When you live abroad, one of the most common topics for small talk is your name and its history; what does your name mean, where it is from, how do you spell it, etc. In my case, it’s been a bit complicated. For several practical and emotional reasons related to my two oldest children, I’ve kept my ex-husband name even though we separated 8 years ago, and I remarried four years ago. Now, it feels like I should finally have my own name — not my father’s or my husband’s. I’m therefore changing my last name from Engeström to Koivula, which is the name of our family farm I took over from my uncle 11 years ago.

During this holiday time, I’ve thought about equal rights in Finland and elsewhere, and how often they start with the right for a woman to have a name of her own. A quick look into history:

From fathers to husbands

If you get married in Finland today, the law gives you three options: you can keep your maiden name, take your spouse’s name, or come up with a new name altogether. These options were, however, not on the table for our mothers and grandmothers.

Between 1930 and 1985, for a total of 56 years, the Finnish law required women to take their husband’s name at marriage. The influence for the new law came from the European upper classes (and the church!), and their underlying principles of hierarchy and power between the sexes. In this system, a young woman who previously was legally and financially dependent on her father, through marriage becomes a dependent on her husband, takes his name, and keep his name— no matter what happened.

The stories of mothers and grandmothers

Sometimes things did not go well. For example: my grandmother Asta was a pretty 18-year old girl working at a glass factory, when she met with a young lad named Aarne. Despite Asta’s resistance, Aarne convinced her to marry him, got her pregnant 6 times, stole all their money, and left Asta to survive with five young children (one died) in 1960s Finland. For all her life, Asta and her children carried this bum’s name. Why? Because it was required by the law.

My great grandmother Anna had a different story. She grew up on a fairly wealthy estate in Kontiolahti, Eastern Finland. It was around 1920 when she fell in love with my great grandfather, Otto Mutanen. Otto did not have any money, but he was a hard worker, which is why Anna’s father decided to split 40 hectares of the main estate into a farm called Koivula, and gave it to Anna and Otto. But although the land came from Anna’s family, it ran under Otto’s name. Already as a teenager, it was hard for me to see the logic why.

Some years later, Anna and Otto had 5 children, three boys and two girls. Two of the boys died. The third one, my grandfather Toivo took over the Koivula estate in 1940s, and married Aili, the oldest daughter from a much larger estate from the neighboring village. Again, Aili took Toivo’s family name Mutanen, as it was required by the law. As so did my own mother in 1974.

Finnish surnames

The law concerning family names in Finland changed in 1985. Now the couple could choose to keep their names or take either family name at marriage. Still, over 70% of Finnish women take their husband’s name at marriage. About 2% of couples take wife’s family name.

In Finland, most surnames associate with a place in the nature or an area on the map. They typically end with either -nen or -la, indicating a property of a place, such as a place with hills (Mäkinen), lakes (Järvinen, Lampinen), rivers (Jokinen, Jokela), rapids (Koskinen, Koskela), mud (Mutanen, Mutala), sand (Santanen, Santala), bays, (Nieminen, Niemelä), rocks (Kivelä, Kalliola), and of course, trees such as alden (Leppänen), spruce (Kuusinen, Kuusela), aspen (Haapanen, Haapala), pine (Mäntynen), and birch (Koivunen, Koivula). All names are protected, so you cannot officially take any name without an application, and you have to show that one of your ancestors had it.

Koivula — a place with birch trees. That’s where I’m from!

Changing my name is at the same time a reset with the past as it a celebration of what lies ahead. Our family farm Koivula is a place with hundreds of birch trees. It’s my physical and spiritual home, and a place that I’ve loved since I was born. I’m very excited, relieved, and thankful for this new start as Ulla-Maaria Koivula.

Founder & CEO of ThingLink, education technology company for building visual learning environments in the cloud. Winner of UNESCO ICT in Education Prize.