Cultural Crossroad: What’s in a (Last) Name?

This weekend I received an email from a friend:

Random question for you! Did you ever think about changing your name after marriage? Did you and S talk about it? I haven’t changed my name and it bothers my other half every blue moon. I’m really torn.

I didn’t say it was an easy question.

It’s a social custom that a woman in the US will change her last name to her husband’s after marriage. This is an interesting concept, because as everyone knows, divorce is quite common in the US. My mom and dad were not immune to it, though my father’s name remained the same (naturally) following the divorce.

How would it feel, after being married for 25 years, being called half of the Mr. & Mrs. John Johnson this whole time, that due to a divorce, you now no longer have a “reason” to be called Jane Johnson? Do you keep this name, do you leave it? You’ve met decades of people that know you only with this name, possibly your children, or their children, too. How could you explain that one day Grandma Johnson was now Grandma Nelson?

It wasn’t until my 20s when I had to entertain the prospect of maybe marrying and changing my name did I really start thinking how much I liked My Name.

My first name, being Sara, is quite common so when I was growing up my last name was really my identifier. “Sara R” or “Rosso” was the way people distinguished me from Sara E, Sarah F, etc. As I grew up, it also became part of my identity as it was an Italian-sounding last name, belonging to grandparents I never had a chance to meet. And when things were starting to get serious between S and I, and we didn’t know which country we would end up in, I started thinking about My Name.

I liked My Name, I wanted to keep it, it was mine.

Why did I have to give it away or change it? I started to realize that most, almost all, Italian women do not take their husband’s name upon marriage. They keep their own. When you introduce yourself as Jane Nelson, they do not assume there is a Mr. Nelson. Many times a mother may identify herself by her husband’s last name when speaking to a school to establish herself as the mother of her child, “Hello, it’s Signora Conti, the mother of Marco (Conti).”

In Italy there is no concept of a Mrs. vs. a Ms. (like in my blog title) or a Mz. If anything, they have a signorina (“young girl/woman”) and signora (“woman”) that is tied more to age than marital status. Note that after marrying in Italy, even at a young age, they joke and call you “Signora,” but once you reach a certain age in appearance, you will no longer hear signorina, married or not.

So, combined with the bureaucratical nightmare of marrying in the U.S., changing my name on everything (including my passport) and moving to Italy to have them then ask me why I have my husband’s last name (are you brother and sister?) seemed like the final piece of the puzzle which has led me to keep My Name, even now.

But what about my friend, Jane Nelson? She has so many options after marriage:

  • Adopting the husband’s name: Jane Johnson
  • Keep the “maiden” / birth name: Jane Nelson
  • The husband takes the wife’s last name: Jack Johnson –> Jack Nelson
  • Take the husband’s name as a last name, hers is a middle name: Jane Nelson Johnson
  • Use that lovely hyphen: Jane Nelson-Johnson or Jack Johnson-Nelson
  • Merge both names into something new: Jane Neljohn or Jane/Jack Sonson
  • Take the latin approach – become a de: Jane Nelson de Johnson

I was surprised to remember there were so many options! An article in Slate in 2004 even remarked that the number of women keeping their birth names after marriage was declining from 1990 to 2000, though in those 10 years the Lucy Stone League was reborn, and one of their principles is “Name Choice Freedom” due to Lucy Stone being the first married woman to retain her birth name.

What’s your advice for my friend? What do you think about a woman changing her last name upon marriage?

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Comments

  1. says

    This is a very interesting question. I only found out recently that there is no actual law requiring women to give up their last name on marriage, it is simply a custom.

    My mom was initially put out when, on receiving her first Italian passport just a short 3 months after my father died, it listed her with her maiden name, and not her married name. When she enquired at the Embassy in Cape Town they informed her that Italian women never give up their surname. In the intervening years she has started to take some pride in the fact that she is now known (outside of our home town at least) by her own name.

