Women's Married Names: A Centuries-Old Debate

WOMEN who choose to keep their birth names in marriage can cite 400 years of historical precendents.

Leonard Ashley, an English professor at Brooklyn College in New York and a student of names, says alternative arrangements sprang up in England as early as the 16th century, when women from prestigious families married not-so-prestigious men. But it wasn't until the 19th century, he says, that professional women like Elizabeth Garrett, England's first female doctor, began keeping their names for ideological reasons.

The movement flourished in America after 1921, says University of Oregon researcher Mary Lou Parker. In that year, a small group of professional women in New York City formed an organization named after suffrage activist Lucy Stone, a woman whose decision to keep her birth name upon marriage was affirmed by the United States Supreme Court in 1855.

According to its constitution, the Lucy Stone League sought ``to protect, instruct, and encourage those women who wish to continue their names after marriage.'' A history of the league states: ``If women no longer consider themselves property to be owned and protected, the mere recipients and brooders of male life, and the subordinate members of interpersonal relationships, ... they must have their own identity.'' The league took on other causes as well, including the right of married women to vote, hold passports, and receive wages in their own names.

League membership rolls never exceeded 100. The League dissipated during World War II, but was revived in the 1950s and continued until the 70s.

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