Thursday, September 21, 2006

Are there any countries besides the US where women are referred to by their husbands' names?

Who's asking: Sue Schulz

This question came up because our friend Anna follows the old custom of referring to herself as "Mrs. Tarren Bragdon." Sue, who is German, wanted to know whether this is only an American practice, or something that other cultures do.

I've spent some time researching this question, and it's been hard to come up with any kind of definitive answer. Many cultures, of course, don't use surnames, or use them only for legal documents. Many Asian languages place titles at the end of a name (Nakamura-san) instead of at the beginning, and those titles don't always distinguish between genders.

The best answer I can give is that as far as I know, the practice of referring to women as as "Mrs. [husband's name]," is limited to English-speaking countries, and has fallen into disfavor even in them. That form of address is now considered appropriate only in social settings, never in business ones (imagine calling Senator Clinton "Mrs. William J. Clinton"), and even then, only if the woman prefers it.

Interestingly, the trend of married women keeping their surnames in the United States has reversed itself since the 1990s. More than 90% of women here now routinely change their names when they get married.

I come from a long line of women who changed their first names -- both of my grandmothers chose to be called by their middle names, and Grandma Lamb changed even that (she was christened Margaretta, but changed it to plain Margaret). It confuses people enough that I am both Ellen and Clair; even if I ever did get married, I don't think I'd bother with any more name changes.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

nice job! thanks for clearing that up...
Sue

Jim Winter said...

My wife did not change her name when we married, and I did not hold it against her.

My mother was understandably upset, but also respected our decision. She even admired Diane for it.

My mother-in-law, on the other hand...

*Sigh* You would think she'd appreciate her daughter carrying on the family name, but no. Any card addressed solely to my wife says, "Diane Winter" on it. She refuses to use the family name when referring to her because "I had to change MY name, so..." (To which Diane says, "No, you didn't.")

It's been a bone of contention to the point where I've said, "My wife's name is not 'Winter.' Please use her proper name."

It is now a topic we avoid discussing at holidays.

Kathleen said...

I'd always assumed Rose-Adele was Grandmother McLaughlin's whole first name. So Adele was the middle name! (also my middle name).

I've tried to explain this whole family name change business (which happens on the Kiely side too) but no one ever seems to understand. It makes perfect sense to me.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why the family custom of using middle names has not carried to the men? I know some uncles use nicknames but I am James and Ed is Edward. Why did Mom and
Dad shorten everyones name or use middle names, for everyone but me. Edward is Ed, Susan is Sue, Etc... I am not complaining but why am I not Jimmy, Jim, JJ or even my middle name Joseph? I should ask Dad. And while you're on the subject of names; when did it become fashonable to tack on a woman's maiden name to her official name?
James

AnswerGirl said...

James, Mom never wanted Ed to be Ed or Susan to be Sue -- she always wanted them to be called by their full names. Edward became Ed once he joined the wrestling team, and Susan became Sue when she started cheerleading. I'm only Clair because Mom didn't like the name Ellen.

Go ahead, start calling yourself Cool J if you want...

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid cheerleading can't take the blame for my ending up to many people as Sue-though Mom liked to blame a lot of the things she didn't like where I was concerned on cheerleading. Basketball was more the culprit. And, combined with having a twin sister called Peggy, 'Sue' became pretty hard to fight. Now I'm like you, Clair. There are clearly defined groups that call me Susan or Sue depending. Lucky for me I don't really mind either. Just don't call me late for a nap.:)
Susan

Kathy said...

I carried on the tradition with the boys. Patrick's name is Adam Patrick. I didn't want him to be called AJ, Jr., or Bubba. I do think it is a southern thing.

JIM LAMB said...

I could write a book on this subject. Kathleen was a name we chose before I left for the war in 1965. When your mother found out she was about to have twins, I was on a destroyer in the China Seas. She chose your name. In those days that was more remote than outer space was. Since there is no custom of calling a girl "junior" she decided to call you Clair so I wouldn't get confused. Your grandfather insisted on Kathy because he already had a Kathleen.

Margaret Judith was given traditional Lamb and McLaughlin family names. Mr. McLaughlin said, "Margaret is a name for a mature lady. She should be called peggy now". If you want to change,feel free. Susan was a name we both agreed on.

Your mother was very opposed to giving any of you nicknames as children. She said you could choose what you wanted to be called
when you were adults, so feel free.

She had a whole lot of cousins and other relatives who answered to names like "Bubba", "Quaddy" (the fourth), and "Peatsy". She didn't like that.

Then there was her cousin who was "Peatsy" as a girl. She used Rita in college and as a congressional staffer but changed back to "Peatsy" when she became Mrs. Senator Hollings because it's OK for politicians and their families to use baby talk nick names until the are more ancient than the pyramids.

The Lamb family preferred diminutives and titles. Last weekend I was still referred to as Cousin or Uncle Jimmy. When I was young I was referred to as Little Jimmy to separate me from Uncle Jimmy or Judge Lamb as he was later. That was even after I was a full head taller. I am sure that if my Aunt Agnes, who is 101 today, had been able to talk last week she would have still called me Little Jimmy.

That is just a few words on the subject.



wh

Anonymous said...

From the time I was a little, little kid, I thought "Edward" was too much of a mouthful, and I have always disliked double diminutives such as "Eddie." In fact, I once snapped at the first grade nun, Sister Des Ainge ("Of the Angels," I believe) that Eddie wasn't my name.

I went with Ed when I started high school because it seemed the best middle-ground compromise amidst my disinclinations. Plus, it sounds like a grunt, a nonword, if you don't try to articulate it. I've always kind of appreciated that.

--Ed

Anonymous said...

P.S. I also stayed away from "Edward" because it has waaaay too many hard consonant sounds. Very Germanic and Old English-y. Which the name is. The name means "Strong Protector" in pre-Norman English, according to a baby name book.

Of course, my Dungeons & Dragons name for my chaotic-good dwarf my Drawde.

--Ed

Anonymous said...

For me your names will always be:

Kathy
Clair
Peggy
Susan
Edward

and

Little James

Sorry, in my head you are stuck with that.

What were Quaddy and Peatsy's real names?

-Regan

Kathleen said...

Okay, this is really odd. Last night Owen announced out of the blue that "people can change their names" and that he is now "Ceasar" and that I'm "Sheila" and Lucy is "Layla!"

I'm really afraid Ceasar (the Spanish pronounciation by the way) is going to stick and how do we explain that!

AnswerGirl said...

Regan, Peatsy's real name was Rita. I don't remember a Quaddy, but I do remember a Trey, who was -- I think -- Great-Uncle William McLaughlin's grandson, so I'm guessing he was William III. Bubba Baldwin's real name was Claude, after his father, who is known as Peanuts; Peanuts is married to your dad's (and my mom's) first cousin, Kay (who is Peatsy's sister, just to complete that circle).

Kathleen, I have to believe this is a whim, and if you ignore it, Owen will go back to his real name soon enough. For a while in kindergarten, Susan signed all her papers "Susie LAMM," but she can give the details about why that was, or why she decided to switch back to her own name.

Anonymous said...

hey, I'm kinda proud that my (ok, and Anna's) question got the most comments EVER...I don't think a single other entry on your blog got more!
Sue