Who's asking: Sue Schulz
This question came up because our friend Anna follows the old custom of referring to herself as "Mrs. Tarren Bragdon." Sue, who is German, wanted to know whether this is only an American practice, or something that other cultures do.
I've spent some time researching this question, and it's been hard to come up with any kind of definitive answer. Many cultures, of course, don't use surnames, or use them only for legal documents. Many Asian languages place titles at the end of a name (Nakamura-san) instead of at the beginning, and those titles don't always distinguish between genders.
The best answer I can give is that as far as I know, the practice of referring to women as as "Mrs. [husband's name]," is limited to English-speaking countries, and has fallen into disfavor even in them. That form of address is now considered appropriate only in social settings, never in business ones (imagine calling Senator Clinton "Mrs. William J. Clinton"), and even then, only if the woman prefers it.
Interestingly, the trend of married women keeping their surnames in the United States has reversed itself since the 1990s. More than 90% of women here now routinely change their names when they get married.
I come from a long line of women who changed their first names -- both of my grandmothers chose to be called by their middle names, and Grandma Lamb changed even that (she was christened Margaretta, but changed it to plain Margaret). It confuses people enough that I am both Ellen and Clair; even if I ever did get married, I don't think I'd bother with any more name changes.