    Many of my female colleagues here in Ireland have also kept their maiden names on getting married. For them it was simply for practical reasons – in business everyone knows them by their maiden names and it is too torturous to go and change things now…

    A Spanish/Basque colleague of mine was explaining the origin of his double-barrelled surname. He said that in their culture the children are given the last names of both father and mother, and when the children in turn marry and have children of their own, they in turn carry over the name of the father, coupled with their wifes surname. So every generation in a family will have slightly different surnames.

    I thought the idea was an interesting one and must make geneological research a cinch as well.

  2. says

    Robert, it is interesting that in Italy we hardly have even the concept of maiden vs married name. I have my name and that’s about the whole of it. Once women added the husband’s name (Jane Nelson in Johnson), now even that has passed. A recent law, isntead, has given families the options of giving their children either or both the father’s and the motehr0s name, if both are to be given, I think that they have to be in alphabetic order. Finally, the habit of retaining one’s name is probably a heritage of the Arabs, since Arab women, Muslim and all, don’t change their name on getting married.

  3. says

    I’m glad you brought this up. Had I gotten married in the States, for me it would have gone without saying that I would have automatically taken my husband’s last name. But since I got married to a Roman here in Italy, well, I haven’t done anything differently. Part of me wonders how I can “prove” that we’re married, since all my docs continue to have my maiden name. But on the other hand, as you know, here in Italy it’s required that couples have both last names on the intercom button, and like you said, most women keep their last name on all their docs, so it’s just so natural to not go by my husband’s last name. I was torn at first, do I do the hyphenated thing? But in the end I’ve just kept using my maiden name. When in Rome…

  4. says

    Stefano and I got married in the US but I didn’t change my name. Honestly, I didn’t think much about it at first – normally women do, so it wasn’t even a question to me. However, Stefano wanted me to retain mine – 1) because the do that in Italy; 2) he liked my last name as it was very American sounding. Being a bit lazy with the beaurocracy of doing it, I was like Ok =)

    Now, it has become more of an issue. I like my name, it is my name. It is connected to my identity which I did not give up when I married. so when, very traditional friends or family address me with my husband’s last name, it completely annoys me. I do get strange looks here in the US when people understand my last name is not my husband’s. but they get over it =)

    I have never regretted keeping my last name – it is me.

  5. says

    Sara, interesting how it’s done in Italy. I didn’t know that. Thanks for this post. I wanted to keep my name during my first marriage, but it was to a soldier and things just went smoother after I changed it to his. But my name sounded very silly with his..kinda rhyming. When we divorced it was a relief to reclaim my name. I liked it. It was me.
    Then later in life, I met the english bloke and we married. What to do with our names was a huge issue. In the end, we BOTH changed our names to incorporate each other’s with that hyphen you spoke about.

  6. Mom says

    I’m glad you like your name. I do, too! And, I thought for several months before giving it to you!

    Yes, keeping your name maintains identity and history for a woman. I once worked with a woman who made her career with her ex-husband’s last name. As she was quite successful, she kept it – even after she re-married!

    Often, it is a choice of an obscure, unusual last name that everyone misspells, (my maiden name) or taking the husband’s easier one. Also, the children in the U.S. have less to explain if their mother’s name is the same as their own.

    When I sign my paintings, it is with my first name only. That is enough identity for me.

  7. Tiffany says

    Hey Sara!

    How’s it going?! You know what? I changed my name in Canada, on everything except my passport, therefore all my italian documents are in my maiden name, whereas my credit cards, bank card, drivers licence etc are all in my married name. And…

    And I kind of regret ever changing my name at home.

    I guess I’m kind of in the middle then, but I wish I was 100% Gaura.

    It’s strange too because I hated (and continue to not be very fond of) the last name Gaura, and Alessio’s last name ‘Andreani’ is SOOOOO much nicer, but when it comes down to it, it’s just not MY name.

    I like how this post has kicked up so many comments! Good on you girlfriend!

