Historical research and its impact!

This week I’m writing about social media and its uses for history. As part of this, I’ve been trying to establish how far my own work has been cited through social media. I’ve been trying to use impactstory as one tool for doing so.

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I am surprised, then, to find that a reference to one of my articles has turned up on a blog called ‘Secular Patriarchy’ whose stance is: Anti-Feminist, Anti-MRA, Pro-Traditional Women’s Rights Traditional Family Activist (TFA).  My article is on married women’s status under the legal doctrine of coverture. This post on the site links to it in order to explain coverture. The post’s overall argument is that marriage has lost its way since coverture has been undermined. It concludes that :

Marriage is masculinity, marriage is coverture, marriage is the man providing for the woman thereby enabling the woman’s feminine purpose and expression.  Marriage is a male institution; the means by which men provide to women the environment a woman needs to function best as a woman.

Ironically the link to my article no longer works, which is probably just as well, as I don’t agree with the blog’s views about marriage today or in the past.

Here is a quick explanation of coverture and the law of agency in the long eighteenth century (you can access my article here). At marriage women became feme coverts, which meant that they lost ownership of the movable goods that they brought to marriage and transferred the profits and management of any land they owned to their husbands during marriage. Coverture also removed married women’s legal identity by subsuming it under their husbands’ and therefore removed their right to enter any commercial contracts. The reality, however, was that women needed to purchase goods for the household and for family businesses in a world which relied heavily upon credit rather than cash.

The Common law recognised this need, through a technical device called the ‘law of agency’. The law of agency allowed women to purchase necessaries – that is food, medicine, clothing and lodgings – in their husbands’ name. (This is probably why wives took their husbands’ surname). Husbands could, however, deny them this right for a number of reasons including claiming that they had already supplied the household with necessaries, or paid the wife enough money to purchase goods without using credit, or by claiming that the goods purchased were far beyond the couple’s social status.

Husbands therefore made public announcements that they refused to pay the debts their wives had accumulated. In the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century we only have indirect references to this practice. So there are reports that husbands had their wives cried down by the town crier in the market place or on a Sunday after church. From the 1730s, however, these announcements were regularly placed in local provincial newspapers.

A number of the husbands complained about their wives’ extravagance and financial mismanagement. This complaint was mentioned in the adverts placed by husbands, as an explanation for their denial of their credit to their wives. William Sampson who was a tallow chandler and soap boiler in Pontefract, for example, advertised in 1756 in the York Courant that he would not pay his wife’s debts, because she ‘seems entirely bent to ruin her said Husband’.

Having analysed a large number of such advertisements I concluded that rather than displaying wives subordination under the law, they revealed that men’s economic autonomy was vulnerable. I used them to show that spouses did not necessarily see property that women brought to the union as shifting in ownership to the husband, but often continued to identify it as belonging to the wife, and more frequently simply pooled as family property. Moreover they demonstrated that women also felt that they provided for their families alongside their husbands and that while manhood was certainly about the ability to provide, this did not exclude wives/mothers from also feeling the same sense of obligation in terms of their womanly status. (See here and here for some excellent new research on coverture and here for women and the law)

For me, coverture at once implied a degree of female legal and economic ‘invisibility’ but enabled wives to carry out their necessary economic functions within marriage; activities that brought with them a sense of authority and identity, not subordination. There is no sense in which this evidence of economic activities under coverture supports the blog post’s claim that the function of marriage is:

The man takes control and the man then executes his plan and mission for the family.

All in all, I’m fascinated by the unpredictable uses to which historical research is being put. Is this evidence of impact? Hmm. Not the impact I’d expect, or want – but certainly proof that there is dissemination of my research!

Marriage, surnames and identity

I’ve written this post because BBC Radio Leeds asked me to contribute to the Mark Forrest show (22 July 2013) featuring a discussion of a recent survey’s findings on the numbers of women keeping their maiden name at marriage. To listen, click here.


Arbutus Free Wedding Stock Photography, Creative Commons 3.0

The survey was carried out by Facebook this year in the US and the UK by examining the names of married women using the social media site and comparing their surnames with their husbands’ profiles. The findings are strikingly similar.  In America Facebook examined the names of 14 million married females, ranging in age from 20 to 79. It reported that 65 percent of women in their 20s and 30s changed to their husbands’ name. Older women changed their names at marriage in greater numbers. (Huffington Post)

In the UK 62 percent of women in their 20s have adopted their husbands’ surname. Again, the numbers increase as women’s ages increase. 74 per cent of women in their 30s and 88 per cent of women in their 60s did not keep their maiden name. (Daily Mail)

It is striking that the headlines have used these findings to declare that fewer women are now keeping their own names; and I infer a sense of relief in these articles. Other writers have suggested it is part of retro fashions more generally (The Daily Beast)

BBC Radio Leeds were very interested that it is younger women who are becoming more likely to keep their own names. One could ask whether this is a deliberate attempt to demonstrate equality with men; even perhaps a shift from the practice of women in their thirties who faced more of a backlash if they admitted to a feminist perspective.

Yet, I’m not sure that the figures suggest that there is a resurgence of feminism amongst young women. There are still more women who do not use their maiden name. I’m sure a small minority have an active political view, and a few more keep their own family names to signal that they are separate from their husband: an individual with a distinct identity. I suspect that most women who keep their birth name do so for practical reasons. Professional, high earning women will retain the name that they are known by in the world of work. Once you have published in one surname, for example, it is almost essential to keep that name or you will be missed by search engines and risk virtual disappearance.


And practical reasons underlie English women’s custom of taking their husbands’ names in the past. Women who married fell under the Common Law Doctrine of Coverture which removed their legal identity and placed them under the ‘cover’ of their husband. As feme-coverts, women could not enter economic contracts. Yet for much of the early modern period and into the eighteenth century it was wives who shopped for the home. Since cash was often in short supply, credit was the usual means of economic exchange. The Law of Agency tackled this paradox, by allowing wives to use their husbands’ credit. But of course since most credit was local and relied on trust, wives, shopkeepers and traders found it much easier for the women to refer to themselves by their husbands’ surname. And thus an economic necessity shaped naming practices. (See my free article ‘ Favoured or oppressed ? Married women, property and ‘coverture’ in England, 1660–1800’ Continuity and Change 17 (3), 2002, 351–372;  and Katie Barclay’s blog post What’s in a name? Or leaving your patrilineage behind).


I do think that feminism is somewhere in this situation, nonetheless, in that women now have the choice whether to take their husbands’ name or not. Many realise the complications of keeping their own name or using both their husbands’ and their own birth names, particularly when they have children. For many, therefore using a single surname is easier. Probably, most of these women would be shocked that anyone would consider that they were subordinating themselves by taking their husbands’ name. I think they see it as an act of commitment to the relationship, even a declaration of unity.

Of course, the question remains: why does unity entail taking the man’s surname; why not the woman’s?