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The Unisex Name Map of America—and What It Tells Us

January 29, 2020 laurawattenberg 12 Comments

The Unisex Name Map of America—and What It Tells Us

January 29, 2020 LauraWattenberg 12 Comments

Unisex baby names are on the rise. Nationwide, names used for both boys and girls are more popular today than ever before. Why?

If you read media reports of the phenomenon, the answer seems clear: it stems from a new commitment to gender equality and fluidity. Unisex names “defy stereotyping” and point to the “post-gender” thinking of “open-minded and accepting” millennial parents ready to “embrace the possibility of gender fluidity in their children and attempt to head off sexism on their behalf.” But a closer look at the name data suggests these explanations are off base. The rate of unisex naming in an American community does not point to stereotype-defying views of gender. In fact, the reverse appears to be true.

The rate of unisex naming varies from state to state, and the pattern is far from what you would expect to see if progressive gender views drove the adoption of gender-neutral names. In this naming map, a darker shade of orange indicates greater popularity of unisex names. (Methodology Notes)

US Map: Unisex Baby Naming Rates by State

If you’re familiar with American voting trends, you’ll note a relationship in the map between unisex naming and conservative politics. An even tighter link emerges when you look at issues surrounding traditional gender roles.

The three states ranking highest in unisex naming, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, are the exact same three ranking lowest in Bloomberg’s index of gender equality. They also earn the lowest possible ratings in transgender rights from the Transgender Law Center, while the states with the lowest unisex name rates score high on that measure. The entire map further reflects University of Chicago economists’ findings on the prevalence of sexist attitudes. For instance, politically conservative states that score low in sexism, like Wyoming and Alaska, also tend to score lower than other conservative-voting states in unisex naming.

In short, the pattern appears to be the opposite of what has been popularly reported. A high unisex naming rate corresponds to more rigid, traditional views of gender roles.

This apparent paradox mirrors another phenomenon, that progressive politics tend to go hand-in-hand with “conservative” baby naming and vice versa. My past research has attributed that contradiction to the higher average maternal age and education in politically progressive communities. Older parents with professional careers lean toward a more traditional, conservative style, in names just as in clothing. And traditional names are more likely to be gender-specific.

Interestingly, the unisex name map also suggests a second factor at work. States with higher Catholic populations show lower rates of unisex naming. The trend is consistent regardless of the ethnic backgrounds of local Catholic populations. This appears to be a name-specific phenomenon, arising from religious naming traditions. The rate of Catholicism in a state does not correlate strongly with other political and gender views.

Overall, nothing in the naming patterns suggests that the rise of unisex names is due to a deliberate focus on gender neutrality. Rather, it’s an inevitable side effect of modern fashion trends—trends that move fastest in places with younger parents and fewer Catholic families. The more that parents seek out fresh and creative name choices, the more they enter a realm where names have no traditional gender associations. It’s not just that Americans today are naming kids Zephyr and Royal, it’s that they’re not naming them William and Katherine. Supporting this side-effect theory is the fact that states with high unisex naming rates also favor new and strongly gendered hit names like King and Paisley.

Certainly, some individual families do turn to unisex names out of their commitment to gender equality or self-determination. And certainly, any writer who expects that impulse to be the source of the naming trend will be able to find such families. But the national movement toward unisex names is simply not about that. On balance, parents are not rejecting single-sex names as limiting; they are rejecting traditional names as boring. This trend, ultimately, is about style.

LauraWattenberg
LauraWattenberg

Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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12 Comments

  • nedibes
    nedibes January 29, 2020 at 10:09 pm

    Laura, do you have any idea of what these stats would look like if you colored the map based on density of unisex names *by gender*? In other words, do Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana have the highest rate of boys named Robin as well as girls named Ridley? My general feeling is that while the trend is largely driven by folks who have bought the idea that anything masculine is better than anything feminine, and therefore give their daughters gender neutral or traditionally masculine names, it’s kept afloat by the other side of the equation—parents who really *are* more open to gender fluidity and less caught up in gender stereotypes, and who continue to name their sons Avery and Parker even as those names take off for girls, rather than fleeing in horror at the first sign that a name might be “going girl”.

    On the topic of demography driving naming taste, didn’t you once have a column, or maybe it was just a discussion, about how parents’ naming taste can change when they move from one place to another? Like parents who go from Utah to Massachusetts might have kids named Maverick, Brindle, and…Margaret. Or if they go the other way, you might see James, Susan, and…Caressia. Certainly the PhDs and MDs and JDs who I know in the Midwest are apparently much more likely to choose names like Junius and Boudicca and Carter and Quinn than their coastal sisters, regardless of their age, political persuasion, or educational background.

    • nedibes
      nedibes January 29, 2020 at 10:15 pm

      Oh, also, are people in the U.P. really not using unisex names at all, or should it be colored like the rest of Michigan? It actually wouldn’t surprise me to learn their naming trends are more like Wisconsin than Michigan, but it would surprise me if they’re calculated separately from the rest of the state. (Of course some Yoopers have advocated to be their own state for a long time, so I’m not ruling out the possibility.)