  8. says

    My husband was hurt when I told him I didn’t want to change my name, so we compromised. I hyphenated, but if I had known then what I know now, I would held out for not changing my name or made my last name my middle name. Hyphens suck when trying to fly, fit your name on a credit card/in the squares of an application, etc.

  9. says

    I’ve had my name my entire life, it’s simple, easy for people to pronounce and spell and its just, me. I’ve made the decision that if I marry at this point in my life I’ll keep my name. And should I happen to marry my boyfriend, who’s ex-wife has the same first name as I do, I can explain to him that there has already been a “Pattie Young” and that didn’t work out, no reason to do it again.
    On the other hand, my friend who always said she’d never change her name, has changed her name upon getting married. It’s very weird. I had thought I’d be the tradtional one and change my name while she’d be the “rebel” and keep her name.
    I also have several work colleagues who did not change their name. One claimed that getting married didn’t change who she is, and I agree with that.

  10. says

    Very interesting post. My sister and my sister- in-law made their maiden names their middle names (no hypens). My nephews have both parents last names (hers in the middle, my brother’s name is the last name). My last name has one syllable and sounds nice with my in-law’s names.

    Most people here don’t know that Italian women keep their names or about the customs in Spain.

  11. says

    All I have to say on this subject is that I am an Italian-American. I live in the states, currently Texas, and growing up with the last name of Venezio was AWESOME! It really said a lot about me. Then at 23 I married a Texan. His last name was less than Italian, it didn’t even have a nationality. I debated for months, whether to change my name or not. The conclusion I came to was this; I love this man and I DO want to be a part of his family. Also, currently being pregnant, has made me realize I made the right deciscion. My child, myself and my husband will all be a family unit. Joined by our last name. Still missing my Italian last name, but I comprimised and dropped my middle name ;-)

  12. Catherine says

    I am married to an Italian and I live in Italy and I still have my “maiden name”. I kept it because, like you said, it is what you do here. However, I am also glad to have kept part of my identity intact! At first it seemed strange to have a son with a different name to me – and an Italian one at that! But actually – I like the fact that no judgement is made on this as it is the same for both married and unmarried mothers. I like the neutrality of Signora as a title for the same reason.

  13. says

    @Andrea: would you feel any less like a family if you never opted for marriage? I mean, to me, at least, “family” is something one can build out of a bod that’s felt inside and does not require any documentation, any bureaucracy. If I’ll ever build a family with a person, it will probably be an unmarried family. I do not eve need to LIVE with someone to incorporate this person into a unit I call family: I have friends that are very much “family” to me, regardless the fact that we are neither relatives nor legally recognized.

  14. says

    VERY interesting … I did not know Italians kept their maiden name after marriage, nor did I know that segnorina / segnora have nothing to do with marriage. It’s intriguing how different it is between the various western European cultures — despite all the similarities.

  15. says

    Hey.

    I’m used to the mix of the husband’s name and the wife’s name. It’s not as common for the man to take the woman’s name in addition to his, however it does happen now and again, but most women take their husband’s name in addition to their own. A lot keep their married name as the middle name. Very few women “erase” their maiden name these days.

    Just a quick note on the customs far north.

    Oh, and as for me; I wouldn’t care. She should do as she pleases.

    Morten

  16. says

    Christina, actually “signorina” VS “signora” is still used by older people to differentiate between married and unmarried women, but now etiquette requires that all adult women (older than 18) be called “signora”.

  17. says

    This is hard and something I struggle with as I am going to be married in 6 months. I love my name too, it has become a part of who I am, and like you with a common first name, set me apart from the crowd. It is also the name of my Grandfather, who I love and who was a big influence to me. But I am also to become part of another person as well and if we have children they will be a part of us and there is something I like about us all having the same last name. I have thought about using different last nmaes in different situations – my name for my business, his name for things like checking into hotels or identifying myself on the phone at his place of work etc.

