After Dobbs, married women keeping their names regain political meaning

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On Friday, the Supreme Court’s decision on Dobbs v. Jackson (MS) Women’s Health Organization overruled Roe v. Wade, ending nearly 50 years of women’s access to safe and legal abortion. Summer 2022 is also on track to set a record 2.5 million marriages, the highest number of marriages in 40 years. What does it mean for millions of Americans to marry when women’s right to control their reproductive lives has been eviscerated?

Marriage and reproductive rights are intertwined issues that highlight long-standing legal, political, and cultural debates about women’s autonomy. The same political and activist forces that brought us reproductive rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s also revised marriage and divorce laws to secure women’s rights within and outside of marriage. Together, these legal changes established that, at least on paper, women were full citizens with fundamental equal rights and autonomy, not subordinate beings beholden to husbands and motherhood.

Not only will millions of women suffer and die as a result of the Dobbs decision, but the decision also calls into question the autonomy and personality of all women (and, therefore, the future of same-sex marriage). This new doubt will restore political meaning to several heterosexual marital customs, including symbolic naming practices adopted in the 1970s.

Until the 1970s, women gave up almost all their rights upon marriage. under what was called hedging laws, a woman lost her legal identity when she married because she was subsumed by her husband. Mrs. John Smith literally meant the woman legally related to John Smith. Beginning in the 1840s, women’s rights activists challenged state laws that denied women the right to inherit property, earn their own money, or retain custody of their children. But those reforms have been slow and tenuous, with many vestiges of coverage remaining on the books well into the lifetimes of the majority of Americans alive today.

Married women could not even refuse sex to their husbands (marital rape was not criminalized in all 50 states until 1993) they also could not expect an equitable distribution of property in the event of a divorce. And married women couldn’t apply for credit cards or bank accounts without their husband’s signature until the law passed. Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 which prohibited “discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status or age in credit transactions”.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others successfully challenged dozens of gender-based laws – including laws that excused women from jury duty (because this civic service apparently took them away from their more important work at home), policies that essentially forced pregnant women to leaving the workforce and laws that provided differential benefits to the spouse based on gender—arguing that laws based on gender stereotypes limited women’s rights in violation of the 14th amendment.

But writing mostly in Dobbs, The opinion of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. challenges 50 years of case law based on the belief that the 14th Amendment guarantees equal rights and freedom regardless of gender.

That’s why two small but potent symbols of women’s growing autonomy in the 1970s are particularly important today: the introduction of the honorary title “Ms.” and the practice of women keeping their surnames.

Traditionally, men, at least white men, were formally addressed as M., regardless of their marital status. Since a woman’s marital status (and, therefore, her virginity status) determined her overall legal and societal position, women did not have such a neutral term until Gloria Steinem and her colleagues from Mme magazine invent one.

Rejecting the retrograde idea that a woman should be “Miss” until marriage and “Mrs. [Husband’s Last Name]“After marriage, the founders of Ms. boldly declared a woman’s right to full personality, regardless of her marital status. They chose this moniker over other appealing choices to convey the magazine’s mission: that the personal was political. When the review made its debut in 1972, “Mrs.” was such an unfamiliar term that the editors had to spell it out for people on the phone, as they reflected in a oral history. Within months, however, as co-founding editor Mary Peacock reminded“Suddenly you might say ‘Mrs..,‘ and everyone knew what you were talking about.

A related, and even more controversial, naming practice also began to gain traction in the early 1970s: women retaining their maiden names after marriage. Historically, a wife taking her husband’s surname signaled his loss of legal personality, making the decision to keep her name a powerful political action. Inspired by the example of abolitionist Lucy Stone (1818-1893), feminists in the 1970s resurrected the practice of keeping one’s surname after marriage.

Stone rejected the myriad legal injustices for women inherent in the institution of marriage. Her suitor, fellow abolitionist Henry Blackwell, agreed. The couple decided to marry on their own terms, removed the word “obey” from their vows and issued a protest to explain that marriage should be “an equal and permanent partnership so recognized by law”.

The most dramatic way the couple recorded their protest was that Stone, one of the most famous women of the time, kept her last name. Stone’s example inspired women throughout the 19th century and beyond. Women’s rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who insisted on using both her maiden and married name, hailed Stone’s sweeping decision and its far-reaching implications, gushing to Stone that “Nothing has been done in the women’s rights movement for some time that has gladdened my heart so much as the announcement by you of a woman’s right to her name. Taking a name is one of the first steps towards freedom, and one of the first requirements of a republican government.

Other 19th-century feminists experimented with naming as a means of retaining some autonomy after marriage, including Mary Church Terrell, founding president of the National Association of Colored Women; sculptor Adelaide Johnson, who insisted that her husband take the surname “Johnson” when they married in 1896; and free-thinking feminist Helen Hamilton Gardener, who coined a brand new name for herself after being exposed in the newspapers for having sex before marriage.

For much of the 20th century, the practice of American women keeping their surnames fell out of favor. However, thanks to the boost it received from second-wave feminism, the percentage of women keeping their own name peaked in the 1970s. Today, polls estimate that between 10 percent and 20% of American women keep their maiden name, although the percentage is higher for women with degrees and those who marry later in life.

Debates over surnames are, in essence, debates over women’s autonomy. Do we see women as individual citizens or, above all, as wives and mothers? The reasoning behind Mississippi’s limits on women’s reproductive autonomy (and the Supreme Court’s affirmation of it in Dobbs) is based on outdated stereotypes that a woman’s autonomy should come far behind her potential role as a mother.

Feminists have successfully challenged the sexist ideologies that shaped our laws and jurisprudence half a century ago. And indeed in 2015, the New York Times reported that the percentage of women keeping their names seemed to be on the rise but that the overall political nature of the practice had decreased, explaining that “fundamental rights have been achieved, so the gesture carries less weight either way”.

But now the terrain looks very different. As Lucy Stone wrote to her best friend, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, in 1855, “[i]It is very little for me to have the right to vote, to own property, … if I cannot keep my body and its uses in my absolute right. Retaining one’s surname after marriage and adopting the honorary title of Ms provides a marker of legal autonomy and personality, and doing so in 2022 may well prove a particularly significant decision, both symbolically and politically.

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