Women Changing Names, Part 3. A Brief History of Women’s Names

Anna Murray
6 min readApr 3, 2015


Post #1 — I asked friends why they did/did not change their names when they married. Many did not change their names, or expressed regret they did.

Post #2 — My women friends changed their names for a variety of reasons: They didn’t think about it; To avoid complexity; Because some were conflicted but did it anyway. The responses revealed a gap in their knowledge about women’s names.

And in mine too!

All that Ivy-League education, some of it in Women’s Studies, and I didn’t know (or remember) when women started to take men’s surnames? I didn’t even know the history of Miss-Mrs.-Ms.

So I decided to find out.

Surnames Were an Invention

Up until about the 11th century, pretty much nobody had a last name. They went by appellations like Beowulf and Hrothgar.

Then, the church insisted children be given Christian names. But there weren’t enough of those to go around. Pretty soon there was an explosion of Johns, Georges, Williams and Michaels.

Thus, the surname was invented to distinguish between people.

Michael, John’s son — Michael Johnson — was a different person from Michael William’s Son.

Still, the surname was not very common until the reign of Henry VIII (early 1500s).

Malleable Surnames

Until the late 1600s, surnames remained changeable throughout a person’s life.

Take our friend Michael, John’s Son above. This would be his name as a child.

As he got older, he might have acquired a different surname. His friends might call him Michael Black because he was the Michael with the dark complexion and black hair. When he learned a trade, he was known as Michael the Miller.

A chief justice in 1628 opined that while a man may have only one Christian name, “he may have divers surnames…[and] divers names at divers times.”

We’re getting into British Common Law here. You’ll wanna remember this part for later.

Because right now you are smarter than most of the US lower court judges from the 1800s through the 1970s.

Ye Olde Maiden Name

Well into the 1600s, it was fairly common for a woman to keep her maiden name. Evidence for this is scattered over all kinds of documents, from letters, to records of commerce, to land deeds. A smattering of examples:

  • In 1268, William de Beauchamp refers to his wife as, “my wife, Isabel de Mortimer.”
  • In 1351, a law suit named Isabel Roll and her husband John Bullock.
  • A 1577 document records the death of Anne Standish, wife of George Baildon.
  • Anne’s mother was My Laydye Hussye, widow of Thomas Falkingham.
  • The wife of a late 1500s chief justice, Sir Edward Coke, went by the name Lady Hatton.
  • In the colonies, there was Anneke Adriaens named in a lawsuit in 1664. Her husband was Aert Pierersen Tack.
  • In 1669, in New York, Margaret Hardenbrook, merchant and ship owner, conducted all her business in her maiden name, despite two marriages.

It was also not uncommon for man to take his wife’s name.

In the 1300s, John ate Hethe of Cobham married Lucy Atte Grene. The court books state that John “is now called Grene.”

Using one’s maiden name was so common all the way into the 1800s, a judge wrote in 1823 he “knew many living instances” of women who had names “different from their husbands.”

An 1865 publication states that in Dorset, England, “It constantly happens that a married female retains her maiden name” and that name “also descends to her children and their descendants.”

Miss and Mrs.

This one was the biggest surprise to me.

Up until the 19th century, the titles Miss and Mrs. had nothing to do with a woman’s married status.

Mrs., short for Mistress, was simply a title of respect and rank.

Poet John Milton’s daughter died in 1657. She had the following engraved on her tombstone:

Mrs. Kathern Milton

She was five months old.

Miss came into use in the 1600s to mean a woman of loose morals. Eventually, the Miss-Mrs. thing became a matter of age. Miss came to be applied to a younger woman. Older women, regardless of marital status, were referred to as Mrs.

By the middle of the 1700s, Miss and Mrs. had more or less come to mean what we know them as now, titles for unmarried and married women.

(Yes, that’s right. All the hub-bub about Ms. starting in the 1970s was probably a red herring.)

Mrs. HerHusband

As any reader of Pride & Prejudice will tell you, the following is true about women’s names:

  • When a woman is unmarried, she is Miss MaidenName.

Miss Elizabeth Bennet

  • When she marries, her official title obliterates all her names and she becomes Mrs. HerHusband.

Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy

Interestingly, it is just around the publication of P&P (1813) that this construction came into common use, starting in the British upper classes. Earlier, women kept their first names in all levels of society.

For an example, look no farther than the country’s chief embroiderer, Betsy Ross.

Who has ever heard of Mrs. John Ross?

So What’s Up Here?

At this point, you might feel confusion.

How and why did society increasingly move to the cultural norm of a woman taking a man’s surname?

How did it develop that women’s identities eroded more and more until she was Mrs. John Smith?

The cultural norm is now so strong that many of us (me included) think it goes back to the beginning of time. Several folks who messaged me suggested (erroneously) that it was even biblical.

Today the norm is so entrenched that for many progressive women the idea of keeping their own names is a bridge too far.

This, despite the fact that a 14th-century woman might have said to a 21st-century woman, “Go for it, Mistress!”

We’ve Been Going Backwards for Centuries

Here’s what I do remember from women’s studies classes.

In terms of certain female freedoms, we’ve been regressing since the Renaissance. Women in earlier centuries were more sexually free.

Take the Wife of Bath.

She was “gap-toothed,” which meant horny. She’s also pictured carrying a cat-o-nine-tails.

Fifty Shades, anyone?

Canterbury Tales was published in 1475.

There’s also a lot of sex in Shakespeare.

This woman’s an easy glove, my lord; she goes off and on at pleasure.

–All’s Well That Ends Well, Act V, Scene 3

Can you imagine that coming out of Mr. Darcy’s mouth?

What Changed?

This woman happened.

The Victorian era began in 1837. Which meant clothes like armor.

And modesty in place of sexual freedom.

It’s no surprise that women’s names followed a similar trajectory.

To review,

  • Prior to 1800, Miss/Mrs. had no meaning attached to marriage.
  • Prior to 1800, a woman kept her first name even when she married. (Betsy Ross)
  • Prior to 1700, it was relatively common for a woman to keep her maiden name.

Next up, women’s legal rights.

The Angry Blog.



Anna Murray

Tech expert, novelist, and essay writer with an ticklish funny bone. My novel, “Greedy Heart,” is First Best Book Finalist in the VIVIAN Awards.