    The hardest part for me is that his ex-wife KEPT his last name and I don’t really want to have the same last name as she does.

    So as you can see, it is very confusing and always a personal choice. I am not sure what my decision is going to be. Hopefully this post will help me figure that out too! :)

  18. says

    Interesting.
    I’m 39 and did not change my name when I got married 12 years ago. In fact, out of all my married friends only one did not change her name (she’s married to a guy from Holland where women also do not change their names, so it’s not unusual).
    For me, I find it so weird that in the US in 2007, so many women still opt to change their names when they marry. I just don’t get it. I really thought that would have changed by now.
    Fortunately, my husband does not mind, so I don’t have to do battle with his wounded ego. :-)

  19. Frank says

    Many people who came to America could not write well in english so when they went through Ellis Island the government assigned them a name. Your paternal grandfather had 9 different names because of the way he tried to write his name in English. Your great uncle took him to court in the 1930′s and had the family name changed to Rosso. Of course, you like the name now but it is not your real name….I guess the family values outweight the name in my mind. I hope that is why want to cling to the name. Maybe that is why most of you want to keep your name because it makes you think of your family.

  20. says

    I kept all my names when I got married and added my husband’s name as well. I’m from Puerto Rico where they do the 2 name thing as in Spain. And I really liked my last name of Santiago. It was a hard decision when i got married mainly because I don’t look the stereotype of a Puerto Rican and by keeping my last name people would know I’m Hispanic.

    I now have 2 middle names, my original given middle name and my maiden name. And my last name is my husbands name. But when I want people to know that I’m Hispanic I’ll sign my name with my Santiago as my middle name.

  21. says

    I say take all the letters of both last names, write each on little pieces of paper and throw them in the air. The first 7 letters that land near her feet will be the new last name.

  22. says

    Typesetter –

    It makes sense this issue also has a generational side. Back in the days, people probably got married around 20 anyway, so one automatically became a “signora” at that age. However, I figure the importance or need, perhaps, to get married has changed in Italy as in so many other European countries. Or?
    Thanks for the clarification.

  23. says

    When I first told Luca that in England, women usually take their husband’s name when they marry, he immediately saw it as a sort of “possession”. As if in taking your husband’s name, you pass from ‘belonging’ to your father to ‘belonging’ to your husband. I guess that’s where it comes from originally, but it seems a strange concept for a nation where, nowadays at least, most women aim to be both financially and emotionally independant…

  24. Erin Ressler says

    I am a divorced American woman and I did change my name when I got married, but I HATED it! The day the divorce was finalized I was at the Social Security office filling out the paperwork to change back to my maiden name. I have always loved my name, it is a part of my family and it’s simply who I am. I became especially attached to it after my father died when I was only 18, now it’s more of a part of him living on through me. When I married I felt tremendous pressure to change my name (mostly from the ex) so I caved in but regretted it instantly. I am now working on a doctorate which will be granted in my maiden name, adding one more reason to not change names should I ever marry again. However, if I did remarry I think I wouldn’t mind being referred to as Mrs. X socially as long as I still used my own name professionally.

  25. says

    Unlike many of you, I actually wasn’t crazy about my last name when I was growing up. But once I was an adult, and had all kinds of credit cards/ID in my maiden name, and – above all – was used to signing my name as it was, I knew that I’d have a really hard time changing my name if/when I got married. And when I did get married a few years ago, I kept my name. We’re not having kids, so that didn’t enter into the equation, but I think kids today are so used to moms and dads having different names (even in the US) that it wouldn’t be a big deal for them either way. And luckily my husband wasn’t bothered by it at all.

  26. Elsi says

    Kristina wrote:

    >For me, I find it so weird that in the US in 2007,
    > so many women still opt to change their names
    > when they marry. I just don’t get it. I really
    > thought that would have changed by now.

