rates is that lots of families don’t have one name.)

        In the 1970s, the only way a married woman could resist having her name changed against her will was to adamantly insist on using her own name always in all circumstances even in the face of coercive pressure to do otherwise.If she ever used her married name even once, she was presumed to have capitulated and to have changed her name for all time. You had to be constantly on guard. That is what the Social Security officer is basically arguing, that one little slip changed my name forever, regardless of what I thought about the matter. All the social forces are back in place to do this again.

        Liked by 3 people

  5. “…makes it all that much harder for anyone who wants to resist the tide.”

    This seems like an important part of the disappointment of the older generation in the new. We aren’t yet in a situation were the *choice* is costless because institutions still expect women to change their names. I imagine that this is a bigger deal when you have children, but I don’t have direct evidence. Others can speak to that.

    Related, it could be helpful for families to have alternative ways to develop a shared identity, other than around a name.


    1. Exactly. If roughly 50% choose option A and 50% choose option B, everybody has a choice. But if 94% choose option A, there are tremendous social pressures to choose A and the meaning of a B choice is that you are willing to be a deviant and stand up against cultural pressure and, conversely, it cannot truly be said that A is freely chosen if the alternative is to accept the label of social deviant.

      It would be an entirely different system if everyone, regardless of gender, at age 21 chose a new surname to go through adulthood with. That isn’t what we are looking at.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I wonder what proportion of the 67% are people where both partners have the same surname but that involved a change for both? I assume small but it seems like I’m not alone (among sociologists at least) in going that route upon marriage. My last name was an old dead name in my husband’s family so we both dropped our surnames upon marriage because we wanted the same name but I didn’t want to take his (and Wakefield was sufficiently dead in his family that it didn’t feel like “his” and still doesn’t).

    I’m also aware of a number of people who kept their names but gave their children a made-up name that merged the two originals (or traded off surnames among multiple offspring) so there is messiness in the 33% too. Olderwoman is surely right about the institutional piece of this (for example, my husband had to go to court to show he wasn’t trying to dodge a felony to change his name whereas I could do it on the marriage certificate), but I think folks have come up with some interesting workarounds…

    When I divorced, I thought about going back to my maiden name but I’d developed a small network in the field at that point where no one knew me by my former name (but not so large a network that I could ignore the cost) so it seemed risky for vague and unknown reasons. Olderwoman’s reaction was one of them, I didn’t want to get tagged as having “taken” my husband’s name. For what it’s worth, my ex-husband never went back to his old name either, my daughter now often laughingly calls herself a merge of her last name and my new partner’s, and I sort of enjoy that we’re an odd collection of friends (or half-sisters and step-mothers, full and psuedo fathers) that all share the same name or refer to ourselves through merges of two of them. If all this wonderful messiness continues, will have major problems…


  7. Hi. A Google search led me here, and it appears that you all are a bunch of academic sociologists who might be able to provide some insight and guidance re: my current dilemma.

    In August of this year, I completed my PhD in clinical psychology and also filed for divorce. I am going the academic route and currently have 12 publications under my married name (DeBoer). I dropped the maiden name (Hopkins) when I married 6 years ago and have never published under it. I have hopes/expectations of eventually re-partnering and having kids and whatnot, and I would very much like to (legally, personally, and professionally) return to my original surname (which will not change again should I remarry!).

    For professional purposes, I’m currently leaning toward using “Hopkins DeBoer” for the next few-to-several years, and then eventually dropping the “DeBoer.” My concern with this is that — because the name change is due to divorce and not marriage, and because I’d like to eventually drop the DeBoer — I’d end up having 12 pubs under “DeBoer” and also some (hopefully lots) under “Hopkins” that would not be linked by a common surname.

    Questions I have:
    1. How much does this really matter, considering both my current stage (research postdoc fellow) and number of pubs?
    2. Are any of you aware of women in academia who have been in a similar situation (i.e., divorce-related name change with no history of publishing under the maiden name that she would like to return to)?
    3. If I do follow the course I described above, would you recommend “Hopkins DeBoer” or a hyphenated “Hopkins-DeBoer,” in order to prevent people from lopping off the Hopkins when citing me?

    Any thoughts/feedback — from both men and women — will be greatly appreciated.


