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)
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.