Derek Coleman: What’s in a name, indeed?

What’s in a name?

Next January, Lori and I will celebrate being married for 12 years. They’ve been very good years, and hopefully we will have many more to look forward to. I like to think we’re a typical married couple, but one unusual thing about our marriage is the fact that I frequently get called by Lori’s surname and, far less frequently, she is called “Mrs. Coleman.”

The reason I say this is unusual is simple: Before we got married, we agreed that she would not be changing her name to mine. There were many reasons for this, the hassle of changing documents such as driving licenses, credit cards, passports and even utility bills being some of them.

She works as a professional, her clients already knew her by her name before we married, we thought changing it might confuse some of them and, in addition, there were children to consider. They would not be changing their surnames of course, and having both parents with a different name can cause confusion within the school system, etc.

I don’t mind her not becoming Mrs. Coleman, after all, as Shakespeare wrote “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and she can call herself whatever she wants as far as I’m concerned.

As you may know, we’re not alone in being a married couple with different surnames. A recent survey found that around 30% of American women opt for keeping their original name on marriage. If we hop over the pond, we will find in Britain the figure is far less at around 10%, with almost all of younger brides taking their husband’s name.

There is no legal requirement for a woman to change her name when she marries; it’s simply a tradition in the English-speaking world, but it does stem from the dark history of gender inequality. Surnames in England started to be used way back in the 11th century. Up until that time, people tended to live in small communities where everyone knew everyone else and there was no need for surnames; first names were enough to identify a person. As villages grew, however, it became necessary to differentiate between several people who had the same first name. That’s why surnames came into being and, for example, John, the son of Robert became John Robertson and Tom, the forester’s son, became Tom Forester, etc.

Young girls took their father’s name too, but, in those unenlightened times, when they got married they were considered to become their husband’s property and thus they had no surname. It wasn’t until the middle ages that women started to take their spouse’s last name for their own as a symbol that the couple had become “a single person, because they are one flesh and one blood,” or so Henry de Bracton, an English cleric who wrote extensively on the laws and customs of England, said. This was the accepted tradition as the English began to colonize America and it was carried across the Atlantic with the immigrants.

You may think the custom began to change with the rise of feminism toward the end of the last century, but, in fact, the first hints of it came nearly 170 years ago with a girl called Lucy Stone. She was born a farmer’s daughter in Massachusetts just over 200 years ago. She had three brothers and three sisters and their father dominated the family, controlling all expenditure and denying their mother money for anything he considered unnecessary. In addition to this example of male dominance, she also had a penniless aunt who had been abandoned by her husband living with them and a destitute female neighbor whose husband had neglected her.

Influenced by what she’d seen, Lucy grew up determined to never marry and to earn her own living. At the age of 16, she began working as a school teacher earning $1 per day. This was less than half the amount her brother, who was also a teacher, earned for doing the same job. She protested and was told that the school committee could only give her what they called “women’s pay.”

That was when she first became interested in the women’s movement and, saving her meager pay, she went to college, becoming the first Massachusetts woman to earn a degree. At that time, there were few professions open to women graduates, but Lucy secured a job with William Garrison’s Anti-Slavery Society. She began giving speeches and became a leading voice on women’s rights, organizing the first national convention on the subject. The speech she made at the event was published internationally and she spent the next five years touring and giving lectures.

Whilst she was moving around the country, she was courted by a man named Henry Blackwell. She resisted him for two years, but he was determined and finally, despite her teenage vow never to marry, she agreed to his proposal. Before the ceremony, however, Lucy insisted on what we would now call a pre-nup. Basically it made the two of them equal partners in the marriage with each retaining sole rights for anything they had before marrying, etc. When they made their vows the part about Lucy “obeying” her husband was omitted and Henry swore never to claim any of his superior rights under archaic laws.

They additionally agreed that, after the wedding, Lucy would continue to sign her name as “Lucy Stone.” That was fine until she tried to register a property she had bought and the clerk insisted she sign as Lucy Blackwell. She had to comply and for the next eight months, she had to use that name on all official documents. But she was stubborn and hired a lawyer, Samuel P. Chase, who later became Chief Justice of the United States, to research the legality of this. He found there was no law requiring a woman to change her name on marriage so, on May 7, 1856, Lucy Stone became the first woman in America to retain her last name when she announced publicly in Boston that, henceforth, she would be known only by her birth name.

Henry Blackwell obviously loved his wife, appreciated her desire for independence and didn’t mind what she called herself. I feel the same way and once again I’m with Shakespeare when, in Romeo and Juliet, he has Juliet asking “What’s in a name?”

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