Lucy Stoners in your writing

I’m guest-blogging today at the A to Z Challenge blog! Come by and check it out!

A Lucy Stoner is a woman who keeps her birth surname after marriage, so named after Lucy Stone, the first woman in the English-speaking world who kept her own name. She had to go through some unbelievable court battles for this basic right to call herself what she wanted. Please be advised that this is meant as an informative post, not a forum for debate. Frankly, I’m very saddened that so many people in the 21st century still get so bent out of shape over a woman keeping her birth surname.

Since my mother and aunts all kept their birth surnames after marriage, I’ve always seen that as normal. The last name on my birth certificate is the last name I’ll die with, marriage or not. I’d love to give my name to any future child(ren), or at least alternate surnames with a potential husband. Therefore, it’s only been natural for me to make a preponderance of my characters Lucy Stoners. Many people may be surprised to discover this isn’t some recent movement, and that it’s the norm in much of the world.

The custom of a woman changing her birth name is largely a convention of the English-speaking world, and certain European countries. Other countries might have many women who’ve historically changed their names, but it’s not a legal requirement, and men are equally welcome to change their names. Only a few countries, like Japan, make women change their names. Some countries which required it in the past, such as Greece, now respect women’s rights to use whichever name they want. Indeed, Greek women by and large no longer change their names.

Women have always kept their birth surnames in places including Italy, France (since 1789), Québec, China (though usually children get the husband’s surname), The Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Iran, Korea, Singapore, the Arab world, Cambodia, the Spanish-speaking world, Sweden, Iceland, Vietnam, Guam, The Philippines, and the Portuguese-speaking world. In some places, like The Netherlands, a woman might choose to go by her husband’s name socially, but her legal name is the one she was born with.

Giving your characters hyphenated names really shouldn’t be a big deal. Somehow the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world has managed multiple surnames just fine for centuries. The father’s first surname comes first, then the mother’s first surname, though since 1999 in Spain, names can be in any order, so long as it’s the same for every child. The rest of the surnames aren’t used in everyday life. So in the English-speaking world, if Mr. Jones-Smith marries Ms. Taylor-Williams, their children could be Jones-Taylor or Smith-Williams. Not that hard to figure out!

There were court cases in the 19th and 20th centuries in the U.S. (some going all the way to the Supreme Court) requiring Lucy Stoners to register to vote; file for citizenship; co-sign a loan; get a driver’s license, passport, library card, insurance policy, telephone or store account, or copyright; receive paychecks; register at a hotel; sign checks; register in the Census; and have bank accounts as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name. Authorities didn’t respect or recognise that their legal names were not the same as their husbands’ names. The judges’ rulings were typically sexist and dismissive, as though a woman keeping her birth surname were so disrespectful and somehow disrupting the natural order of society. In the U.S., a woman’s right to use her own name to do all these basic things wasn’t guaranteed across the land till 9 October 1972.

The Lucy Stone League was founded in 1921, and quite active. Their motto was “A wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers. My name is my identity and must not be lost.” (Teddy Roosevelt also had a great line about how he felt a woman shouldn’t have to take her husband’s name.) They were involved in many of the abovementioned court battles, though by the early Thirties it was inactive. In 1950, it restarted, and naturally was hugely active during the tumultuous decades to follow. It had largely become inactive again by the early 1990s, but got new life in 1997.

You should make it realistic by having outsiders around your Lucy Stoners (if they’re in the English-speaking world) reacting to their surname choices. Some of my Lucy Stoners will frequently say it’s normal in their home country, or they thought all modern women kept their names, and can’t understand why it’s such a big deal. Or the outsiders could trot out the usual insulting caveats about how Lucy Stoners must not really love their husbands, think they’re superior to men, are bad cooks and mothers, are ugly, and are confusing their kids.

Naming children really isn’t the big deal many people think it is. They simply get the surname of one parent or the other, or hyphenate, or the parents alternate their surnames. My characters Cinnimin and Levon alternated their surnames on their eventual ten kids, starting with Cinni’s name. And my Laurel-Esterházy family gave the boys their mother’s surname and the girls their father’s surname. Some modern couples also both hyphenate their names, create a portmanteau name (e.g., Lehrer+Silver=Lehrver), or use a new name entirely.

Before the title Ms. was created, Mrs. was the proper, respectful title for an adult married woman, even if she’d kept her name. Lucy Stone herself started going by Mrs. after she married Henry Blackwell (brother of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell). France and Germany have repurposed their two existing titles instead of creating a third, so now all adult women are Frau/Madame, and all young girls are Fräulein/Mademoiselle.

Please don’t be too historically accurate with your characters who do change their names! It makes me so sad to see old newspaper stories and group photo identifications which passively identify women and write them out of existence as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name. Just because that was considered correct at one time doesn’t mean you have to perpetuate it in a historical written in the modern era.

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6 comments on “Lucy Stoners in your writing

  1. Interesting post! Personally, I grew up in an area of the world that is predominantly Catholic, and therefore it was always the norm for me that when women got married they changed their names. As I got older I began to realize that this wasn’t always the case, but I still thought of it as the “out of the norm” situation when a woman didn’t change her name. Then a friend from Montreal informed me that it’s actually out of the norm for a woman TO change in her name in Quebec.

    It never really bothered me either way. I changed my name, but that was my decision because I feel it’s somehow more neat and tidy when parents and children all have the same last name. But my best friend kept her birth name, and one of my aunt’s changed her name back to her birth name (but left the kids’ names alone) when she divorced.

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  2. Doesn’t bother me either way. It’s a cultural thing.

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  3. I could have kept my maiden name, but truth, my married name is SO much cooler. I always wanted to be an alliteration. =)

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  4. Rhissanna says:

    Tried one way, then the other. It doesn’t actually make any difference to anything. The new double-barreled names always catch me out, though. I’m always expecting an upper-crust British family, with a baronet on the side…

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  5. hilarymb says:

    Hi Carrie Anne – my sister-in-law has kept her maiden name for her professional life – as do quite a few women here … I ended marrying a double-barrelled name – but having divorced … just decided to keep it, especially as I moved back to the UK … and I’m not upper crust!

    I’ll have to look back at your A-Z .. I never ‘caught’ you along the journey in April .. sounds fascinating .. cheers Hilary

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  6. Chrys Fey says:

    Interesting! For me, I always knew I’d change my name, and I don’t mind that I will…hopefully…someday. 🙂

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