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Names and women’s rights

Names and women’s rights
Latest posts by Keith Lindner (see all)

Let’s dust off the history books for this one, shall we?

Back in the days when men were men, and women were… well, legally non-existent, there was this little gem known as the Doctrine of Coverture. This is a legal concept that was prevalent in English common law and in America until the mid 19th century. 

Essentially it said that when a woman said “I do,” she also said “I’m done” to her legal rights and obligations. 

The Doctrine of Coverture said once a woman is married, she “becomes one entity with her husband.” Basically they become him. So the husband was then in charge of all her legal rights, her property and decisions. It literally says “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.” 

In this fun arrangement, a married woman couldn’t own property, make contracts, or keep her hard-earned cash. It was like the game of life, but with every decision made by Player 2, aka the husband.

And let’s not forget the name game. Coverture had the lovely tradition of a woman swapping her surname for her husband’s. Just another reminder to say… “Hey, now you’re really his.”

Fortunately for us, coverture has been relegated to history’s bin, thanks to some seriously determined women’s rights advocates. Nowadays, women are no longer accessories to their husbands and can be I.N.D.E.P.E.N.D.E.N.T.

Why are we telling you this?

We’re writing about this because we want parents to be aware of the struggles that women had to endure for… well, pretty much forever. Women were not treated as individuals until very recently. 

Over the last 75 years women have gained much of their independence in Western cultures. We wish we could say the same about much of the rest of the world but that’s for another blog. But even in the US, there is still a lot more work to do. When it comes to naming, we’ve noticed some recent trends that we believe are not taking us in the right direction that we want parents to think about. 

To give you the context, let’s first walk you through a brief summary of how we got to where we are today in the US.

The battle for women’s naming rights in the US

In the mid 1800s, the United States passed the Married Women’s Property Act and several US states where married women were allowed individual legal status for purposes of signing contracts, going into business and buying property.

And because a woman was then allowed to have a career on her own and make a name for themselves, more started exercising the right to keep their original surname. 

This was at the time of the rise of the women’s movement during the late 60s and early 70s. But this is crazy. It wasn’t until the 1970’s when the US Supreme Court struck down a Tennessee law that required a woman to take her husband’s last name if she wanted to register his vote. 

Keeping your husband’s surname became an equality issue so starting in the 1980s, couples started to hyphenate their surnames. This quickly ran out of style after about a decade because it was a hassle on forms and then subsequently computer software that didn’t give you that much space. 

And then people started to realize that they were going to have kids and what if they wanted to do the same thing one day. I mean I wouldn’t mind introducing myself as Keith Washington-Davidson-Lindner. But maybe that’s just me. For everyone else it just became unmanageable.

There’s another phenomenon in women’s names, primarily in the 19th and early 20th century when women started having careers traditionally held by men. And that is using an alternative or pen name that was more identifiably male. 

Some of the most notable were authors. This is still done as even more recently JK Rowling used just her initials when penning the Harry Potter books to camouflage her gender because she wanted to reach a male young adult audience.

When it comes to employment, studies have shown that female names will still get less interviews than male names with the same credentials and experience. Not much but about 2% left. There is a story about a female executive named Erin McKelvey that applied for a job in the tech industry after finishing college and got zero response. Her friend Alexandra had run into the same problem but had changed her name to a more gender neutral “Alex” and received a much better response after. 

So Erin followed suit and changed her name to Mack McKelvey and got a 70% response rate. This was in the 90’s but there are more recent examples of basically the same thing. 


Thinking about prefixes like Mr., Ms, Mrs. – it wasn’t until the 1970s when women had a prefix that didn’t indicate whether she was married or not. A Congresswoman in New York introduced legislation that said, women did not have to disclose their marital status on federal forms and eventually Miss was used as legal prefix nationally in the US. 

Prior to the women’s movement, a woman was referred to as Mrs. Her Husband. My wife would kill me if I referred to her as Mrs. Keith Lindner. Crazy to think that this wasn’t really that long ago and is probably still happening in some parts of the US and other western cultures. 

Speaking of the women’s movement, let’s talk about the effect it had on baby naming.

How did the women’s movement change baby naming?

Specifically when gender-neutral names started to trend and girls were also being given traditionally male names. As you might have guessed, both of those began in the early, 70s with the rise of the women’s movement and equal rights.

  • Jordan for example, as a boy’s name has been on the US charts since the year 1900. But for girls it debuted in 1978. 
  • Avery is similar. It had been on the chart since 1900 for boys but for girls only since 1989. 
  • Marion, Ashley, Whitney, Courtney, Allison, Vivian and Beverly all used to be primarily male names. And now our most identified with women In fact, the male Allison dropped out of the US birth charts in 1946. The exact same year at first appeared on the girls side.

So why doesn’t it go the other way? Why don’t historically female names cross over to the male side?

This is due to the gender bias that females are lesser humans than males parents. Have a big fear that boys will get teased if they have a girl’s name but much less of a concern, giving a girl a traditional email name. 

The terms “throw like a girl,” or “you’re a sissy,” or “cry like a girl” all imply that a boy having feminine traits is inferior. 

But girls that have “male traits” like strength and power and intelligence. That’s socially acceptable. 

“Feminizing” a name

Some trends we’ve seen play out in more recent times are diminutive and feminized names. Historically adding a set of letters like “ette” in “ella” served to feminize a name. Examples are Nicholas turning into Nicolette or Stephen turning into Stephanie or Michael turning into Michaela. 

Even more recently, parents are taking this same concept but using a “y” or an “eigh” to feminize a name. Think “Jordyn” or “Charleigh.” 

There is nothing wrong with feminizing a name in these ways, it’s how many of the top girl names have emerged over time, but what we want to caution parents is that if you start going down this path you can easily get lost and continue evolving words names that are considered “cutesy.”

“Cutesy” naming trends we don’t like

A cutesy name is one that starts to border on what I would consider baby talk. Some examples include names that historically were used for animals (Birdie, Bunny) or to indicate that the girl is small, petite or delicate (Pixie, Dolly, Rosie). Best to avoid names like this as I think that can have an adverse effect on a child’s psychology. 

Another trend is to give girls names like Chastity, Heaven (or Nevaeh), Treasure, Princess, Halo, Hope, Dream. Women already have a hard enough time being taken seriously in many occupations so why make it even harder. Imagine your daughter as the CEO of a business being introduced as Princess Buttercup. 

And if you’re thinking about giving your child a name like Susie, Charlie or Jenny (which has always been more of a nickname), you should consider giving her the full name (Susan, Charlotte, Jennifer) so she can decide what she wants to be called later in life.

The bottom line

We hope this glimpse back in time and look at recent naming trends associated with women’s rights and status in society can play a part in the names you consider for your baby.

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