The Mrs. Problem

Week 44: #52 Ancestors – Shadows

By Eilene Lyon

My current WIP is a book about Colorado pioneers, told in light of the cemeteries they are buried in. One I visited on our way back from Denver is called Cleora Cemetery, near Salida in Chaffee County.

It is considered a “boot hill” cemetery. People buried there died in the prime of life, aka “with their boots on.” Graves are randomly scattered, some with headstones, others with perhaps only a lump of rock to mark the remains.

This wood grave marker in the Cleora Cemetery is still partly legible. If the aluminum marker is correct, Maud Daniels was seven and half when she died.

I scoured the local newspapers to find names for those unmarked graves. Some of what I found were things like:

“Mrs. C. S. Norman was thought to be getting rapidly better, but at that time she suffered a worse attack and died …” (Maria E. Waterman)

“Obituary: Mrs. R. N. Vickers – At her home in this city on Saturday morning …” (Riodel Norte Camp)

“Mrs. J. B. French died last evening at her home on Adobe park …” (Melissa J. Sprague)

“The funeral of Mrs. Ferd Wilkson who died at Monarch on Tuesday …” (Louisa Marshall)

Funeral notice for Mrs. Ferd Wilkson. (The Salida Mail, February 3, 1888 via Newspapers.com)

Most often, these reports never, ever give the poor deceased woman her own name. She is merely her husband’s shadow. Finding out who she was before she became a wife and mother ususally involves researching the husband and children. A marriage record is good, but absent that, the children’s death certificates will sometimes give their mother’s maiden name.

This practice of naming married women as “Mrs. [husband’s name]” has continued, though it is, fortunately, much less prevalent today. Obituaries now commonly give a woman’s birth name and parents, not just her married name(s).

The photograph above shows a group of women attending a “Patio Punch Party” at Fort Lee military base in Virginia. My mother is seated at the table, second from the left. The picture was taken on July 16, 1964 by an Army staff photographer (thus is not copyrighted). The photographer is named by rank and last name: Sp5 Ketchum.

The wife of Fort Lee’s Commanding General hosted the party. The purpose was to honor the wives of students in the Basic Class 65-1 and QM [Quartermaster] Officer Career Class 65-1 (which my dad attended). Every woman in the photograph is given the Mrs. [husband] treatment in the caption on the back. For those still living (or unknown), I’ve given only their last name. The divorced women retained their married names.

Left to right:

Mrs. Church (unfortunately, the husband’s name is too common to verify her identity)

Mrs. Gorman S. Oswell (born Beverly Blanche MacPhee  (1920–2009; divorced; Col. Oswell died in 1984)

Mrs. Albert E. Levulis (born Renate E. MNU in Bremen, Germany, 1925–2012; divorced 1985; Lt. Col. Levulis died in 2001)

Mrs. Halse (Mom; living; divorced 1983)

Mrs. Edward Hersh (born Shirley Friedman, 1921–2017; Col. Hersh died in 2012)

Mrs. Hugh Mackintosh (born Bonniebell A. Morgan, 1909–1995; Maj. Gen. Mackintosh died in 1974)

Mrs. Richard B. Goudie (living; Maj. Goudie died in 2020; he served two tours in Vietnam about the same times as my dad)

Feature photo: Patio Punch Party (U.S. Army)

