Shakespeare’s Juliet was certain that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but not everyone in history has agreed with her. In the historical record it’s far more common for a woman to leave behind no name at all.
Women’s Names in the Ancient World
In ancient Greece, for example, it was polite to refer to a woman only by her relationships to men, such as the daughter of Philonides or the sister of Periander. We know they had names, but what they were? For the most part, no one knows. That is why the only ancient Greek woman who’s gotten a bio on this show is Neaira, episode 4.2, and we know her name because it’s mentioned over 50 times in the court proceedings against her. It was the prosecutor’s way of further insulting her: This woman is trash was the underlying message every time he said her name (Hamel, 28).
What the court proceedings don’t show is any indication that Neaira’s name changed because of her marital status. She is Neaira in the trial, wife of Stephanos, and she’s also Neaira as a small child, raised in a brothel (Apollodorus).
In Republican Rome, free men had three names: a personal name, a family name, and a nickname. It gets confusing because that nickname could also become hereditary, but Gaius Julius Caesar was a boy named Gaius, in the family of Julia, with the nickname of Caesar (Nuorluoto, 11; Eichner, 661). Roman women only got the family name. All the girls in the family were named Julia. And when Caesar married the daughter of Lucius Cornelius Cinna, the bride’s name was and stayed Cornelia.
This system was maybe a godsend for parents who can’t keep their kids’ names straight while angry, but awfully confusing when you are trying to distinguish between sisters. Sometimes the words Major or Minor were added. Or Secunda or Tertia. (Nuorluoto, 13). Whatever the woman’s name, she kept it on marriage.
In ancient (and not so ancient) China, names for girls varied. Some got beautiful names like Splendid Orchid, Resembling Jade, and Morning Flower. But some girls got very generic names like Xiǎo Mèi, which means Little Sister, or Sān Mèi, which means third sister. And they could also get names that were both generic and insulting like Little Slave Girl, Prostitute, and Too Many (as in, this child was one too many) (Blum, 363; Watson, 623).
On marriage, a Chinese man sometimes chose a new, adult name for himself. In theory, a woman kept her childhood name, but in practice she was often referred to only by relationships: Sing’s wife or Sing’s mother or eventually just Old Woman (Watson, 627).
Women’s Names in Medieval and Early Modern Europe
In medieval Europe, people had only first names and those didn’t change on marriage. Surnames start appearing for non-nobles in the 11th century, but not consistently for everyone, and women got them later than men (Eichner, 662).
Conventions varied across Europe. Scandinavian women did not need to change their name at marriage because surnames were relational. So Märta Ulfsdotter, a prominent Swedish woman of the 14th century, was known as the daughter of Ulf throughout her life, though she married twice. In Spain, a woman kept her maiden name and added her husband’s name, which is why Spanish names are often so much longer than we English-speakers expect.
In England, France, Germany, and many other places across Europe it gradually became common to refer to married women by the surname of their husbands. Even Scandinavia eventually picked it up, except for Iceland, which uses the Ulfsdotter form to this day.
And then there was the title. The title Mrs was short for Mistress, just as Mr was short for Master. A Mrs. was one of several titles for a woman with servants, along with Madam, Dame, and Goodwife (Erickson, 21). Women on the bottom of the social ladder didn’t get a title. You just used her name, as in Betty, bring another round of beer.
When the term Miss appeared, it was also short for Mistress, but it was an insult. It meant you had loose morals. Neither Mrs nor Miss said anything about whether you were married. Exactly how or why Miss transformed from an insult into a title for upper-class girls, I don’t really want to think about, but it did. So for a while, the distinction between Miss and Mrs was purely about age. As a child, you were Miss. As an adult, you were Mrs. Marriage had nothing to do with it (Erickson, 6). This usage can be seen in Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Samuel Johnson.
Throughout the 18th century, the terms got democratized, and as they moved down the social ladder, they very gradually began to mean marital status. Again exactly why it changed is unclear, but England may have adopted it from the upper class French who used Dame for married women and Demoiselle for unmarried women. Lower class French women were Demoiselle regardless (Erickson, 8- 9).
Even after English old maids began to be called Miss, the term Mrs was still not always clear. Women in business were still called Mrs. well into the 19th century even if they were not married (Erickson, 12).
What these early modern centuries did not do was refer to a married woman by her husband’s first and last name. Mrs. Bob Smith would have made no sense to them, for Bob was a man’s name. John Adams addressed his letters to his wife to Mrs. Abigail Adams, not Mrs. John Adams (Massachusetts Historical Society).
