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‘Lucy Stone, If You Please’: The Unsung Suffragist Who Fought for Women to Keep Their Maiden Names

9 minute read

During Women’s History Month — and especially as Friday’s observance of International Women’s Day approaches — the work of pioneering women’s rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony will surely be debated and discussed in classrooms and newsrooms around the United States. But Stanton and Anthony didn’t work alone. They were part of what has been called the “triumvirate” of 19th century suffragists, though the third woman in that trio was someone who is much less talked-about today than the others.

Her name was Lucy Stone. In fact, Anthony said it was Stone who inspired her to take up the cause of suffrage in the first place. And ironically, Lucy Stone’s influence is seen in the everyday lives of many American women today — though they might not know it.

Stanton once described Stone as “the first woman in the nation to protest against the marriage laws at the altar, and to manifest sufficient self respect to keep her own name, to represent her individual existence through life.” Stone made that decision more than a century ago, when she wed Henry Blackwell in 1855, but her crusade had started years earlier.

At Ohio’s Oberlin College, she became one of the first women in the country — and the first from Massachusetts — to earn a college degree, which she did in 1847 at the age of 29. According to historian Sally G. McMillen, who wrote the biography Lucy Stone: An Unapologetic Life, it was there that she asked a professor to elaborate on a line in one of her textbooks: “Women are more sunk by marriage than men,” it declared. Antoinette Brown, one of Stone’s best friends who was in the class, said that the professor responded with a list of ways in which the institution hurt women: “her family are not as readily traceable in history as her husband’s; the law gives her property into her husband’s keeping, and she is little known to the business world.”

After college, she crisscrossed the country as a lecturer on abolition and women’s rights, calling for literal freedom for black people and more figurative freedom for women. Her speeches drew crowds of hundreds, but they were not always civil; she got used to men hurling books, rotten vegetables and cold water at her.

In October of 1850, she organized what’s seen as the first national women’s rights convention, in Worcester, Mass., attracting a broad cross-section of attendees. (The more famous Seneca Falls Convention had been held two years earlier, but it is considered to have been more regional.) It was a newspaper article about that meeting that Susan B. Anthony later credited with inspiring her to join the women’s rights movement, recalling how Stone made the point that the only thing that could be put on a married woman’s gravestone was that she was the “relict,” or widow, of somebody who essentially owned her. “I made up my mind then that no one would make a relict out of me,” Anthony decided.

Anthony never married, but Stone took a different approach. For her, keeping her name was a way of making a larger point about equality between men and women, and that philosophy applied to her whole marriage. She and Henry Blackwell (whose sister was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the nation to graduate from medical school) made headlines for turning their wedding into an act of political protest. In their vows, they dropped the word “obey” and Blackwell declared that he stood for equal marriage, rattling off a list of laws that did not recognize women as independent beings. She made sure there was nothing illegal about keeping her name by consulting prominent lawyers, including Salmon Chase, who later became Chief Justice of the United States. She signed her name “Lucy Stone (Only)” and occasionally, as a last resort, “wife of Henry Blackwell” on hotel ledgers and legal documents. Once, when a neighbor greeted her on a train as Mrs. Blackwell, she responded “Lucy Stone, if you please.”

Stanton and Anthony hailed her decision as doing the women’s movement a service. “Nothing has been done in the women’s rights movement for some time that so rejoiced my heart as the announcement by you of a woman’s right to her name,” Stanton, who kept her maiden name as a middle name after marriage, wrote.

“I am more and more rejoiced that you have declared, by actual doing, that a woman has a name,” Anthony wrote, “and may retain it throughout her life.”

But that era of good feelings didn’t last long.

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After the Civil War, Stone distanced herself from Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who were arguing that the 14th and 15th Amendments, which gave black men citizenship and the right to vote, would give the “lower stratas of manhood” the vote over white women. When they were involved in the writing the series History of Woman Suffrage, she refused to cooperate with them and went on to co-found a suffrage organization that would rival theirs. As a result, she isn’t mentioned that much in the six volumes long considered a definitive account of the 19th century women’s rights movement. Stone died in 1893, and to this day she is less well known than Stanton and Anthony.

Her daughter Alice Stone Blackwell did write a biography that did her mother justice in 1930. And, thanks to her stance toward marriage, Stone’s name lived on into the 20th century in another way, too: The Lucy Stone League, an organization that centered the fight for a woman to be able to keep her maiden name, was founded in 1921 by Ruth Hale, a journalist who covered World War I from Paris for the Chicago Tribune and wife of journalist Heywood Broun. Another vocal member was Jane Grant, who helped found The New Yorker and was the New York Times‘ city room’s first woman reporter. The group came to be known for the motto “My name is the symbol for my identity and must not be lost.” Women who kept their names came to be called “Maiden Namers” and Lucy Stoners. For example, in 1931 TIME referred to Amelia Earhart as a “staunch Lucy Stoner,” and in 1933 reported that FDR’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins was “no Lucy Stoner” but used her maiden name in public “so as not to embarrass her husband with her political activities.”

Even so, American law was not set up to accommodate their choice.

While common law hasn’t required married women to adopt their husband’s surname, state laws essentially forced women to do so in order to function as citizens in society. Before the 1970s, women couldn’t get their paychecks, passports, driver’s licenses or bank accounts, or even vote, using their birth surnames. “In one case, a bank officer suggested that the couple choose a third, corporate name. They did: ‘Love Collaborators, Inc.,'” TIME reported in 1974.

Since 1975, however, states have passed laws making it easier for women to keep their birth names, though the process of alerting government agencies individually that one’s name is changing has not gotten much easier. The courts helped too; for example, in the 1975 case Dunn v. Palermo, the Tennessee Supreme Court struck down a law that said a married woman could only register to vote under her husband’s surname.

Today, Lucy Stoners remain in the minority. About 20% of women who got married in recent years reported keeping their maiden name in a Google Consumer Survey conducted by the New York Times in 2015, compared to 17% of women who first married in the 1970s. The most recent comprehensive study using Census data is a 2009 study, based on an analysis of 2004 American Community Survey data, which estimates that only about 10% of women either keep the surname they’ve had since birth, hyphenate it or do some other variation.

In general, studies show that these women tend to get married at a later age and tend to be less religious, and that white women make that decision more frequently than women in minority groups, according to Laurie Scheuble, who studies marital naming and has been a lecturer in Penn State’s Sociology department. A study of Harvard University alumni published in 2005 argued that women who “made a name” for themselves professionally were more likely to keep their maiden names. For each year a woman put off marriage or having her first child, the chances that she’d change her name declined by about 1%. Once they had children, however, they were also more likely to change their minds and change their names.

Over three decades of studying the subject, Scheuble says, she’s heard many arguments implying that a woman who doesn’t want to change her name must not love her spouse, but she rarely hears the opposite argument about men deciding not to change their names. Her conclusion is that the matter of names is in some ways “the last socially accepted sexism” — but she’s also found it’s a sign of love that many women are eager to embrace. “I tell women you need to do what you can live with, what makes you happy,” she says.

As TIME noted when the 2005 Harvard study was published, one possible takeaway was that “women had come far enough that names didn’t matter.”

And Stone herself might look on this trend with perhaps surprising equanimity. She once said she was fighting for women to have “large freedom, pecuniary freedom, personal freedom, and the right to vote.” That women today have the right to change their names but are not required to is one marker of that personal freedom.

“All we need,” she said during her last public speech, at Oberlin’s 50th anniversary celebration, “is to continue to speak the truth fearlessly, and we shall add to our number those who will turn the scale to the side of equal and full justice in all things.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com