Eleanor Roosevelt Speaks for Herself: Identifying 1,257 Married Women by their Full Names

It sounds like the setup for a magic trick:  how can an archivist and a public services assistant, both working from home without access to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, identify 1,257 (!) women previously referred to in our finding aids by their husbands’ names?  Yet it involved no sleight of hand.  We used the same research skills we bring to work every day, only a touch of technical wizardry, and a lot of digitized archival materials.

It was once accepted practice to call married women by their husbands’ names, with the honorific “Mrs.” attached–for example, “Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” However, doing so is problematic from both an information retrieval and a feminist perspective.  Before this project began, 26 files in 10 different archival collections containing material related to Eleanor Roosevelt called her “Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”  How many twenty-first century researchers studying Eleanor Roosevelt search for “Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt”?

At best, calling women by their husbands’ names adds another layer of ambiguity to research.   At worst, it is flat-out wrong.  Naming conventions are culturally specific.  Despite the western tendency to call her “Madame Chiang Kai-shek,” the First Lady of the Republic of China from 1928 to 1975 was legally named Soong May-ling. Naming conventions also change over time. The photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe chose to hyphenate her last name when she married tennis star Arthur Ashe in 1977.  Calling her “Mrs. Arthur Ashe” is incorrect.  For these reasons and more, calling women by their husbands’ names in finding aids hides potentially relevant materials from researchers.

This spring and summer, archivists across the country adapted to remote work by focusing on cleaning up and improving their repositories’ online finding aids.  Former Lehman curator Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty, who is now Associate University Librarian at Cornell, suggested this project to us on Twitter. We thought it was an excellent idea.

To begin, head archivist Kevin Schlottman ran a query across the full extent of Columbia University Libraries’ archival description in order to locate every instance of the text string “Mrs.”  The query targeted our finding aids’ scope and content notes, the controlled forms of personal names we include in our finding aids’ subject headings, and every file described in our finding aids.  Public services assistant Vianca Victor and I then reviewed RBML’s results.

Chart illustrating number of finding aid components reviewed

We expected a certain amount of irrelevant results.  Titles of published works (Mrs. Dalloway) and names of fictional characters (Mrs. Doubtfire) both appeared.  After beginning the project, we learned that CUL staff had already completed some of this work in 2008.  These remediated elements also appeared, though they were easy to distinguish:  they took the form “Eleanor Roosevelt (Mrs. Franklin D.)” or “Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt (Eleanor).”  Perhaps it was a sign of the times that we called these results “false positives.”

Chart of women to identify

After weeding out the false positives, we still found ourselves with a significant amount of archival description where women were called by their husbands’ names.  With the Libraries closed, we did not have access to the collections–though even if we had, we would likely not have found the women’s own names in many of the original documents, either.  Instead, we turned to digitized archival materials and online reference sources.  We had the most success with the following:

  1. The New York Times:  Obituaries and marriage announcements were especially useful for identifying wives.  We found that these were often the only places in the Times where women were referred to by their own full names.  Otherwise, the paper referred to married women by their husbands’ names until approximately the mid-1970s.  (Amelia Earhart famously objected to this practice.)
    Oddly–and sadly–we found a handful of obituaries where the woman was only identified by her husband’s name, with no mention of her family of origin or her life before marriage.  One example is the Vassar College professor of economics Mrs. Arthur Hutchinson.  We hope that the Vassar College Archives holds a record of Professor Hutchinson’s full name.
  2. Wikipedia:  Biographical articles frequently include the name(s) of the subject’s spouse(s).  While Wikipedia also has a gender bias problem, we found that many of the women we identified using Wikipedia actually had biographical articles of their own!  Thanks to the WikiProject Women for this pleasant surprise.
  3. Find a Grave and Ancestry.com:  Many of the women we identified were socially prominent, but some were not.  These resources were especially helpful for identifying women whose lives were not extensively covered in the New York Times.
  4. The Columbia Spectator and Barnard Magazine:  Excellent for identifying women in Columbia- and Barnard-related collections.  College alumni magazines in general were useful resources; they tend to include married women’s maiden names because those were the names the women used as students.
  5. SNAC (Social Networks and Archival Context):  SNAC aggregates biographical information from archives and freely available resources such as Wikipedia.  The content is reliable and the emphasis on context is especially useful for making sure that the Mrs. John Smith in question is the correct Mrs. John Smith.

Chart of women identified in finding aid components

While we made a huge dent in the number of women identified by their husbands’ names in our finding aids, much work still remains to be done.  Without dates–which are often not supplied in our older finding aids–calling women by their husbands’ names makes it difficult or impossible to distinguish between the wives of men who married more than once.  Does Mrs. Eugene O’Neill refer to Kathleen Jenkins, the magazine writer Agnes Boulton, or the actor Carlotta Monterey?  We will need to check the original materials to find out.  Some women’s husbands’ names were very common; others were misspelled.  It was much more difficult to identify married women when we were unable to identify their husbands.

It was also more difficult to identify women who were not wealthy or socially prominent.  We were not very successful at identifying the married women who were paid pensions by Andrew Carnegie.  As such, we recognize that while this project increased the visibility of archival records of some women, it reinforced the marginalization of records of working class and poor women, women of color, and people in non-heteronormative relationships.  It is also important to note that naming is not necessarily approval.  Identifying some of the married women about whom the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights kept files, for example, is a step closer to holding them accountable for their actions.

When I updated our finding aids to include married women’s full names, I followed the structure established by the 2008 remediation project, with some exceptions.  I could not bring myself to call Eleanor Roosevelt “Eleanor Roosevelt (Mrs. Franklin Delano).”  I assume her husband’s name is general knowledge anyway.  I changed a file titled “Dr. and Mrs. McIntosh” to “Drs. Rustin and Millicent Carey McIntosh,” as both spouses held terminal degrees, and Millicent Carey McIntosh was dean and the first president of Barnard College.  Few researchers are likely to think of her as “Mrs. Rustin McIntosh.”

Part of the value of this project was the opportunity to practice using resources outside the RBML.  Without access to the stacks, we had to get creative about accessing information in other ways.  I was also reminded just how useful digitized archival materials are, especially those that are full-text searchable.  All of these skills will help us provide useful alternatives to researchers who will not be able to visit the reading room this fall.