Today in Feminist History: Retaining Her Legal Identity After Marriage (May 17, 1921)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.


May 17, 1921: Ruth Hale has now formally launched her crusade to make it explicitly legal, as well as socially acceptable, for married women in all States to be able to use their birth names after marriage.

Ruth Hale, who earlier this evening launched the Lucy Stone League

This evening’s first meeting of a new organization called the “Lucy Stone League” proved quite a success, attracting a number of well-known people who engaged in a lively discussion about issues that still remain regarding a woman’s legal identity after marriage.

Hale began by answering a number of basic and important questions from the audience. She told Elsie Ferguson that so long as she made arrangements to do so with the bank, she could have an account under her own name, and sign that name rather than “Mrs. T.B. Clark, Jr.” on checks.

Passports, however, are another matter. Last year Hale and her husband, Heywood Broun, wanted to take a trip to France, but the State Department refused to issue her a passport in her own name. After many months of discussions, the authorities decided to offer a “compromise,” and sent her a passport made out to “Ruth Hale, also known as Mrs. Heywood Broun.” On February 18th of this year she refused to accept the passport, saying she had chosen to “throw the government overboard” and the trip was canceled. 

On a more successful note, a recent experiment at New York’s Waldorf Hotel proved that husbands and wives can register under separate names, though only if it is made plain on the hotel register that they are married.

The validity of a woman with a well-established career continuing to use her birth or professional name after marriage was an issue brought up by Blanche Oelrichs, also known by the pen name of Michael Strange. On the advice of her lawyer, she recently signed a contract using her married name of “Mrs. John Barrymore.” Tonight she learned that the contract would still have been valid had she used either her birth or pen name, because she is so well-known that no one could question her identity or her right to use it.

Though married women still face discrimination by employers, as well as many legal inequalities (all of which the National Woman’s Party is working to eliminate), most of those here tonight were pleasantly surprised to find out how much freedom women have to use their birth names after marriage. So for now, the top priority of the new group will be to educate women about the rights that have already been won, rather than to advocate new legislation.

Among those at this first meeting were columnist Heywood Broun, author and activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, novelist Fannie Hurst, and playwright Anita Loos. Ruth Hale is a well-known journalist who has worked for the Hearst Syndicate, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Ledger, The New York Times, Vogue and Vanity Fair. She and her husband have one child, Heywood Hale Broun, age three. 

The League is named for Lucy Stone, who defied the custom of her time by retaining her birth name after marrying Henry Blackwell in 1855.

Things have certainly progressed a long way since Colonial Times, when a wife was considered a legally invisible appendage of her husband. As Sir William Blackstone put it in his highly influential “Commentaries On The Laws Of England” (1765):

“By marriage the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of her husband, under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything.” 

But even in this modern age, there are still many laws and customs that reflect the old, traditional view of a wife’s status, and the Lucy Stone League is determined to fight them until full dignity and equality for wives is achieved.


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About

David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.