Change surname upon marriage (or not): tradition or norm?

Whether or not to drop the surname given at birth and take the one belonging to one’s partner has been around for some time. It has become the ultimate tool for some women to affirm independence and empowerment. In the US especially – where it is legally allowed to choose what surname to use upon marriage – some are vocally rejecting this tradition, that is still the norm there. The claims against it, expressed in growing numbers not only by the newer generations, go from the feeling of “ownership” it implies to the desire to honour the family of origin line. And, especially among the highly educated, more women unapologetically stand against the use, believing it hides away or diminishes their accomplishments, like the titles granted by years of study (the likings of MA, MBA, PhD), or professional attainments (as in the medical or engineering sectors).

More recently, a growing number of sons and daughters are also fuelling the trend by asking to add their mother’s surname as a token of respect, love and appreciation. It is to honour his mother that the seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton, announced last year the decision to include her surname (Larbalestier) in his. Interviewed on the subject, he recently added: “I don’t fully understand the whole idea of why, when people get married, the woman loses her name. I really want her name to continue on with the Hamilton name.”

Leaving aside the debated topic of which surnames to give children, many countries, in reality, do not allow a woman to legally change her name upon marriage. The discussion in most places is rather about continuing ages-long traditions and questioning a use than the laws in place. Indeed though, today, when equality is often heartedly (or very heartedly) debated, to some, the use of “maiden name” represents a not-so-imaginary step toward further self-affirmation. But what is the actual situation around the world?

Does the law require it?

Countries like Italy, France, and the Netherlands, do not allow a woman to change her name upon marriage legally*. Here, even if a woman uses her husband’s surname in social instances, she cannot have it registered on official documents or passports. It is not uncommon, though, for Dutch women, for example, to informally use two surnames, hyphening them – for needs regarding children or to underline a marital status.

The Philippines and Germany allow the choice. In the first case, it only applies to women. In the second, both partners are offered the possibility. Citizens here can keep their family of origin’s name or choose to change it legally and take their spouse’s.

Different options are also allowed in the UK, some of which only require a little paperwork to be recorded. Still, most women traditionally take their husband’s surname, even if they can continue to keep their maiden surname or use it as a middle name. And, though more and more prefer to go under their family of origin name in professional contexts, it has increased also the number of women who choose to include their birth names alongside their spouse’s rather than change them completely – the percentage has risen by 30% between 2020 and 2021.

The situation is slightly different in Japan: marriage is only accepted if the couple shares one surname. But in 96%, the chosen one is that of the husband. Even if, almost ten years ago, there was an attempt to change it, the law still stands.

A matter of equality. Or a matter of tradition

Currently, a woman is required to take her husband’s surname in Turkey. However, some recent news signals some possible change. At the end of April this year, the Constitutional Court (AYM) abrogated the specific provision of the national Civil Code that regulates this matter. And it based its decision on considerations about equal treatment. According to the Turkish news portal Gazete Duvar, “the court concluded that the different treatment between men and women in the context of using their surname alone after marriage violates the principle of equality since it is not based on an objective and reasonable basis”.

On the other side of the ocean, the possibilities are multiple by law in the USA. Both members of a couple can choose among adopting the partner’s surname, keeping their own, hyphenating the two or even coming up with a different one altogether. Yet, despite the growing feminist movement and increased gender equality awareness, it is still more common for women to take their partner’s surname and change their documents. Only about 20% to 30% of them retain their maiden names when they marry – of which, mostly opt to add it to their spouse and hyphenate them. Grooms very rarely drop their names altogether and adopt their brides.

Besides laws and traditions, especially where a choice is allowed, more men today question the habit of changing surnames upon marriage. And, at the same time, in the US and among higher-educated women mainly, the trend to use their maiden name in professional environments is consolidating – even if they have legally changed it. The common ideas behind it are, on the one hand, to cement and show the becoming of a couple. On the other, though, to remark personal achievements and attainments outside the marital status.

* It is admitted in some particular cases, but only under certain circumstances, and it can require a long, often complex process.


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