    There’s the history that a woman’s maiden name isn’t *hers* either. It’s her father’s. So at marriage, she simply gives up the name of the man who *was* responsible for her (father) for the name of the man who now *will be* responsible for her (husband).

    I don’t think many women think about this aspect of surnames at all.

  27. says

    Elsi-
    You’re right and I certainly remember that part of the discussion in my “into to Fem.” classes in college. :-)
    I don’t have a particular attachment to my last name either, but it certainly seemed “easier” for me to keep it. Plus, I wasn’t totally enamored with my husband’s last name with my fist name. Honestly, if I’d liked it better, I might have changed it after all.
    I still think it’s odd that there’s so much pressure here in the US to change one’s name.

  28. lieludalis says

    Wow! You got a ton of responses on this one huh?!
    Since I had lived 30 years with the same name before I got married, I decided to ADD my husband’s last name to my name (and only because there is a potential child(ren) involved. I kept all my original names and just added his to the end. However, no one ever gets it right. Not even my family. But people have been spelling my name wrong my entire life, what’s a few more years of corrections.
    PS: My passport still has my maiden name on it and I’m not changing it until I have to :-)

  29. Ms. Adventures in Italy says

    I love all the responses and different sides to this issue. I sent my friend the post and she really loved hearing your input!

  30. says

    The problem, though, is that in Italy it is illegal for anyone (married, unmarried, male or female) to change their name without going before a judge and proving that the name is “shameful or embarassing.” So, here you have no choice but to keep your name the way it is (unless you have some really awful name) – there is no personal choice in the matter.

    I like the way in most other countries you have a choice – keep your own name, change it, husband can change his name to yours, you can both change it to a new name etc. A name is a matter of personal choice in other countries.

    I never thought I’d change my name upon marriage but my first name has 8 letters, last name has 9, the name is “ethnic” and is spelled differently from how it’s pronounced. Boyfriend and I plan to get married at some stage and I must admit I’d probably change my surname to his if I was allowed to as his name has only 6 letters and is easy to spell and pronoune. Too bad we live in Italy!

  31. Chioni says

    I so agree with you about Katoram. I have the same problem and I would rather have the choice than none aty all. It’s not a matter of pride that women in Italy keep their names. It is a legal requirement bthey have no choice in. I think people should have the choice.

  32. says

    Well, I have a different reason than I see here for changing my name upon marriage. I am a shy person and I always had difficulty introducing myself to people. Once I technically had a different name, but was still mentally only me, it was easier to say, “Hi, I am so-and-so.” I was not connected to the name yet and so, I could work around the shyness since I was not actually introducing MY Self! How is that for bizarro logic?

  33. Colette says

    I have changed my surname when I got married because I wanted to, because its custom to do so in my native country. I like my old surname and I like my new surname. The problem is that I want my my married surname in italian passport as well. I want one surname intstead of two. I should have the choice to make up my mind. help!

  34. federico says

    Mi suonano assurde tutte queste congetture sui cognomi. Mi pare sarebbe più giusto accettare che vi sono delle differenze legali e culturali tra i vari paesi, tra esse anche la consuetudine, tipica dei paesi anglofoni, delle donne di cambiare cognome, assumendo quello del marito dopo il matrimonio. In Italia, tale consuetudine, pare assurda. Una persona, nasce con un cognome e muore con esso.

  35. Ciaocristina says

    The custom of taking the husband’s last name is an Anglo-Saxon one, I believe. i’m surprised at the comments, as i didn’t think many women changed their names anymore. I’ve always been used to the Italian way, as Federico says, a person is born with a last name and dies with it too. I guess unless it’s a really ugly or embarassing name (like Imma Hogg) I just don’t see the point. Good luck to your friend!

