The XX Factor

Why Margaret Mead Kept Her Maiden Name

Why do women keep their maiden names? Some of us take the answer to that question for granted: Those names are the ones we were born with. Others go ahead and swap when they get married. I don’t have a big political wind up for this one: It’s a deeply personal choice, there are a lot of factors to consider, and if my maiden name was something I thought dreadful or dull, I might have jettisoned it. After all, it’s just as patralineal as my husband’s name. Just from a different generation.

I’m interested, though, in the women of the last century who broke with convention by keeping their names, in a way that nothing we do can really match now. In 1923, Margaret Mead wrote a letter to her grandmother in which she says: “The Pressmans weren’t a bit shocked at my keeping my name. Mrs. Pressman…was perfectly willing to call me Margaret Mead.” (Can anyone make out all the words in the ellipsis?) In her autobiography, Mead later wrote that she kept her name because of her “mother’s belief that women should keep their own identity and not be submerged, a belief that had made her give her daughters only one given name, so that they would keep their surnames after marriage.” Which suggests, I think, that Mead’s mother expected to use Mead as her middle name after marriage. So maybe she had some support from her mother, and then took the idea a step further.

Photograph of Margaret Mead by Edward Lynch, World-Telegram staff photographer