35 thoughts on “The Mrs. Problem

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  1. Your current project sounds both fascinating and frustrating. Most young women today have no idea how far we have come and (I hope) would be shocked to learn that their own grandmothers wouldn’t have been acknowledged with names of their own in many social situations.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Some women in my mother’s generation just took this for granted, and even preferred it. Maybe being identified as the man’s wife or even being a anonymous was a good thing to them. It does not suit me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember being taught these conventions growing up. I first learned them when I had to address Christmas cards or special invitations. It was thought of as a badge of honor. By the time I was an adult all that had changed and I have fiercely maintained my birth name despite grumbling from spouses. Indeed, they are gone, but I have my name.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Exactly right. My aunt insisted on being addressed Mrs. (Husband), particularly after becoming a widow. I remember telling my grandmother that I planned to keep my name after marriage and she about went apoplectic! For some reason I did wind up changing my name when I eventually married. But I sure don’t go by Mrs Husband!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A colleague and I were just remarking about the number of young women we work with who have married and how they all have changed their names to their husbands’. That practice certainly has become the norm again. Also, they always go by “Mrs.” rather than the neutral “Ms.” I really don’t understand why as women we can’t shake this old practice. I did hyphenate my name (as did my colleague) but only because I wanted one that would connect me to any children I might have, but there was no way I was giving up my last name or be referred to as Mrs. (husband).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sad to hear about this trend. I did change my name, not being particularly attached to Halse. Lyon is shorter and simpler. If his last name had been Dinglehoffer, I would have said “no thanks, I’ll keep what I’ve got.”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I always found it offensive to refer to a woman as Mrs John Doe. Even if she took her husband’s surname, she certainly didn’t take his first name. My mother also hated when she got mail addressed to her as Mrs John Cohen. As for me, a week after I got married I realized that I hated being called by my husband’s surname and decided to keep my own surname and let him have his! Our kids have hyphenated names. Well, my older daughter did until she got married and then took her husband’s surname. GRRRR. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That seems to correspond with what Heather is observing. Women going back the traditional route. I did take my husband’s surname – it was shorter. Ha! And I’ve found out through DNA tests that my birth name is not really mine, genetically speaking. But I do not want to be called Mrs. anything. My name is Eilene, thank you. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree! There are people who don’t know me who call me Mrs with my surname, with the hyphenated version, and/or with just my husband’s surname. I tell them just to call me Amy.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Fortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of Eilenes around, so the last name is mostly superfluous. It’s only purpose (when not traveling or getting arrested) is to distinguish me from others with the same first name.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Your spelling is unusual, but not the name itself. As for Amy, well, let’s just say that it is often the case that whenever I am at an event with more than 20 people there will be at least one other Amy. In eighth grade French there were four of us!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Naming practices – in reality, if a woman keeps her ‘maiden’ name, she is keeping the name of her father – the male lineage. Why is that any more ‘progressive’ that taking her husband’s last name when she marries?
    I took my husband’s last name (over 50 years ago) because I liked it a lot more than the last name of my father. All my legal documents list my first name, not my husbands – which was the usual way of doing things even ‘back then’.
    My daughter’s all chose to keep their father’s last name for only one reason – they didn’t like their husband’s last name all that much. However, their children took their husband’s last name because legally that was the easiest procedure. There have been times when having a different last name than their children has been problematic and required carrying a document to show they are the legal mother – for example, foreign travel when the dad isn’t present.
    As for obits and other items like that – I believe that is the responsibility of the family to make sure that the woman is identified as per the families wishes. I recently read an obit for an old friend and she was referred to as Frances throughout. Her name was Fran to all and everyone, so it seemed clear that the author of the obit didn’t personally know the women and the family either didn’t check the copy, or didn’t mind her name being changed that way!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make a good point Margy. It is all very patriarchal! I did not feel a need to keep my own name when a shorter one became an option on marriage. But certainly we can all chose the name we want. I know some women who have creative their own unique moniker and keep it for life, marriage or no. I agree that having children does complicate things. Certainly now the family has the option of saying what they like in an obituary. That was not really the case in the 1800s. The news editors wrote just about whatever they wanted. And they hewed to this Mrs. Husband convention.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. When I first got married my mother addressed correspondence to Mrs John Marsh and wouldn’t stop until I started sending her mail using Ms and her maiden name! That worked. Names are a dilemma. Like you, I took the traditional route and changed my name (after some thought) on the grounds that I liked it better, though I don’t really approve. Maybe the fairest way would be for girl children to take (and keep) their mother’s name and for boys to take their father’s. Easier than hyphenation (what happens when two hyphenated people marry and have children?) though I can’t see it catching on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahaha! You showed her! I think the only reason to change one’s last name is for something you like better. And it can really be anything you chose!
      As for your suggestion about kids taking different last names. That opens a real can of worms. Some think we have moved (in the West) to a very individualistic society and that is causing the rifts we see arising. With two or more last names within a nuclear family, wouldn’t that just make the problem worse?

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      1. When partners are unmarried (or keep their original names) there are already two names so I don’t see that it would be any different. I know of families who have done what I suggested – and also one couple who tossed a coin in the labour ward! Much to the chagrin of the Sister in charge who thought it most unorthodox (this was the early 80s).

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow – indeed “we’ve come a long way baby!” I’m disgusted as well that women were not entitled to be recognized by their own name. I will tell you that I cringe when a man refers to his spouse as “the wife” or (even more condescending) “the little woman” and that just irks me Eilene. Working in the legal field for 42 years, I hear the old codger male lawyers refer to women lawyers as “that lady lawyer” another phrase that just seems condescending to me. My boss just did that yesterday – he is 75.

    How sad that these people died so young and isn’t that an odd way to describe the remains being taken to the cemetery? The word “body” would be used more today unless it was a tragic situation like a fire or discovery of a body of a missing person. This sounds like an interesting book you will have when your research is completed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s what is now referred to as a “hostile workplace”! All that patriarchy has gotten so old (literally, it seems). We shouldn’t have to tolerate it, but we saw from the #MeToo movement that women are still taking it to get ahead – and shouldn’t have to be.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, we are always going to be number two and it is not right. I think lawyers will always be an “old boys club” – but surprisingly, there are more female law school students than male law school students, but more male law school grads.

        Liked by 1 person

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