What’s in a ‘Married’ Name?

An article by a French novelist, Marie Darrieussecq (Tom est mort) caught my eye last week; she was writing about the Madame/Mademoiselle dichotomy.

In France all women of a certain age are addressed as Madame with younger women being called Mademoiselle. Men, as here, have one simple title, Monsieur or in the UK, Mr. For men age or marital status is immaterial. Not so women. When addressing women a judgement is made as to both when deciding how to address them.

I particularly loved this paragraph from Marie’s article on the topic:

A ‘Madame’ is also of course a brothel keeper: leaving us in no doubt that ‘Mademoiselle’ refers first to a sexual state: being a virgin. When I am asked to tick my civilite I am in fact being asked to give information about my sex life – single or married, available or not. It is this aspect that the two feminist groups who campaigned for the change have been protesting about.

In fact, because of those protests France has recently changed its policy on official forms which required a tick in one or the other of the boxes before allowing women to proceed to completion. But it’s only advisory and change may take some time…

I married in 1977. Like countless other young women I had spent an age beforehand practising my new name. Yet as soon as someone addressed me by my husband’s name I froze (the day after the wedding as we were about to leave for our honeymoon).

“Good Grief”,  I hissed at my husband as the waiter called out  “Phone call for Mrs Dunlop“, “Your mother is here!”

Then the awful truth dawned. It was me. I felt that I had lost something very precious and once the honeymoon was over swiftly set about finding out why women changed their names. I discovered that it was not a legal requirement at all but a convention dating back to when a woman became the property of her husband on marriage. When we had no voice, no vote, no possessions of our own. I became Jane C Woods again immediately.

Most of my contemporaries thought I was mad. Women were particularly perturbed. “Don’t you love him?” was a frequent question.  Preceding Tina Turner by a few years I’d reply “what’s love got to do with it?” (Just for the record, I did love him and still do, 36 years later!) When asked if I was married I’d reply ‘yes, but I didn’t make my husband give up his name on marriage.’ Some people thought I shouldn’t have married at all as if marriage is all about getting a new name…

MS Jane C Woods

The term Ms had come into prominence a few years before and I had, naturally, enthusiastically adopted it, although few people had a clue what I was talking about. Most forms in Britain now have this as an option, but not all, and I still find myself being asked Miss or Mrs? frequently!

Language reflects the society we live in and changing language can help change attitudes. Fire-fighters gives a very different message to firemen, as does headteacher to headmaster, police officer to policeman. We use these terms casually but language does matter.

What do you think?

PS Yes, that is me in the photo, with my darling man. Remember it was 1977!

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Posted on February 29th, 2012 by

19 Responses to “What’s in a ‘Married’ Name?”

  1. Alix Cavanagh says:

    Actually, Ms is v old and predates Mrs – it’s an abbreviation of mistress – I tell people that by using it, it’s a return to traditional values!

  2. I married for the second time in May last year and felt very proud to take my new husbands name. Mind you anything was better than Learoyd! When I divorced I used Ms and had fun when asked whether Miss or Mrs and always said I was in the middle and used Ms. but never comfortable using it.

  3. Ros Baynes says:

    I always knew I wanted to keep my own name but was really surprised by the reactions I got (very similar to the ones you’ve quoted) from friends I thought were more enlightened. My husband was entirely relaxed about my decision. I’m not keen on Ms just because it looks and sounds ugly, so I tend to use Mrs if I have to choose a title.

  4. Shona Easton says:

    I am definitely in favour of keeping your name but I think it is entirely up to the individual. Some people can’t wait to change their name so they totally embrace it.

    I am flexible however: When Easton is too difficult for someone to ‘get’, eg a French person on the other end of the phone, I resort to my other option which is Adams and easily understood by most nationalities.

    Love the photo Jane!

    • Jane says:

      Do you know, I have never used anything other than my given name, not since 1977. It was a tad difficult when the children were born but we gave them their father’s name as the line in UK is paternal. However, they were also registered with Woods as one of their forenames. Interestingly both of them now use a double barrelled name although I never asked them to. My daughter decided at 16 that was her proper name, and my son decided it sounded really good for his acting career!

  5. Helene says:

    I do that awkward thing of having one name for work & one for home. I didn’t particularly want to change my name (I was never one of the girls who thought about weddings or wrote a married name out, even when I was little) but I wanted the kids to have my husband’s name and I guess I didnt want to be different to them.