    P.S. Thank you for your previous thoughtful comments, particularly the ones about how patriarchal and “backwards” our society still is… even in institutions commonly thought of as the most progressive. *Sigh*


    1. The question is whether having a transitional name will help everyone to realize you are the same person, or whether just biting the bullet now is better. I’m honestly not sure which is the better approach. I feel more confident about advice that nibbles around the edge of the problem. (1) I’m pretty sure the hyphen is better than no hyphen if you are going to use a transitional name as even the most clueless will be able to figure out what is going on with a mix of DeBoer, Hopkins-DeBoer, and Hopkins on your c.v. And people do get confused about how to handle unhyphenated double last names, even when they are 100% sympathetic and want to do/use the right thing. Punctuation helps. (2) Setting up a Google Scholar profile (and presumably profiles at other sites) is especially helpful for people with name ambiguities as it lets you find and associate all your publications with your profile. Or at least I think it does. I guess my problems were all about disassociating publications with a similar name. (3) Clearly listing your previous name on your cv.

      At your relatively early career stage, I’m thinking that just doing the deed once and going straight from DeBoer to Hopkins but putting “formerly DeBoer” under your name on your cv and doing something clearly to mark the publications under a former name might be the best strategy, so you don’t have to do it all over again later.

      The one very prominent person I know of who went the route of own name to married name back to own name was Elaine Hatfield who was Elaine Walster for a while.
      She seems to be trying erase the Walster era from her own cv and identity as her cv lists things that were published as Walster using the Hatfield name. Which is not surprising as she was the first recipient of Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award, so in her case ditching the married name along with the husband let her rebuild her professional identity without being hounded by the publicity.

      Other prominent women sociologists I know: Elizabeth Thomson has some early publications as Elizabeth Hilton (her married name), returned to her birth name and kept it after remarrying. Jane Piliavin first published as Jane Allyn (birth name), then Jane Hardyck (1st husband), then Jane Allyn Piliavin (2nd and final husband). Well Jane started as a psychologist, but spent the bulk of her career in a sociology department and turned into a sociologist.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. OW, as always, has a very thoughtful reply. If it was me, I would simply change – and do so to your original/final name – once you accept a permanent position. Search committees will be able to find all the things you’ve done to consider in recruiting/hiring you, but when you arrive you’ll be able to start over with a whole new slate and put Hopkins everywhere, establishing that as your professional name moving forward. I also think that fewer changes is better, so I’d just completely cut ties with DeBoer when you do. Good luck.


      1. Thank you, OW and Jessica, for your very thoughtful replies!

        Jessica– I am 4 months into a 2-year postdoc. Do you recommend that I continue publishing under DeBoer while on postdoc and not change until I get a tenure-track (or more permanent) position?


      2. I was going to disagree with Jessica and say you should just change now and get it over with, but then I realized she’s thinking about people googling you and not just using your c.v. So suggesting that you look for work under the name people already know you by and then change.

        But if you are just at the beginning of a two year post doc, you could change your name now both socially and interpersonally as well as professionally, and get everyone who knows you used to the new name now so when they are writing letters for you, they will be used to the new name. The longer you use the old name, the more weight it will carry. But you can start now to ask the people who wrote for you when you got your PhD to switch their letters to the new name; I’ve done that for people and it is a pretty minor edit in a letter. You can even ask them to say (formerly XX)

        A consideration is that if people hire you under one name and then you come under another, they will be the ones to have to switch. I don’t know whether that is easier or harder than asking your current colleagues to do the switching.

        And back to the social security stuff, you will want to make sure you are payrolled under the name you really want to use. Maybe getting that done now is worth the trouble.


  8. So, it seems best to just do a clean switch ASAP, from DeBoer to Hopkins, with no double-name or hyphenated interim. I trust that colleagues, friends, and future employers will be able to deal with it. And if not (and maybe even if), I will write something on the now-obsolete patriarchy of taking one’s husband’s name… for women both in out out of the “professional world,” where one’s name/reputation seems to matter most.

    We are incredibly fortunate to live in a relatively progressive time and society, in which we can have this discussion without backlash. Yet, even the most highly educated and feministic among young women (i.e., I speak for those who bridge the gen-x/millennial categories; 30-year-olds in 2014 are not adequately categorized by you sociological historians ;) ) are blindly shaped by limiting gender norms and expectations… especially if you grow up in the South, as I did. GDI, Dallas.

    Anyway, I feel that this issue is one of many that continues to quietly, subtly keep women down in STEM and professional/leadership success in general. I point no fingers toward a gender, an organization, etc. It’s a part of our collective subconscious… which continues to change, hopefully for the betterment of humankind.


    1. Well, while we are discussing patriarchy, I might mention (back on my own farm) not only is the SSA refusing to fix the problem without a court order, the latest letter written to my lawyer had the infuriating audacity to refer to me condescendingly as “Mrs Hisname,” insisting that my true identity is what THEY think it is.


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