Guest Column: The politics of surnames

Gabriel Rosen

The French government announced last week that it would drop the title “Mademoiselle” from all its official documents. Solidarity Minister Roselyne Bachelot claimed in support of the measure that the move would “end a form of discrimination”. All women, married or not, would henceforth use only the title “Madame,” just as all French men use only the title “Monsieur”. French feminist groups had been pushing for this change for a long time, arguing that a woman’s marital status was irrelevant to any of her official business. It is hard to understate the revolutionary nature of this move considering the millennia-old tradition of labeling women in relation to their marital status.

From a historical perspective, the practice of giving women distinct titles upon marriage dates back to ancient times. An article published online by the Iran Chamber Society on Feb. 29 cites both fortification and treasury texts discovered at Persepolis (509-438 BC) and documents discovered at Susa Babylonia that include separate titles for married and unmarried women. The Persepolis tablets identify three different terms of reference for women: mutu, irti and duksis. These titles referred to both marital status and connection to the royal family.

By the Middle Ages, titles were differentiated in the English language as well. ”Mrs.” is simply a contraction derived from the Middle English “maistresse”, meaning a female teacher or governess. It was originally used as a title of courtesy, but by the fifteenth century the term “mistress” had already come to carry negative connotations. By the seventeenth century, the terms “Mrs.” and “Miss” were already in use.

French and English were not the only languages to have this demarcation of titles for women. The Germans traditionally used “Fraulein” for unmarried women and “Frau” for married women. But they led the French in removing the marital status by banning the use of “Fraulein” from official records in 1972. The Spanish still, however, officially use both “Senora” and “Senorita.” English is a bit unique in that it has introduced the third term of “Ms.”, applying to any adult woman without removing the other choices, leaving women to choose among “Miss”, “Mrs.” or “Ms.”.

It is interesting to note that some languages change a woman’s actual name to denote her marital status, not just the change of her title. For instance, last names in Lithuanian end differently depending on whether it’s a man’s surname, a married woman’s surname or an unmarried woman’s surname. Men’s surnames typically end in -us, -as, or -ys. However, the “as” would be changed to “iene” for a man’s wife. His daughter would have a surname ending in “aite,” although his son’s surname would be the same as his own.

There are actually countries where women used to change their first names to denote their marital status. In Macedonia, this was common until recently, and it is still practiced in small rural areas. In addition, until the 1950s, Hungarian women dropped their own names completely and added the title “wife of” to their husband’s name. This is similar to the old fashioned American or British tradition of being known as “Mrs.” [husband’s name], a practice that is essentially extinct in the present day.

Now, in 2012, this ancient marital title system is continuing to grow obsolete after millennia of use. Of course, in a society where women hold their own jobs, manage their own finances and often do not marry until later in life, if at all, this makes sense. A woman’s status no longer depends upon her husband but upon herself. One can also see the lessening in the significance of marital status in the diminution of the term “bastard”, as the incidence of children born out of wedlock rises as well. In France, where over half of all children are born to unwed parents, a woman’s marital status is really only a footnote in her life. It seems obvious that dropping a title that highlights only the modern ramifications of marriage would be the clear next step.

Gabriel Rosen, Harvard Political Review, Harvard U. via UWIRE