    It might seem a bit of a faff, but I find it helps me separate work from home, so I can be fluffy at home & tough at work more easily. My husband puts up with it without too much fuss, but I sense he would rather I had adopted his name fully. It is coming to the fore at the moment because I’ve written a textbook and I think he’d like his surname on it, but of course it is about work, so will have my work name on it. (He’ll have to write his own!)

    • Jane says:

      Absolutely it must have your name on it! Well done on the text book- let me know when it comes out. I definitely couldn’t cope with two names, but then it wasn’t really about that for me as I was still at University when we married. For me it was all about principle! Even if my name had been Hogwash I wouldn’t wanted to have given it up (although I might have chosen a different name professionally! With apologies to anyone blessed with the name ‘Hogwash’….

  6. Shona Easton says:

    Just thought I’d add that Mr Adams is quite happy to be addressed as Mr Easton. It’s happened once or twice! Also, forgot to say, that I’m definitely a Ms 🙂

  7. Helene says:

    V kind Jane. It’s the “KM Handbook” out in June/July from The Law Society Publishers. Pretty niche readership…

    And I’m a Mrs, whether a “Russell” (for work) or “Adby” (family), just to confuse things even more. Before I was married I tried to be a Ms, but it just seemed to raise tonnes of questions & become a focus when I introduced myself, rather than moving on & focussing on my work

  8. It’s an issue that affects every woman at the time of their marriage, and I know that many would not consider keeping their “maiden” name. I initially decided not to take Patrick’s name as I was well known at work and didn’t want that to change. I did eventually change my name as we were planning to have a family and decided that was more inclusive. Thanks for your article.

  9. Margaret says:

    I am not married but have been with same person for 30+ years. I am happy to say I am Miss. Ms I always felt was a compromise for those not happily a Miss. Not sure too many Mrs.opt for Ms.
    However,I have never been happy that others make a judgement of me by my title, but have long held the view that it is their problem not mine.

    I do not always correct people if they call me Mrs.but do if the situation requires it.

    • Jane says:

      Thanks for commenting, Margaret. Can’t say I agree with your comment about women who are married not opting for MS; that has a host of baggage attached and speaks volumes about attitudes towards women who are unmarried etc. As I said to Kate, women having to declare their marital status for no discernible reason is a form of discrimination whichever way you look at it. I tend to correct it as I’d like to do away with the distinctions. Most people assume I am not married, (I don’t wear a ring) but I care not a jot about that.

  10. Kate J says:

    As I am happily un-married, I have my given name. I find it competely mad that my relationship status is asked so casually. I also am offered the option of Ms less often if at all. Most irritatingly as MD of a company I am regularly written to as Mr, even by people I have spoken to. Are we going backward?

    • Jane says:

      Hi Kate, I asked this very question in this post a wee while ago. Today i ordered something by phone and was only offered the choice of Mrs and Miss. I asked if they actually had a Ms category. She replied they did but rarely used it as most women didn’t like it. I wonder how they reached that conclusion? And this was The Guardian? Observer shop! It’s a subtle form of discrimination but it’s still discrimination.

  11. Felicity says:

    I changed my name on marriage but found myself irritated by being defined by my marital status (Mrs). It was a relief to get a doctorate and adopt the title Dr. This ought to be gender free but it’s amazing how often I answer the phone, give my name, and still have the caller ask to speak to Dr Cooke, as though such a person could not be female! Or I introduce myself as Dr Cooke say to a call centre and am immediately addressed as Mrs. After I divorced I reverted to my original name, and have never regretted it (though I was influenced by our having included my original name in our daughters’ forenames, which made me feel I wasn’t losing a connection with them by making the change back). I’d really welcome use of Ms for all instead of Miss and Mrs.

  12. Ali Cameron-Daw says:

    Another thing we have in common Jane! I changed my name back to ‘maiden status’ after 10 years of marriage-which upset ‘him indoors’ for quite a while..too bad-what a DAFT tradition! I had the same comments as you-needless to say I’ve since avoided those air-heads with their questions… ‘Why did you get married in the first place?’ aaaargghh!

  13. Katherine says:

    Great article and brings out some real polar views in people when you talk about it.

    My maiden name was Redhead (I’m not naturally red but yes I have been that colour a few times!). When I married Andrew it was a second marriage for both of us. So I decided rather than be ‘the second Mrs Reed’ (I was once introduced by a future in law as the soon to be second Mrs Reed and it irritated me!) I would go back to my mothers maiden name, which I’d also had until the age of 3, and add my married name on so I’m now Mrs Wilson-Reed but don’t mind if I’m addressed as Miss, Ms or Mrs.

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