“My name is the symbol of my identity”

Kathy E Gill
Nov 6, 2014 · 10 min read

It’s a factoid that should raise eyebrows: as recently as 1982, a married woman forfeited her right to vote unless she took her husband’s name. You may think we’ve come a long way since the Dark Ages. Think again.

In 1855 she couldn’t vote, but that year Lucy Stone became the first woman in the U.S. to keep her surname after marriage. Stone’s rationale for not taking the name of her husband, Henry Blackwell: “My name is the symbol of my identity which must not be lost.” An ardent suffragist and abolitionist, she was also the first woman in Massachusetts to obtain a college degree.

But 120 years later, many states were still wedded to the idea that women must change their names upon marriage. It wasn’t until 1982 — 1982! — that the Alabama Supreme Court unanimously agreed that women could retain their surnames post-wedding. No longer did women in America face a court challenge if they wanted to retain their surnames after marriage.

In 1971, an Alabama U.S. District Court upheld an unwritten Alabama regulation that required married a woman to “use her husband’s surname in seeking and obtaining a driver’s license.”

Certainly the custom of the husband’s surname denominating the wedded couple is one of long standing. While its origin is obscure, it suffices for our purposes to recognize that it is a tradition extending back into the heritage of most western civilizations. It is a custom common to all 50 states in this union. Uniformity among the several states in this area is important…

We conclude, therefore, that the existing law in Alabama which requires a woman to assume her husband’s surname upon marriage has a rational basis and seeks to control an area where the state has a legitimate interest.

A key reversal of that judicial stance occurred the next year when the Maryland Court of Appeals overruled the Board of Supervisors of Elections. Mary Stuart had registered to vote under her birth name, although she was married. Her voter registration had been rejected because the Elections Board opined that “a woman’s legal surname becomes that of her husband upon marriage.”

Chief Judge Murphy wrote:

We have heretofore unequivocally recognized the common law right of any person, absent a statute to the contrary, to “adopt any name by which he may become known, and by which he may transact business and execute contracts and sue or be sued.”

[…] we note that there is no statutory requirement in the Code, in either Article 62 (Marriages) or Article 45 (Husband and Wife), that a married woman adopt her husband’s surname. Consistent with the common law principle referred to in the Maryland cases, we hold that a married woman’s surname does not become that of her husband where, as here, she evidences a clear intent to consistently and nonfraudulently use her birth given name subsequent to her marriage.

However in 1975 case law related to women’s surnames was still divided when the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed an early 1900s ruling. In that case, Rosary T. (Rose) Palermo, a Nashville, TN, lawyer, had her name purged from the voter registration list because she did not change her name after being married. The Court ruled:

Tennessee has no [law requiring] that a woman automatically assumes her husband’s surname upon the event of marriage…

Virtually all cases holding that a woman changes her name by marriage are bottomed on a faulty construction of Chapman v. Phoenix National Bank of N.Y., 85 N.Y. 437 (1881).

It was not until 1982 that the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that woman have the right to self-determination:

Even though the State is correct in stating that most married women customarily assume the surnames of their husbands, and register to vote in the surnames of their husbands, we hold that they are not legally required to do so. While the State suggests that allowing married women to register in their maiden surnames will create confusion, we believe that the legitimate interests of the State in preventing fraud in the election process can be satisfied without undue cost or harm.

For context, in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Virginia’s law on involuntary sterilization was legal. This practice did not end until the 1970s.

As recently as 1965, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina still completely excluded women from the jury pool. It would be another 10 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Taylor v. Louisiana that courts could no longer exclude women from jury pools.

It’s little wonder, then, that it took most the 20th century to allow women to own their own identities. Remember, too, that these judges (and lawmakers) were overwhelmingly male and white.

Coverture covers

This belief that women must adopt their husbands’ names rested on the centuries-old practice of coverture.

Coverture is an artifact of English common law that denied women a legal identity. Under coverture, a married woman could not legally own property, enter into a contract or keep her own wages. Instead, with her wedding she became her husband’s property, as did any property she owned prior to speaking her vows.

In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott convened the first conference on women’s rights in America at Seneca Falls, NY. The conference Declaration of Sentiments notes not only that men had denied women the right to vote, but married woman became “civilly dead” through the practices of coverture.

States began freeing women from bits and pieces of coverture in the 19th century, but it wasn’t until 1919 that U.S. women won the right to vote. (Yes, it has not yet been a century here — but it happened in 1893 in New Zealand.) And the end of the century before we could vote using our birth name, if we were married.

Cultural expectations can take generations to evolve.

Just five years ago, 7-out-of-10 Americans believed it was beneficial for a woman to take her husband’s last name upon marriage. The rationale: marital and family identity.

Half said that taking a husband’s name should be a federal law.

