The Lucy Stone League: The Three Historical Periods
The Lucy Stone League was focused on women’s names in the 1920’s. Later, as we shall see, the focus was broader, but still included women’s marital names to some extent. Lucy Stone’s words constituted the initial motto of the League: “My name is the symbol of my identity which must not be lost (Stannard, 192). The issues which the League addressed in the 1920’s included the right of married women to do the following using their own names: obtain a passport, register at a hotel, check a book out from a library, receive paychecks, and obtain a copyright from the Library of Congress (Parker, 53-54). These things are now taken for granted as rights that women have. The early League asserted that all of these things were legal, and that it was only custom that kept women from doing them without a problem. The League’s opponents, however, insisted that these things were not legal. Stannard notes that the issue of the legality of a woman using her own name was not fully settled until 1972 (p. 277).
The League in its initial incarnation was short lived. By the late 1920’s it was inactive. The reasons for this are uncertain. Parker cites both personal reasons, such as divorce and illness of key activists in the League (pp. 54-55), and the official explanation of Jane Grant, one of the founders. According to Grant, it was believed that there was no longer any question about the legal and social right to use a pre-marriage name, and thus no need for continued League activity.
The League was reconstituted in 1950. The new League focused more broadly on women’s status in society, fighting for public recognition for women of note, and against sex discrimination. Though a 1951 pamphlet asserts that: “Although the law recognizes the right of a woman to keep her maiden name (and thus preserve her identity) our society constantly harasses the woman who exercises this privilege” (Parker, 60), the League became more conservative about women’s marital names. By 1961, it recommended to prospective members a 1961 Women’s Bureau bulletin that effectively said that women could not use their names for official purposes, though they could do so professionally (Stanndard, 264-265). The issue of married women’s right to use their own names heated up by the end of the 1960’s, however, and in 1969 the League’s attorney began to prepare a new pamphlet on this right (Stannard, 271). By 1972, as noted above, married women’s right to use their own name was finally established in the courts.
It was probably to the League’s advantage that it had stressed a broader range of women’s issues in its second incarnation, since it was not possible this time around to argue that its mission was over just because the courts had finally accepted women’s right to their birth names. It continued to exist into the 1990’s, though many of its issues were taken over by the National Organization for Women and other women’s groups. As of the early 1990’s it still gave nursing scholarships and hosted a combination annual meeting and strawberry festival (Parker, 58)
The third incarnation of the League begins in the late 1990’s. In 1997 Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays wrote that “Alas, the League is no more.” Morrison Bonpasse, who maintained the website during his presidency, says that reading Kaplan and Bernays book inspired him to try to ensure the continuation of the League in some form. As of late 2002 when I interviewed him, he was not sure whether or not there were any remaining members of the League in the New York City area. He thought it possible that there might be. It may be, however, that the League’s older members from the second incarnation had all either become inactive or died by this time. I have attempted to find Marjorie May, for example, whom Parker interviewed in 1991 about the League. She has no New York phone number, nor does anything appear when her name is entered for a web search. Bonpasse indicates that there is a registration but not a dissolution record for the League, but that there is no New York City League phone or address.
The focus under Bonpasse’s direction shifted once again to names, since groups like the National Organization for Women are working on a variety of women’s issues, but not on name equality. Bonpasse says that he contacted NOW when Molly Yard was president and was told that no one was working on the marital name issue. A search of NOW’s current website also indicates no current information on marital names, and my discussion with the president of the local chapter (who now holds another position in the chapter) was met with surprise. She had never thought about this issue, though she had been active around women’s issues for many years. The 1960’s debates about women keeping their own name after marriage had not touched her; she had married in that period and changed her name, never thinking about doing otherwise. Names are not a NOW issue, making it essential that there is a group that addresses them.
The importance of the League’s continued existence is emphasized in its latest efforts, which include the re-launching of the website (LucyStoneLeague.org) under the direction of a new board and its current president Ms. Cristina Lucia Stasia. The website’s current aim is to educate and to address issues regarding name change equality. As part of the League’s re-launch, a new line of merchandising was created in an effort publicize name equality issues and to help fundraise and support the League.
The necessity of the League’s reintroduction to a broader audience is further underscored by the many pressure and obstacles women continue to face when endeavoring to assert their individuality. The persistent stigma surrounding a woman’s right to name change freedom can be evidenced in the archaic and sexist choice of security questions employed by many banks and credit card providers, in which the participant is prompted to respond with their mother’s maiden name.
The League’s current mandate seeks to oppose and resist such inherently unequal methods and practices, with its current focus on eliminating the use of the aforementioned sexist form of security questions by financial institutions. The League also aims to further educate and foster equality in name change laws. Many legislative branches still present obstacles to name change equality, such as financial hurdles that involve charging individuals for altering their surname unless they agree to adopt the husband’s surname after marriage, in which case there are no fees. There are also significant social and cultural pressures individuals encounter when considering name change issues, and the League strives to educate individuals to think critically and act conscientiously about name change.