Documenting women’s lives: mothers' names on marriage certificates

In England and Wales in the twenty-first century we continue to perpetuate a system that writes women out of our collective history, and we are all poorer for it.

Lauren Johnson
5 October 2015

Her name was Thomasine Bonaventure. She grew up in Cornwall, then – like so many, before and since – she went to seek her fortune in London. She married three times, each time to a tailor of the city. Every time one of her husbands died she took over his business for a time, and on her third husband’s death she devoted the rest of her life to training up apprentices, educating a handful of disadvantaged children in her home and founding a school back in Cornwall. She was not only tremendously capable, but also a little showy in her good fortune, travelling the streets of London swathed in rich gowns and riding a horse decked out in blue velvet.

We know this much about Thomasine because before she died in 1512 she wrote a will in which her charitable work, her business and educational endeavours, and her husband's are all mentioned. Other documents help to fill the gaps that remain: the wills of those husbands, the royal licence for her education foundation, the records kept by the crafts of which her husbands, their apprentices and even Thomasine herself were members. In short, like all historical figures, our knowledge of Thomasine is a product of the paper trail she left behind.

But this paper trail would have been considerably fainter had Thomasine died a wife rather than a widow. Since a wife was the property of her husband, she was not permitted to write a will without her husband’s permission. As a result, far more men’s wills survive than women’s. It is very likely that Thomasine’s last husband Sir John Percyvale owed his swift rise to preeminence in the Merchant Taylors Guild and the City of London to his marriage, riding his wife’s coat-tails into the tailoring community. Yet if they worked together during John’s life – if they made decisions about their trade as a couple, if they co-tutored their apprentices, if they bought homes and furnishings and hired servants in consultation with one another, or even if Thomasine expressly dominated their decision-making process – we do not know it. Documents have serious limitations, particularly when it comes to charting the lives of women in the past.


Certificate to prove age issued in the absence or loss of a birth certificate, Bristol, 1877. Photo: crabchick via Flickr, some rights reserved.

Too often, women’s histories are concealed because of their sex. In a guild register or legal dispute they might be listed simply as ‘So-and-so’s Wife’, if they appear at all. Husbands were expected to answer for a wife’s transgression at law. Women, of course, could not stand for public office, although occasionally there are examples of female office-holders inheriting the role from their father. (My personal favourite being Nicola de la Haye, who was King John’s right-hand woman in her role as Sheriff of Lincolnshire and who saw off an invading army in 1217.)

Inevitably, we know more about high status women than their working class contemporaries. In some instances, a woman pops into existence for the duration of a contested inheritance or criminal plea, and then promptly disappears again. Which way did the court decide? Did she keep her inheritance? Was she spared the hangman’s noose? The records fall silent and we simply don’t know. But even queens fall prey to this documentary ambivalence. Eleanor of Aquitaine – crusader, heiress and rebel against her own husband Henry II – was largely ignored by contemporary chroniclers unless she was giving birth or really behaving badly. (The chroniclers all being male, they didn’t see much else in her life of note.) No wonder the fallacy persists that historical women had no agency, no power – in short, are of no interest.

You might think that this is a problem the modern world does not face. There must by now be equality in record keeping? Think again. As any budding family historian will know, one of the most useful records for tracing your roots is a marriage certificate: there, alongside bride and groom’s names and occupations, you can find their fathers’ details too. But only their fathers’. In August 2014 David Cameron responded to a motion put before Parliament by Caroline Lucas, supported by over 100 MPs and a petition from 70,000 people. Cameron pledged that marriage certificates would be updated so that they also included the name and occupation of the bride and groom’s mothers. (Certificates of civil partnership already list both parents.)

But a year after Cameron’s pledge, marriage certificates are still resolutely patriarchal. Indeed, it seems that the process of adding mothers’ details to the forms has scarcely even begun.

Thus, in England and Wales in the twenty-first century we continue to perpetuate a system that writes women out of our collective history. Scotland and Northern Ireland already list mothers’ names on their marriage certificates, but in the rest of the UK, even if a mother has been sole carer for her child, she will not appear on that child’s marriage certificate. The single exception is if she has court papers naming her as a child’s ‘sole adopter’. This in spite of the fact that in 2012, 6.7 million people were part of a household headed by a mother.

The absence of mothers’ names from marriage certificates does not reflect modern life – it is a product of the Victorian era, when civil marriage was first introduced. Back in 1837, a married woman’s property was still legally her husband’s possession and on divorce, she would lose any right of access to it. Those rules were updated in 1870 and 1882, but the anachronistic marriage certificate lives on.

British legal records have been slow to adapt to the notion of equality between the sexes. It was only in 1984 that a mother’s occupation was added to her baby’s birth certificate in the UK, finally acknowledging the fact that mothers could also have jobs. Until 1911 you didn’t need a mother’s maiden name on the form either – her identity was solely of interest as far as it related to her husband. 

And it is still usually a woman who changes her name and status on marriage to a man. Figures vary, but a reasonable estimate is that between two-thirds and three-quarters of married British women use their husband’s family name. Even in cases, like my own, where women keep their original name or double-barrel with their partner, their changed status is likely to be suggested by the transition from ‘Miss’ to ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs’ when they fill in official forms. No such worries for men, who – even if they change their name – can remain ambiguously ‘Mr’. Women’s marital status is still, it seems, a matter of importance in public record keeping. (Compare this state of affairs with Greece, where since 1983 women have been legally required to keep their birth names, even if they marry.)

Of course, documentary history is not the whole story. Artifacts, images and material culture have all been used increasingly by historians to build a bigger picture of people’s lives, beyond the limitations of documentary evidence. But the fact remains that words matter – they have meaning. A woman’s inability to write a will in the past was a reflection of her inferior status. The absence of a mother’s name from her child’s marriage certificate implies that she too is inferior. Is this really the message we wish to perpetuate in 2015? Surely it’s time for Cameron to put his own words into action, and begin the documentary process that will finally see mothers’ names on the marriage certificate.

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