A reader writes:
A friend of mine did something I haven’t seen mentioned yet in this interesting thread. He is a second-generation Greek-American, and his grandfather Americanized the family name to something quite bland and WASPy. When they got married, he and his wife took that original Greek name as their new married last name. So he had a new last name too, and their kids will have the last name of their immigrant forebears. Very creative and a great way to connect to the past while also creating a new future: the American way!
Another factor is race. I’m in an interracial marriage, and my Chinese-American wife said she would have felt very weird having a European last name – that it would have felt like a kind of ethnic betrayal. (I don’t really believe in changing one’s name regardless, so I was surprised she’d even considered it.) I haven’t seen numbers on this, but I bet women in Asian/non-Asian couples take the last names of their husbands far less often than do women who marry inside their race. And I bet that’s about equally true for both white and Asian women.
Several more readers add to the post on foreign customs:
I work with schools and teachers in Honduras’ mountains, mostly below poverty level areas. I love it. But my comment comes from a conversation one evening with friends there. The women could not understand why any female would want to take the name of their husband.
Everyone’s last name comes from the father, and when the woman marries, she keeps that last name. She doesn’t change it and they all think it’s crazy to do that. Children they have then get the name of the father. This seem fairly logical to me. They explained it as the way of keeping the family line going.
I’ve often thought that the change to the husband’s name is a left-over from women as property. ‘You are mine!” is just another way of the ‘patriarchal’ society that keeps women under wraps.
Not that we’ll ever do this, and not that it isn’t patriarchal in its own way, but I’ve always thought the Icelandic naming custom was kind of cool. In Iceland if you’re a son and your father’s name is Sven then your last name – for all of your life – will be “Svensson”. However if you’re a daughter and your father’s name is Sven then your last name – for all of your life (even if you marry) – will be “Svensdottir”.
In Kentucky, when I was married about 15 years ago, the clerks insisted that my name would change with marriage and that if I wanted to keep my name I had to have it legally changed back. That’s right, I had to pay court costs to keep my name, but do nothing to change it.
I am surprised that this thread has been running so long and you haven’t yet mentioned the Spanish practice of how last names are passed down. It’s complicated for Americans but makes perfect sense. A friend of mine who lives in Spain told me that most women don’t change their last names anymore and it does not cause confusion since one of her surnames is still passed down to the child. In fact, it makes it quite easy to trace genealogy.
The Norweigian surname practice was far more confusing. There was a geographical custom of taking the surname of the farm upon which one lived. So, if one purchased a farm, one’s surname changed as well. Many Norweigians who immigrated into the US before 1923 practiced this custom and took the farm name of the most recent farm upon which they lived in Norway. This is exactly what happened to one branch of my husband’s family. I was surprised to see that 70% of Norweigian immigrants acquired their surnames in this way.