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What Wedding Officiants Need to Know About Name Changes, Wedding Customs, and Patriarchy

Published Friday, Aug. 11th, 2023

Illustration: iracosma / Adobe Stock

No more Mr. & Mrs. Smith: We need to stop assuming women will change their last name when they get married



If you were scrolling Twitter this week – or whatever we’re calling the smoldering doomscape of a platform these days – you might have seen this tweet (don’t make us say xeet) from author Ann Zhao: 


Screenshot of a tweet written by author Ann Zhae about women in mainland China not changing their last names when they marry

The tweet reads: “is it not common knowledge that chinese people don’t change our last names when we get married? because i have seen TOO MANY works of fiction where an immigrant mom from mainland china is “mrs” something. no she fucking isn’t!!” 


Zhao followed up with a second tweet, adding “i can’t speak for chinese people in hong kong or taiwan or any of southeast asia, but in mainland china, your name is your name for your whole life. of my parents and their friends, NONE of the women ever changed their last names, even after immigrating”


Tweet written by Ann Zhao about the custom of changing a spouses last name after marriage in chinese and chinese american culture


There was a flurry of responses from people in countries all around the world, posting variations of ‘here too!’ or else ‘WHAT?’ and ‘why do we change them here, then?’ 


One user living in the U.S. responded, “As an American in the heart of the country, it's so refreshing to hear this is NOT the cultural norm elsewhere. People gave me such awful attitude when I kept my name!”


Screenshot of a tweet written by Juliette Cass, talking about her experience as an American woman who chose not to change her last name when she married


An Iranian-Canadian user commented, “This seems to be super common in many eastern cultures, but westerners just don’t know about it/don’t even try to educate themselves. In Iran, the wife keeps her maiden name. The children still take the father’s surname, but the wife doesn’t 🤷🏽‍♀️”



Tweet written by user abra-fucking-cadabra about Iran women not changing their last names when they marry and a lack of knowledge about this in Western cultures


Although Zhao raised the point to address the Americanization of works of fiction, the conversation is an interesting one for wedding vendors – and especially valuable for wedding officiants! 


Why do we expect women in the U.S. to change their name if they marry an opposite-gender partner? When and why did that custom start? Is changing your name when you marry legally required? And is the custom a global norm, or is the United States just a (patriarchal) outlier? 


And, importantly, why should wedding officiants care? 


Let’s get into it! 


newlyweds, a groom and bride, embrace on the wedding day, stylized illustration

Illustration: iracosma / Adobe Stock

Why wedding officiants should be surname-savvy 


First things first, why should wedding officiants and other vendors care about newlywed name change customs?


We think this is important because awareness leads to understanding and better relationships. And because making assumptions about what name a married person will use can result in disappointment, annoyance, and even marriage license filing hassles.


It’s easy for wedding officiants and other vendors here in the U.S. to assume that when opposite-sex couples marry, a bride will take her husband’s surname. It’s very common, after all: In 2022, between 70% and 80% of U.S. women took their partner’s last name in opposite-sex marriages. (via CNN)


But assumptions don’t help anyone, and can often overlook or offend – as Zhao’s tweet makes clear. The stat above means that 20% to 30% of women aren’t taking a spouse’s surname, and three in ten is nothing to sneeze at! 


Gone are the days when a wedding officiant could declare, without a second thought, “I now pronounce you Mr. and Mrs. John Smith!” And thank goodness for that. Weddings, and marriage laws, are making more room for diverse couples and circumstances, and that’s a good thing. 


Assumptions about name changes might show up when an officiant fills out a marriage license or marriage certificate, when submitting invoices for officiating, when tagging couples in wedding photos on social media, or during the wedding ceremony’s pronouncement itself. All of which make for a less satisfying wedding day. 


Instead, wedding officiants can show their respect for marriers of all cultural backgrounds, genders, and surname inclinations, by asking them ahead of time how they want to be pronounced or introduced during their wedding ceremony. Officiants should also ask a couple how they want their married names to be written in paperwork or in posts, including on decorative certificates and social media. This ensures that every part of the marriage process is accurate and affirming.