Anecdotes demonstrate just how engrained the name-change-post-marriage expectation lives in our culture:

I’ve been married 25 years and kept my name… In the late 90s, I was unable to get the electric bill in my name because the customer service rep didn’t believe it was legal that my name wasn’t the same as my husband’s. He insisted on putting the account in my first name with my husband’s last name. Just today I was on the phone with Blue Cross because someone there opted to change the name on all my medical records so that my last name was the same as my husband’s. — Still Nee, June 17, 2013

I always perceived a woman who didn’t have the same last name as her children and husband negatively. I always perceived it as a sign of confusion or that she was easily carried by the latest fad. — Mike, May 9, 2011

A woman taking a man’s surname is so ingrained in our culture that the process is simple and straightforward. But should a man want to change his name, the process is long, cumbersome and expensive as well as being subject to the whims of a judge.

If such a change would have been practical in our society, I would have preferred to take my wife’s last name upon our marriage. I would love to not have to teach the proper pronunciation of my name every time I meet someone or very carefully spell it over the phone. —Tucker, May 9, 2011

As we move deeper into the 21st century, perhaps Western cultural expectations are changing, as this Twitter exchange suggests (made on what would have been Hermione Granger’s birthday, the heroine of the Harry Potter series):

Twitter exchange, 21 September 2013

Last year, several women told the Huffington Post why they were keeping their birth names:

My name means my heritage, my history and keeps me connected to roots. And when we have kids, and they ask me why my name is different from Daddy’s, I’ll have a great story to tell them. — Marina Adamsky, 28, of Hoboken, N.J.

Keeping my surname was about maintaining my own perceptions of self identity associated with my name. My last name is 15 letters long; it’s unique, interesting and has a story behind it. For my entire life, it’s been a conversation starter. — Catrina Tangchittsumran, 31, of Alexandria, Va.

I love being ‘Mrs. Long,’ but I don’t think a name change would make me feel any more married. — Angel Dunlap, 35, of Atlanta

[Changing names is] an identity eraser, and I didn’t want to erase who I was. — Julien Fielding, 43, of Omaha, Neb.

We don’t know how much such a decision could be due to women marrying later in their 20s, after having established a professional identity. Or a function of where the bride lives (urban/rural, west coast/south). Or related to models we see on television shows and in the movies.

What about the rest of the world?

Ah, the French: according to law passed in 1794, the French are legally bound to their own birth name. Ditto, Italy.

And then, there’s Greece (the home of the modern republic). In 1983, family law changed: it requires that all women must keep their birth surname for legal purposes. That was 30 years ago, and the sentiment is completely opposite of the 2009 U.S. survey. (Still think we’re a “liberal” society?)

What about Greek children? The parents pick (before getting married): mom’s last name, dad’s last name or both.

In the UK, the current trend seems to be toward birth name retention. A survey last year of 33 million UK Facebook users suggested that 2-in-5 women in their 20s have kept their birth name after marriage. Only 1-in-4 women in their 30s have retained their birth name.

Then there’s Kate Winslet, who has not only used her birth name as her stage name, she’s retained her name through three marriages:

I quite like Kate Winslet; in fact I think it’s very flashy. I’m proud of my name because I’m one of three girls and we have one boy in our family so essentially the only person who is going to carry the name along is my brother and he doesn’t have any children at the moment.

A rose by any other name?

Names are important for pragmatic reasons, reasons beyond Lucy Stone’s desire to maintain her identity.

From The New Republic, Why Aren’t Women Advancing At Work? Ask a Transgender Person.

Why do Hollywood actors (e.g., John Wayne = Marion Robert Morrison; Rita Hayworth = Margarita Carmen Cansino; Jon Stewart = Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz) and musicians (e.g., Cher = Cherilyn Sarkisian; Steven Tyler = Stephen Victor Tallarico) use stage names? Easy-to-pronounce names are linked to likability and prestige.

Have a common or familiar name and in the job market? That name boosts the odds of your being hired.

If your name is likable, the odds go up that others will accept your Facebook friend request.

Add to this mix the knowledge that our culture is biased towards men and I hope you’ll begin to question just how far we’ve come in the last century, much less how far we’ve come since the Dark Ages.

So the next time a friend announces an engagement, introduce the idea of post-marital names in conversation. Many women and most men don’t realize that they have alternatives. Depending on each person’s career status, marriage could be an opportunity to create a new, joint identity.

And yes, I’m a Lucy Stoner.

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Inspired by: Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Playing With Reality” in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (October/November 2014)

Photo credits: Cover photo, exchange of rings, Flickr CC New Republic screen capture, August 28, 2014

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Research on names and identity

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    Kathy E Gill

    Written by

    Digital media educator, writer, speaker; sometimes public policy journalist; transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles. #rabblerouser #pushy