We Heart: The “Mrs. Files” and Women’s Right to Their Own Names

We Heart: The "Mrs. Files" and Women's Right to Their Own Names
How many women and feminist trailblazers—such as Ray Eames, Coretta Scott King and Amelia Earhart (pictured)—have appeared in the press as the mere “Mrs.” version of their husbands? A lot.

Amelia Earhart, who was married to George Palmer Putnam, was referred to as “Mrs. Putnam” by The New York Times multiple times. Is flying alone across the ocean not enough to earn a girl her own name in the press?

It was not until 1932 when she wrote a letter to the then-publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, that the publication began referring to her by her “professional name,” rather than as her husband’s wife. It was Amelia Earhart, not Mrs. Putnam, who was the first woman to individually pilot a trip over the daunting Atlantic. 

Two years ago, Veronica ChambersAmisha Padnani and Anika Burgess—three editors at The New York Times—wandered across the eclipse of Earhart’s name, and began to further investigate the archives of the newspaper.

They wondered: How many women and feminist trailblazers have been historically called by their partners’ names—boiling them down to the mere “Mrs.” version of their husbands?

The answer: a lot.

We Heart: The "Mrs. Files" and Women's Right to Their Own Names
(New York Times)

Chambers, Padnani and Burgess write:

The Times, like much of society, almost reflexively referred to women using the construction “Mrs. Husband’s Name.”

The practice extended into our news pages, often referring in articles to married women—famous or not—by their husband’s names: Mrs. John F. Kennedy, for instance, or Mrs. Frank Sinatra.

These women, no matter how extraordinary they were in their own right, were symbolically subsumed into their husbands’ stories.

Coretta Scott King, for example, was often referred to in the press as Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr., and Frida Kahlo as Mrs. Diego Rivera. 

As Chambers, Burgess and Padnani peered through the looking glass, their research resulted in the Mrs. Files project—a series of essays, photos and poetry “[looking] at history through a contemporary lens to see what the honorific ‘Mrs.’ means to women and their identity.”


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The project draws attention to how these titles have caused women to be overshadowed by their partners, as their names were swallowed up by those of their male counterparts. 

The Files explore the idea that a woman’s identity is multi-dimensional, as well as the complicated history of how women earned the right to be referred to by their own name. (We know: a shocking phenomenon—women being overshadowed by men!)

Women have fought as hard as Rosie the Riveter to be illuminated from the shadows. Ray Eames’s name should not be thoughtlessly scribbled next to her husband’s, typewritten with extensive care. Just as June Carter Cash should not be reduced to the simple “Cash Johnny & Mrs.,” on a card catalog.

We Heart: The "Mrs. Files" and Women's Right to Their Own Names
(New York Times)
We Heart: The "Mrs. Files" and Women's Right to Their Own Names
(New York Times)

If you’d like to learn more—The Files explores ideas of honorifics in gender, through works titled: “Ray Eames, Out of Her Husband’s Shadow,” “Ms. Monroe,” “Lady Jordan” and many others. 


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About

Audrey Gibbs is a junior at Sewanee: The University of the South, majoring in English with minors in Shakespeare studies and politics. She hopes to continue her education through law or journalism school. In her free time, she is a singer/songwriter and an actress.