Why do American women change their last names when they marry? 


Now for some interesting, if unsurprising, history…


In the U.S., this patriarchal custom is as old as the country itself. Women here have historically had fewer rights than men, and unmarried women least of all. Taking a husband’s name was a way for married women to communicate their status, benefit from their husband’s rights, and protect themselves and their children physically and financially. 


Until the mid-1970s, in fact, married women in most states couldn’t register to vote or apply for a credit or bank account without first taking their husband’s surname.


This meant that women would have to sacrifice many of their (recently-acquired) rights and autonomy in order to keep their maiden name, which hardly sounds like a choice… much less a cute wedding tradition. (via Making a Name: Women’s Surnames at Marriage and Beyond)



According to researchers, the first recorded instance of a woman keeping her surname in marriage was in 1855, when anti-slavery and women’s suffrage advocate Lucy Stone married. Seven decades later, in the 1920s, feminists formed the ‘Lucy Stone League’ to try and encourage married women to preserve their maiden names. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until five decades after that, in the 1970s, that most women could legally or financially afford to do so. (via Making a Name: Women’s Surnames at Marriage and Beyond)


Now, marriers in the U.S. aren’t legally required to change their surname when they marry, and won’t face any legal consequences for not doing so. The custom is becoming less common each year as a result. 


Now that women are able to vote, make decisions about their children, and pursue educational and career opportunities equal to men regardless of their marital status, more are choosing to keep their own surnames in marriage. In addition, women can now marry their same-sex partners, hyphenated last names are more common, and some feminist men choose to take their wife’s surname instead.


And as the tweets above show, changing a surname isn’t required for immigration purposes, and children of immigrants might be less likely to change their names when they get married, too.



Illustration of two brides holding hands and smiling at each other, very stylized abstract image

Illustration: Raool / Adobe Stock

Are women legally required to take their husband’s last name when they marry? 


Not anymore. As mentioned above, marriers in the U.S. aren’t legally required to change their surname when they marry. Marriers of any gender can take their partner's name if they wish, and children can be given either parent's last name.


Keeping your own surname is the easier option, actually – newlyweds must follow several tedious additional steps to change their name when they marry, and then spend the next few months changing their name on all of their open accounts and forms of identification. This often comes with a fee, too! 


In which countries do married women take their husband’s last names – and where do they keep their maiden names? 


Where do women change -- or not change -- their names when they get married? How common is the practice?


You might be surprised to find that the United States is actually kind of an outlier in this area. In most countries, both spouses usually retain their own surnames at marriage. 


As author Ann Zhao points out, women in mainland China almost always retain their own surnames when they marry. This is also true in Italy, Spain, Iran, Vietnam, and many other countries. 


Since 1983, women in Greece have been required to keep their birth names when they marry, as part of an effort to establish gender equality in the country. In Quebec, it’s illegal for a woman to take her husband’s name when they marry (or for any marrier to take their spouse’s surname), unless a court approves it. And in France, newlyweds can use their spouse’s surname in social situations and some documents (called a nom d’usage), but official paperwork and birth certificates will always show their permanent legal name at birth. (French name usage laws were relaxed somewhat in 2022.)



On the other hand, married couples in Japan must legally have the same surname. In India, women are expected to take their husband’s surname when they marry, and many change their first names, too – although attitudes around this practice might be changing. And in Turkey, women were legally required to adopt their husband’s family name until 2016; it wasn’t until earlier this year that Turkish women could keep their own name without filing additional paperwork.


In general, it is more common for spouses to keep their own names than not. In the U.S., past requirements and modern expectations for women to change their name to a husband’s is definitely the result of patriarchy, but these attitudes are changing. 


And wedding customs are changing with them! 



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Jessica Levey
Jessica Levey

Lead Staff Writer & Illustrator

Jessica loves exploring the history and magic of ritual, the connections between people and places, and sharing true stories about love and commitment. She's an advocate for marriage equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and individuality, and is an ordained Minister with AMM. When she’s not writing or illustrating for AMM, she enjoys city hikes, fantasy novels, comics, and traveling.

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