What to call women: another language dilemma from the past

Here is another dilemma for those who write about the past: by what name should we refer to prominent women?

For much of history, middle and upper class women were routinely known by their husband’s names. I don’t just mean that they took their husband’s surname, but in public they often used his first name as well.

Lady Henry Somerset is one such. She was Lady Isabella – sometimes spelt as Isobel – Caroline Somers-Cocks before her marriage to Lord Henry Somerset. Elected President of the British Women’s Temperance Association in 1890, she was one of the principal founders of Duxhurst farm colony, which opened its doors in 1895 as a centre for ‘inebriate women’. She separated from her husband shortly after discovering that he was a homosexual, and famously won custody of their son.

By which name should we refer to her today? I’ve used both ‘Lady Henry Somerset’, which was how she was often referred to in the contemporary press, and under which she published; but I have also used plain ‘Isobel Somerset’. Is this a weaselly compromise, or – as I hope – a sensible solution which reflects modern sensibilities without sanitising the past?

A last point: my modern solution would have greatly offended Lady Somerset, who insisted throughout her life on using her title, which she held by birth as well as marriage.

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2 thoughts on “What to call women: another language dilemma from the past

  1. This is indeed a tricky issue. I omit titles for all contemporaries, but dropping them for historical figures risks anachronism. The problems multiply before the Renaissance when even Western European names didn’t confirm to the current pattern of first name and surname and scholars were often known by their name in their first language and also by a Latinised version. Books’ title pages are no guide because books didn’t have title pages until after the introduction of printing in 1450.

    • Hedging my bets, I would say depends on the audience and the historical figure. My default position would be to use ‘real’ name. However if the person in question was widely and well-known by their ‘heritage’ title I would use that. For example, were we ever to discover the maiden name of Lady Godiva, I would probably still use the popular term.

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