  36. Rosanna says

    I’m an Italian-American married to an Italian. This is an interesting post because the topic has been coming up a lot lately regarding my baby shower. My husband and I recently moved back to the States from Italy. I have kept my last name because I think ALL women should keep their names — I never agreed with the last name change that is the custom in the States. However, upon receiving my baby shower invitation, which has my own name on it (not my husband’s), a lot of my mother’s friends have been asking, “why?” My answer to them? Because that’s my name, silly!
    It seems almost contradictory to me that in this day and age, women, after all of the hard work in trying to gain equality with men, would even want to change their name.
    Great post!

  37. says

    I’ll weigh in. I changed my name. But it wasn’t like you think. Honest.

    I got married 2 months before moving with my German husband to Germany (stop snickering. We married for love, not a visa. Kind of.) I changed my name because I did realize that the thought of spelling STRINATI every time I needed someone to know my last name would sound something like this:

    ESSS TAY ERRA EEEE N AH TAY EEEE

    Since I couldn’t even say Ich Liebe Dich yet, I opted for my husband’s German name to make life easier. Which it didn’t because we are Bauer but with no E so intead I spent eight years saying

    BEY AHHH OUUUU ERRE (ohne AAAY<- without E)

    Then we moved to Italy. Well, hotdamn. I could have kept my maiden name because EVERYONE here can spell Strinati without looking at it. Everyone. But Baur without an E?? It comes out : BOA. Diana Boa. Nice.

    Now I use both.

  38. Andrea says

    Being in the U.S. I didn’t want to take my husband’s name and lose my last name as there were no males in our family, so we hyphenated. It was back in the 70′s and such an important point to me not to lose my identity. S. was fine with it–except for the length. It will be interesting to see what my kids do!

  39. Michelle says

    Wow, this has strung on for years! Since I was a child I could never fathom why women’s identities depended on what men wanted. Will he ask ME to marry HIM. I will take his name, etc… I am not a woman’s libber (as they say) but I always had a fair amount of SELF esteem. I am me, I like me and you are not my absolute identity. I will share my life with you, respect you and you will respect me. Changing someone’s last name has always smacked as ownership to me. Children are a different story, it gets more complicated debating that tradition. I married an Italian, kept my last name of course, the children have his last name and no one has ever questioned (here in America) why there are different last names. Maybe I don’t have nosy friends and neighbors, boh.

  40. Lia says

    Being that i have ancestors from spain i can’t believe how old fashion western women are, and now naive really that they do not know…that they are also people and have rights, more then men! DO YOU EVER WONDER WHY BABY GIRLS ARE BEING KILLED AND ABORTED? BECAUSE OF THIS REASON! SHAME ON YOU WOMEN! EVERY TIME YOU WOMEN SUBMIT YOURSELVES TO YOUR HUSBANDS BY SAYING I WILL BE UNDER YOU! you kill a baby girl, we are having problems in the Canada now of too many baby girls being aborted, because they need the son to carry on the name, a father of a daughter said she will only grow to be a trader! she will marry and leave us to be in a new family – and be their property!

    I can’t believe that, i have mother mothers side of the family last name, and i will give my first name to my daughter as her middle name, men do it example charles Jr. what about Shelia Jr. ? Us women will never ever have equal rights, because women DON’T WANT IT, they complain but never make the changes! Marry and do what they do in spain and its been like this for hundreds of years…

    Fathers name: Carlos shecez Rosso
    Mothers name: Maria Lopez Silva
    Childs: Elizabeth Rosso Silva

    ..then child gets married and her husbands name lets say: John Smith Milan
    the Grand child would be (their child):
    Sarah Milan Silva

    Notice how its always 2 last names? this has continued in my family i am the lucky one cause as a woman i can trace back 15 generations of my family…both sides you american women can’t! Shame on you! Woman must take a stand especially married ones (to late for you) but encourage women to keep their names and show their children what you went through…9 months of birth how many woman die in child birth and have nothing to show for! Think about your future daughters, you are not property anylonger!

    Notice even the man’s last name ends with his mothers…they do this so you know the family caste history! This also prevents incest!

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