Francesca Morgan, Northeastern Illinois University and Kirsten Fermaglich, Michigan State University PANEL: "The Politics of Personal Histories:Naming Practices and Family Reckonings in the United States" | Newberry

Francesca Morgan, Northeastern Illinois University and Kirsten Fermaglich, Michigan State University PANEL: "The Politics of Personal Histories:Naming Practices and Family Reckonings in the United States"

Friday, February 19, 2016

3pm to 5pm

Room 101

Center for American History and Culture Programs
Gender and Sexuality Seminar

“The “Chatty Old Lady”: Explorations in Gender and Genealogy”


Francesca Morgan, Northeastern Illinois University


This paper contains a history of the archetype of the “chatty old lady.” She will serve as a synecdoche of broader histories of gender and genealogy, professionalization and documentation. Many populations whom history has excluded from the archive have consequently depended on oral reckonings of family knowledge. White and other American women serve as an example. In early and antebellum America, many families had the elderly aunt or grandmother who kept meticulous family records, and accounts of worthiness or success, in her own head. When a vicar’s wife in Ecton, Northamptonshire, England, proved helpful to Benjamin Franklin—when he was on a family-history trip in 1758 to research his grandfather—he praised her as a “good natured, chatty old lady.” American versions of the “chatty old lady” later became such fixtures in the reminiscences of many an antebellum gentleman that the women resemble stock characters.


“Married Names, Maiden Names, and Middle Names: Gender and Name Changing in the New York City Civil Court in the 20th Century”


Kirsten Fermaglich, Michigan State University


Stories about name changing have been an integral part of American culture for over a century. And although popular culture frequently imagines name changing as the act of a lone male immigrant seeking to make his way in a new country, closer exploration of at least one archive of official name change petitions—the New York City Civil Courthouse—suggests a much broader and more nuanced image of name changing as a family activity, driven primarily by Jewish fathers, mothers and children anxious to escape discrimination and enable economic mobility. In the middle of the 20th century, Jewish women and children increasingly participated in, and sometimes directed, the decision to change names.


By the 21st century, name changing had become a popular activity that both men and women of many different ethnic backgrounds participated in in equal numbers. The large numbers of women in New York City’s name change petitions in the 2000’s reflect changing family structure during this era. Feminism led married women to delay changing their names after marriage, or to include their maiden names as middle names. Moreover, the increase in single-mother households after the 1960’s led both women and children to use name change petitions to solidify their family relationships, or to sever relationships with absent fathers. And the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights led to a significant minority of petitions submitted by transgender individuals seeking to change their official documents to reflect their gender identities. A closer look at name changing as a social practice thus forces us to discard images of name changing as an act of male immigrant reinvention, and instead to consider name changing as a family behavior, driven by women and children as much as their fathers, brothers, and husbands.


Commentator: Susan J. Pearson, Northwestern University

Cost and Registration Information 

Scholl Center Seminar papers are pre-circulated electronically. For a copy of the paper(s), email the Scholl Center at scholl@newberry.org. Please do not request a paper unless you plan to attend.