    • Sabrina February 3, 2020 at 6:31 pm

      You have a good point about preferring masculinity over femininity–I think a lot of these little-girl Hunters are born to dads who would love it if they grew up to be, well, hunters. One of the ideals of southern white womanhood is a gal who presents as feminine, but loves football and goes shooting and/or mud-bogging with the boys.

      I don’t think the unisex boy names are all in progressive families, though. Southern white men have long sported unisex names, and even female names like Lindsay, Allison, Dee. From that perspective, today’s Connors and Averys fit right in. I think a lot of these folks expect their son’s gender to be so obvious (clothing, hobbies, etc) from the start that they aren’t worried about gender confusion. In a way, these unisex names reflect a lack of gender fluidity, rather than an openness to it.

      At least, that is my suspicion as a transplant to Georgia…

  • LauraWattenberg
    LauraWattenberg January 29, 2020 at 11:29 pm

    That’s a good point, @nedibes — there’s a sociological difference between giving a unisex name to a boy vs. a girl. I don’t have the full stats to hand to give you a definitive answer, but from some spot-checking it doesn’t look like that’s a major part of the phenomenon. E.g. Avery is more popular for boys in Alabama than in Massachusetts, and the ratio of male to female Averys is higher in Alabama as well.

    As for the Upper Peninsula, oops!! That’s a shading error, thank you for spotting it. I’ll fix asap.

  • Evie
    Evie January 30, 2020 at 4:21 pm

    Laura, this analysis is . One of my first thoughts looking at the map before reading the article was “Hmm, looks like states with a bigger Hispanic population have less unisex naming, which makes sense given the gendering of names in Spanish,” but you went a step further and linked it to Catholicism, which ropes Massachusetts into the explanation and makes even more sense (given there aren’t a whole lot of Saint Rileys). And I love that you actually found those gender equality rankings rather than just using the political map as a proxy.

    • Evie
      Evie January 30, 2020 at 4:22 pm

      That first sentence should read “this analysis is *chef’s kiss*” but looks like my use of brackets confused the software, oops!

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg January 30, 2020 at 5:10 pm

      Yep, the #1 least unisex state, Rhode Island, is also the #1 most Catholic despite having a pretty low Hispanic population. (RI is the most Italian state in America, plus lots of Portuguese and Irish heritage and a large and growing Brazilian population.)

  • Elizabeth January 31, 2020 at 2:47 pm

    How fascinating! Out of curiosity, I went through my FB friends to see if any of my Catholic friends had children with unisex names. Out of at least 200 children, I found two girls named Morgan (not really a unisex name at this point), one boy named Casey, one boy named Logan, one boy named Sawyer, one boy named Carter, and one girl named Shawn. All of the other children had clearly-gendered names. My non-Catholic friends’ children have more surname-type names and more unisex names. These include: Logan (g), Campbell (g), Harper (g), Kerrington (g), Avery (2 boys), Cameron (b), Ashton (g), Skyler (g), Riley (g), Hayden (g), Jordan (g), Talon (b), Kirby (g), and Salem (b). This was a very interesting exercise! My friends tend to lean left politically and as a result, I think that most of them chose very traditional names for their children. But not all, and not all of my right-leaning friends chose modern names.

  • Sébastiane February 10, 2020 at 8:38 pm

    There is a huge part still missing and overlooked. Scots – Irish heritage. Most of these states have a high rate of people who are of Scots Irish ancestry. The same demographic also tends to be Protestant and conservative. The Scots – Irish have had a long history of using surnames as first names, especially if it appears in their family tree. You can find old records dating back to the 18th-Century of early Scots – Irish Americans using the mother’s maiden name as a first name on their oldest child, and not necessarily always exclusively on males either.
    Most of these gender neutral names are Scots – Irish family names so it can probably be argued these seemingly gender neutral names are actually traditional for that particular demographic.

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg February 11, 2020 at 2:42 am

      @Sébastiane I’m very interested in your point about Scots-Irish heritage, but I’m not certain I completely follow it. When you say “most of these states,” which are you referring to? If you’re talking about the historical influence of Scots-Irish naming traditions on the Southeastern US style of surnames-as-given-names, I absolutely agree! But I think that’s further support for the notion that the growth of unisex names is primarily a style-driven phenomenon.

      The use of actual family names doesn’t lead to trendy hits, and in fact such usage is often statistically invisible because it’s distributed across so many rare names. Plus a lot of the hot Southern unisex names are not surnames at all, or at least not primarily: River, Dallas, Armani, Remington, Eden, Dakota, Memphis, Justice, etc.

      • TheOtherHungarian
        TheOtherHungarian February 12, 2020 at 12:02 am

        Um, except Dallas, Armani, and Remington absolutely did start off as surnames. (Possibly Memphis as well, at least in a chronological sense.)

        • LauraWattenberg
          LauraWattenberg February 12, 2020 at 12:23 am

          @TheOtherHungarian Sorry, I should clarify–when I said “not primarily surnames” I mean that’s not the main cultural association/style driver. Dallas is perceived as a place name first, Remington & Armani as brand names. (As far as I know Memphis has never been a surname, only a place name?)

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