The Mrs. Files

Historians in the News
tags: families, marriage, womens history

But we wanted to know how it came to be. It sent us on a journey to learn more about the history of the word “Mrs.” What struck us was how the meaning changed over time.

In 16th- and 17th-century England, and in its American colonies, “Mrs.” — which was short for mistress — marked a woman’s social status, either through marriage or as “someone who managed her own money or business and governed other people,” Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage,” wrote in an email. “A married woman of middling status was usually called Goodwife or Dame, while lower-status women didn’t get any honorific at all.”

Only in the 19th century did the “Mrs. Husband’s Name” form develop. “In America this was at first considered ‘a new fashion’ associated with wealthy women and social climbers,” Coontz said. But by the end of the century, “Mrs. Husband’s Name” had been widely adopted. Coontz partly attributes this to the cult of domesticity, which defined women “more exclusively by their marital status.”

Many women, she added, embraced the “Mrs. Husband’s Name” title as a sign of their “pride in their wifely identity.”

Not every woman felt that pride.

In 1855, the suffragist Lucy Stone famously kept her birth name after her marriage to Henry B. Blackwell. As she wrote in a letter to Blackwell: “My name is my identity and must not be lost.”

Read entire article at New York Times

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