Do you use your family name throughout your life? For most men, the answer is yes. For women, the answer is not so simple. A smorgasbord of cultural differences and changing mores influence the decision.

Retaining Your Own Name in Various Systems

In China, Hong Kong, Iran, Korea, and Taiwan, a woman retains her surname at marriage and the children take the husband's surname. The woman may informally use her husband's surname in social situations, but her legal name never changes. This is seen as a way for the woman to retain family identity. So, even though a woman marries, her birth family and ancestors remain a part of her identity.

In other examples, French law stipulates that every person must use the name that is on their birth certificate, regardless of marriage. The Canadian province of Quebec adheres to the same regulations, differing from the rest of Canada.

This is also true in both Greece and Italy, where couples are legally required to keep their original surnames upon marriage. Turkish law was revised in 2014 to allow women to retain their surname upon marriage. Until then, women were legally required to take their husband’s surname. Children are given the father's surname. In Iceland, a person's surname is their father's first name with either Dottir or Son appended to it. This remains the person's name for the rest of their life.

In Russia, a woman has to officially apply to the civil acts registrar to change her surname upon marriage. This can be done on the marriage certificate.

Until the law was changed in 2013, an Austrian woman was automatically given her husband's surname upon marriage. Now, the woman must make a legal application if she wants to adopt her husband's surname.

In Japan, married couples must use one surname. Although technically there is no requirement that this be the husband's surname, the culture dictates that it is.

In 1977, Germany passed a law to further gender equality stating that either person may adopt the other person's surname at marriage. If one of them chooses to use a name combined from both surnames, the remaining single name is the "family name," which is the surname of the children. (For example, if Johanna Berlin marries Frederich Bonner, she may call herself Johanna Berlin-Bonner. The children would be given the surname Bonner.) If both parties retain their surname after marriage, they must declare one of the names as the "family name". (If Johanna and Frederich retained their surnames, they decide if the children would be called Berlin or Bonner.) The law was changed in 2005 to allow both names to be joined with a dash and become the "family name".

In most Spanish-speaking countries, people have two surnames, those of their father and mother, with the father's surname first. In Spain, a 1995 law allowed parents to choose whether the father's or the mother's surname goes first. For example, Jose Garcia-Perez and Ilona Real-Barros become Sr. and Sra. Garcia-Real, or Real-Garcia.

In the Netherlands, there is no requirement that a woman adopt the husband's or partner's surname. She may use her partner's surname for social purposes or join both names. Both men and women may make this choice upon registering to get married or entering into a registered partnership.

American suffragist and abolitionist Lucy Stone made the right of a woman to keep her surname part of her national activities in 1856. Her impact was so deep that women who choose not to use their husbands' surnames were referred to as "Lucy Stoners". This practice has gone away.

Cycle of Changes

In countries like the USA and the UK where there is no legal requirement or prohibition concerning which name is to be used upon marriage, the practice of keeping one’s maiden name declined in the 1980s and began rising again in the 1990s according to various studies.

Women of my generation generally took their husband's name without thinking about it. This was the sign of being a unit. Women who had time to develop a professional reputation might use their surname as their middle name, but they did adopt their husband's surname.

Women in the next decade were more outwardly feminist (the "Ms. Generation") and it became in vogue to retain your own surname. Some women retained their surname in business but used their husband's surname in social situations and on legal documents.

These solutions were followed by double-barreled surnames, where the surnames of both parties were separated by a hyphen. This is not particularly common in the USA, with less than 7% of married couples taking this approach.

Some couples blend each person's surname and create a new surname for themselves and their offspring. I'd imagine this could be fun to consider over a bottle of wine. I'm not quite sure that all surnames would lend themselves to this. I can see a couple simply agreeing upon a separate, third surname that they both like.

In some situations, the husband may adopt the wife's surname upon marriage. This was so rare in the USA that it required legislation to make this possible in every state - the Names Equity Law of 2007.

Recently a new trend appears to be emerging, or really the adoption of an old trend, with the proliferation of social media: women inserting their maiden name as their middle name. This does make it easier for high school friends to find you; we no longer have to be adept at researching to locate someone who might have changed surnames several times. Interestingly, this has been common practice in the Philippines for decades. A smorgasbord indeed

What name do you use? Do you believe your identity is tied into your name? Let us know below! 

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