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Less than two percent of Finnish men take wife's surname

Despite Finland being trumpeted as a bastion of gender equality by some, there are still several areas in which age-old traditions hold sway. Very few husbands in Finland take their wife's surname when they marry, for example.

Miehen ja naisen varjo.
Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Old habits die hard, and the choice of surname when a couple marries is still a loaded conundrum for many. In Finland, men who chose to take their new wife's name are still widely considered to have made a very brave choice. 

Couples have been free to adapt any surname they like in Finland since 1986, when laws on name changes were liberalized.

In 1920, a family name law was passed in Finland dictating that a woman assume a man's surname when a couple is married. But this patriarchical practice isn't as old in the Nordic countries as one might think, according to Sirkka Paikkala, a researcher with the Institute for the Languages of Finland, known as Kotus. 

Unique history of surnames

From the 13th century to the mid-1880s, several different surname and by-name systems were used in Finland. The oldest were based on eastern tribal rules, an indigenous system that remained dominant in the the Savo and Karelia regions during the era of Swedish rule.

As Finland became more westernized, however, surnames took hold. The difference was that in Sweden, for example, Johan's son was known as Johansson, following the family's patriarch, but in Finland, the wave of national romanticism after the turn of the century meant that many more families were given surnames like Virtanen, from the root word "virta" (current), based on a topographical or botanical term, for example.

Changes in the adaption of surnames have been slow-going since the year 2000, when only one percent of Finnish husbands on average have dropped their surname for their wife's family name after marrying.

"In 2014, the exact percentage was 1.6 already. Of course, it's not much of a change, but it is a clear development," says Paikkala. The trend indicates that the number is closer to two percent in 2017, she says.

Hyphenated names on the way out

Husbands that take their wife's surname may be few and far between, but they represent a modern way of thinking, Paikkala says. 

"Men call attention to equality issues with an unorthodox surname choice, and this requires a certain modicum of courage," she says.

For many the decision can also be prompted by other considerations, however, like keeping a rare family name from being lost to future generations. Pori resident Antti Jokinen-Amee says that it was clear to him from the start that his children would use their mother's surname of Amee, as it is much less common in Finland.

"I considered changing my own surname for a long time, but then I was hit by a conservative impulse.  I wanted to still see my surname in my name. Admittedly, Jokinen-Amee isn't the most sensible surname," he says.

In 2014, the most recent year for which there are figures, only 0.1 percent of couples that married chose a hyphenated name that was a combination of both surnames. Kotus researcher Paikkala says this tiny percentage has stayed relatively stable since 1991. This shows that taking the wife's surname was several times more popular in that particular year.

Close to 28 percent of newly-married couples kept their original surnames in 2014, while 70 percent adapted the groom's family name.


Jokinen-Amee says several prejudices are still linked to men even taking on a hyphenated name.

"It can be the case that the man's masculinity is called into question. People think, what kind of whippersnapper is that, who's gone and taken a women's name," he says.

Risto Kupari says he is a very traditional man, who wanted his entire family to have the same surname. When he got married in 2004, his wife didn't take a liking to his family name, so after some discussion, he decided to take hers.

"It was my second choice, but in the end, it was just a matter of doing it. My wife's family was thrilled with our choice, and even my family seemed to understand."

Re-arranging things

Even so, the practical implications of his choice surprised Kupari.

"It was only after we were married that I realized how much work women have to do. I still have trouble with my signature, for example, it's usually a mess," he says.

He says the choice is more suitable for men who chose to meet challenges head on, and recommends his choice to others.

"I want to encourage others to seriously consider a similar decision. I don't feel as if I've lost my persona when I changed my surname – on the contrary."

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