That ultimate form of taking a man’s name arose only toward the end of the 18th century, and even then only in upper class circles. When Jane Austen referred to one of her characters as Mrs. John Dashwood, she was using a rather new trend (Luu). But what the upper class does, the middle class will soon follow if they possibly can and by the 1830s and 40s, that usage was fairly common and a newly emergent women’s rights movement was beginning to ponder the implications.
Women’s Names in the Feminist Movement
As in so many other things, the most extreme reaction was in France. In the 1830s, the Tribune des Femmes was a newspaper where all the journalists were women, and not only did they not use their married names, they didn’t use their birth surnames either because those too were a symbol of the patriarchy, having come from their fathers, not their mothers (Eichner, 664). One of the editors Suzanne wrote “A man’s name seems to my independent spirit to be a yoke too heavy to bear; I have disposed of it” (Eichner, 668). The newspaper didn’t last long.
In Germany, the women’s movement was not so organized, but Countess Ida von Hahn certainly had something to say about the name issue. In her novel Der Rechte, the heroine says the practice is barbarous, comparable to a man stamping his name on his property, and this was not mere fiction to the Countess. She had already married her cousin, which assuming you do it on the right side, means your maiden name and your married name are the same. Simplifies everything. However, the countess didn’t see it that way. She chose to keep her maiden name and hyphenate it with her married name, becoming Countess Ida von Hahn-Hahn, and that is still how she is known today (Stannard, 132).
Over in America, the signatories to the 1848 Seneca Falls declaration all used their last names, whether bestowed on them by father or husband, but they used their own female first names and no Miss or Mrs was involved. Just the names.
The first name issue was a real point for Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was married. Cady was her maiden name. Stanton was her husband. She was fine with all those names, but she categorically refused to be Mrs Henry B Stanton. In her own words, she said:
“I have very serious objections … to being called Henry. There is a great deal in a name. It often signifies much, and may involve a great principle. Ask our colored brethren if there is nothing in a name. Why are the slaves nameless unless they take that of their master? Simply because they have no independent existence. They are mere chattels, with no civil or social rights. Our colored friends in this country who have education and family ties take to themselves names. Even so with women. The custom of calling women Mrs. John This and Mrs. Tom That, and colored men Sambo and Zip Coon, is founded on the principle that white men are lords of all. I cannot acknowledge this principle as just; therefore, I cannot bear the name of another.(Stanton, letter to Rebecca Eyster, May 1847)
Lucy Stone and the Right to Keep Her Maiden Name
Elizabeth’s qualms about being labeled did not extend to her surname. That fight was left to the activist Lucy Stone. And even she was not as radical as those French journalists. She was fine with the name Stone, which she got from her father, an uneducated tanner in Massachusetts (Kerr, 10).
Lucy decided young that she had no interest in ever marrying, which was pretty much a stupid decision since there really wasn’t an economically viable alternative in her community. At age 16, she began teaching school. Some of her students were older than her. She saved her money and attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and then Oberlin College, where she was appalled that some classes were off limits to women (Kerr, 34).
None of these experiences changed her resolve about marriage. Instead, she planned a career as a lecturer. Her subject would be women’s rights and abolition. Amazingly, her plan actually worked. In very short order, she was appearing next to William Lloyd Garrison and meeting Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (Kerr, 50-51). Then Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer. She had become Lucy Stone, the famous orator.
So when a down-at-heel merchant named Harry Blackwell heard her speak, finagled an introduction, and proposed marriage within an hour of meeting her, she said no (Kerr, 66).
But Harry was not one to give up. Lucy traveled constantly and everywhere she went, she’d receive a long and passionate letter dismantling all her objections. More than that, Harry went on the lecture circuit himself, and his subject was—wait for it—women’s rights, including the need for marriage reform (Kerr, 73). Harry and Lucy began touring together.
Harry promised that their marriage would be different: Lucy could keep her career. They would be equals. Also, he rescued an 8-year-old slave girl. The girl was traveling with her owner in Pennsylvania, a free state. Harry asked her if she’d like to be free and she said yes, so he lifted her up, only to be tackled by another man, but after a scuffle he emerged victorious, and the child was free, and his only complaint was that the newspapers reported he had assaulted a lady and dropped a baby on the floor, which was not true (Stone, 93-94).
Harry was indicted for kidnapping and the city of Memphis put out a reward for his capture: $10,000 dead or alive. And this, apparently, was the path to Lucy’s heart because after two years of pestering, she finally said yes.
The wedding was unusual, to say the least. Most grooms don’t start the ceremony by reading a Marriage Protest, but Harry did. It was a catalog of everything that was unfair about the marriage laws of the day, and from a modern perspective it was all absolutely on point. Then they exchanged their vows and ate cake just like everyone else (Kerr, 86-87).
After the wedding, Lucy continued to call herself Lucy Stone. It was the name she had made famous. And to be honest, Harry wasn’t so good a merchant that she could give up her work, even if she wanted to, which she didn’t. Harry didn’t mind the name issue, but it would be a lifelong fight with pretty much everyone else.
They all disapproved, from the banks who refused to do business with her under her “false” name to the hotel clerks who refused rooms to a couple who looked unmarried (gasp!) and would therefore bring the establishment into disrepute.
Even her fellow activists disapproved. The mainstream had always suspected that women’s rights activists were unnatural, hell-bent on destroying the very fabric of family life and now they had proof: Lucy Stone was destroying the norms of family life. To those who didn’t know about the wedding, it looked like she was flagrantly living in sin, and to those who did know about the wedding, she was headstrong and rebellious and unwilling to play the part of a wife. It would all lead to trouble, and she should give it up. The only activist who supported her was Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Lucy did not concede, but she did allow the issue to recede. She allowed the name Blackwell on legal documents when required. She signed hotel registers as Lucy Stone, wife of Harry Blackwell, to make everything clear and morally correct (Stannard, 103). She signed letters as Lucy Stone, but she campaigned on other issues. Like most suffragists, she had decided the vote was most important. If women could get the vote, all other wrongs would get righted afterwards (Stannard, 105).
So it is just ironic that when Massachusetts gave women the right to vote in school board elections in 1879, Lucy Stone did not vote. She intended to. She registered. The clerk made no fuss about listing her as Lucy Stone. He had that name on record as she had paid her property taxes for years that way. The government had been perfectly happy to accept her money under whatever name. But they were not happy for her to vote under any name. The Board said she couldn’t do that unless she added Blackwell to the registration. She refused. And she didn’t vote (Stannard, 108-109, Kerr, 202-203).
Women’s Names and the Law
Most of the people who wrangled with Lucy thought they were upholding both custom and the law, but actually there was no law saying a woman had to take her husband’s name. She knew because she had sought legal advice on it (Stannard, 98).
English common law (the basis of American law) actually specified that the legal name was whatever the person was generally known as, and could change for any reason (Gorence, 882). By that logic, a woman’s married name became her legal name only because she and those around her used it that way. Not the other way around.
The British House of Lords reluctantly agreed with this interpretation in 1901. Not because Countess Violet Cowley wanted to keep her maiden name. Oh, no. It was just the opposite. She wanted to continue to call herself Countess Cowley even though she had divorced Earl Cowley. It was more prestigious than her maiden name. The Earl was not amused, but amazingly the House of Lords ruled against one of their own. The lady had a legal right to use whatever name she wanted (The Countess Cowley, Evening News).
Even rarer was a man who agreed to take his wife’s name. But Olive Schreiner, a famous South African writer did manage to convince her husband that that would be for the best. He took a lot of heckling for it. But he did it (Stannard, 143). Olive’s argument was that her name was already famous. It would be confusing to readers if her name suddenly changed, and that was a growing concern as more and more women were making careers for themselves. No one expected men to professionally rebrand themselves mid-stream, just because they got married. Why should women have to?
The arguments of fairness and equality had been raised many times. But in 1911, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published an essay that raised all of the above, plus a new argument: She said was flatly none of the world’s business whether a woman was married or not. A man had a constant name and title. Women should have the same. Who cared if the world thought they were living in sin? That was their own private decision (Stannard, 172).
The Lucy Stone League
In 1921, a group of married women got together and formed a group to lobby for women keeping their maiden names. They called themselves the Lucy Stone League. Several of them knew how to work the press, so they got the news out and soon members were known as Lucy Stoners. They enjoyed a brief vogue in certain circles. Famous Lucy Stoners included the anthropologist Margaret Mead and the painter Georgia O’ Keefe (Stannard 192-194). You’ll be hearing more about her in my next series.
While the League agreed on maiden names, they disagreed on everything else. Like Miss versus Mrs. And what surname do the children get? (Stannard, 200) And they were a very long way from being the dominant cultural force. Emily Post’s first book on etiquette appeared in 1922, only one year after the Lucy Stone League was formed. Emily Post was definitely not a Lucy Stoner (Stannard, 239), and she got a lot more converts.
The truth was that most women simply did not agree. If they thought about the naming conventions at all, then they were proud to take their husband’s name. It was a symbol of love, and it was also a symbol of accomplishment. For many women marriage was the signature accomplishment of their lives.
Even if you agreed that the custom was unfair, even if you didn’t care if the world thought you were living in sin, even if you had accomplishments of your own to celebrate, your family and relationship still depended on not injuring your husband’s ego. And for most men, it would be injured. Being the wife of a famous man was an honor. Being the husband of a famous wife just wasn’t. And any woman who could argue for her own name was going to be at least locally famous.
The Lucy Stone League dwindled after a few years. And then reformed in 1950 and then dwindled again. The issue reared up again in the 70s, when another generation of women tried again and had basically the same problems Lucy Stone had faced a century earlier. The most egregious may have been the 1973 ruling of Judge Joseph Kennedy in San Francisco. Janice Banks was getting divorced, and she wanted her name changed back to Janice Christensen. Judge Kennedy said “I would advise Mrs. Banks that a rose by any other name is a rose just the same. It doesn’t make any difference what your name is.” If it made no difference, then why did follow that up by refusing her petition? She remained legally Janice Banks (Stannard, 284).
Women’s Names after the 1970s
But the women of the 70s did succeed in bringing attention to the issue. In 1975 only 2-4 percent of American women who had graduated college kept their maiden name. The rates rose sharply in the 70s and 80s and then declined in the 90s, so that in 2001, it was just below 20 percent (Goldin, 144). I don’t have numbers for non-college graduates, but their rates would be lower. That’s certainly much more than when Lucy Stone kicked up a fuss, but a whole lot less than a lot of activists had believed would be the case a full century after women got the vote.
The 70s also saw women adopt a new title: Ms. The title wasn’t new. Centuries earlier it had been one of many unstandardized abbreviations for Mistress, no different than Mrs. In the early 20th century, it was proposed a few times as a neat and tidy way to sidestep the morass of judgment and uncertainty around whether you should use Miss and Mrs., but it did not catch on. Activist Sheila Michaels promoted it in the 60s, and Gloria Steinem heard her on a radio interview and decided named her 70s feminist magazine after it, which brought it to national prominence (Fox, Kay).
Despite a lot of complaints that it was ugly or ghastly or totally useless, it is still with us. And indeed, it is the safest way to go. The Emily Post Institute lists it as an acceptable form of address for women regardless of marital status. And in case you were wondering, they also now say it’s okay for a married woman to keep her maiden name, so that’s a change (Emily Post Institute). However, I will say in my personal American experience, I think the main track people are on is to do what past centuries did for the lower classes: just the name, no title at all.
The issue isn’t dead in other languages either. As recently as 2012, a French mayor tried to ban the use of Mademoiselle and call all females of any age and marital status Madame. Not everyone was pleased. In the past a mademoiselle would have been gratified to have the status of madame. But now we worship youth, so some women complained that mademoiselle was a compliment, it made them feel young (“Mistress, Miss, Mrs or Ms: Untangling the Shifting History of Titles”).
Even today, most English-speaking women change their names on marriage: 70% in the US and 90% in the UK. The numbers don’t change much with the age of the bride. Most of Western Europe is the same, except in Iceland and Spain where the naming conventions have always been different (Savage). And also in the Netherlands and Belgium, where a woman cannot change her name at marriage. It’s illegal. It’s also illegal in Quebec and Greece. In Asia, the whole idea is still mostly a foreign concept, except in Japan, where your marriage isn’t legal unless you share a name, and yes, it’s overwhelmingly the bride who changes her name (Koffler).
There are a variety of reasons to do it: from not liking your birth name to disliking administrative confusion for your family. But for most couples it’s about commitment to the union. Having one name is symbolic of becoming one family. Throughout this series, it has been obvious that no matter how forward-thinking and progressive people might be in other areas, when it comes to a wedding, most people like a little tradition. That’s why I think we’ll be seeing women take their husband’s names for a long time to come, just like they will wear white dresses and diamond rings and wait for the man to propose.
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