August 19, 2013

Mrs. Who?

Recently, in the course of processing some boxes containing correspondence from the late 1960s through the early 1980s within the Ernest W. Michel papers series, I was faced with a style and consistency dilemma. These files hold letters between high-level UJA-Federation Joint Campaign supporters and Michel, who was Executive Vice President and Campaign Director of UJA and UFJC for many years, and the correspondence mostly concerns the subject of fundraising. The folders were filed by the last name of the correspondent, arranged alphabetically.

The problem arose in the case of married women. Sometimes the labels on these supporters’ files read something such as “Mrs. Harry Etra.” Other times they would be labeled “Mrs. Blanche Etra.” In some cases, the woman’s name was simply listed by her own first name followed by a last name, whether or not she was married. In the specific case of Mrs. Etra, there were actually two separate folders, each labeled differently, each holding similar contents. In another married woman’s file there was a short note from Mr. Michel’s administrative assistant, Libby Peppersberg, summarizing a phone call in which the woman had asked to be called by her own first name followed by her married last name only; no husband’s first name and no “Mrs.” Some subsequent correspondence referred to her, nonetheless, as Mrs. Husband’sFirstName MarriedLastName.

When processing files labeled with people’s names arranged alphabetically, as this group is, our practice on this project has been to list the name as LastName, FirstName on the folder title. This is how it will also appear within the finding aid for the full collection when it is eventually completed. We strive for consistency and occasionally make minor adjustments to file folder titles towards that end.

As a modern person living in the 21st Century, the idea of referring to an adult woman, particularly one who is responsible for her family’s charitable giving, by her husband’s first name, strikes me as a bit odd. It could almost go without saying that men’s names appearing in this subseries were listed on these files without the “Mr.” prefix. I realize, however, that until fairly recently “Mrs. Husband’sFirstName MarriedLastName” was universally considered the most appropriate and, indeed, the most polite form of formal address for a married woman. As archivists, we are often bound to relay language of the time period of the records we are working with, even if it does not completely jibe with modern parlance, since the antiquated terminology itself can convey important information to researchers.

My main problem here was how to handle the variety of forms of married women’s names that cropped up in the Michel papers. I needed to determine one “correct” form – the one that reflected best archival practices and was consistent with how we have previously handled it in the collection – if at all possible. Once I had determined that, I would then record all married women’s names in the same way.

After some discussion with the rest of the UJA-Fed archival team, it became clear that this problem had not previously come up. We sought outside guidance. The first place I looked was Describing Archives, A Content Standard, 2nd Edition, a.k.a. DACS, the official standards document put out by the Society of American Archivists, which addresses how to describe archival materials. Though DACS does address the issue in the context of creators and the biographical outlines that come at the beginnings of finding aids (sections 2.7.13 and 2.7.14), it does not specify how folder titles for married women ought to appear.  Next, I consulted AACR2, the preeminent library cataloging standards document in North America. Similar to DACS, AACR2 does not address this precise situation. AACR2’s chapter 22 concerns “headings for persons,” but goes only so far as to say “terms of address” or titles such as “Mrs.” may be used. In Resource Description and Access, a.k.a.  RDA, which is widely regarded to be the next wave of library and archives metadata standards, section grants the option for the ”fuller form of the name,” which could include “Mrs.” And again, RDA pertains to authority records rather than folder titles. The trusty old Strunk & White’s Elements of Style has a short section on names of people, but does not specify how a married woman must be called. I was tempted to consult Emily Post or Miss Manners, but these advice purveyors concern themselves much more with party invitations than with historical documents.

In the end, we settled on the moderately liberated and modern form of “MarriedLastName, HerOwnFirstName” with the “Mrs.Husband’sFirst NameMarriedLastName” form following in parentheses, if this form of her name was used at all in the records. In this way, I was able to be consistent throughout all the records, while at the same time, affording the researcher an additional access point.




  1. We JUST had a conversation about this at work yesterday, about how to write names in the lists of donors in publications/programs etc. Do you leave it up to the donor, make the (feminist) executive decision that all women will be listed first if they are the ones who sent in the check and wrote the letter, just follow the (sexist) old-fashioned protocol of Mr. and Ms.
    We debated whether we had the right to write Ms. even if a person signed correspondence as Mrs. LastName. We are completely in some kind of strange limbo. We did NOT however have a single case of anyone being listed as Mr. and Mrs. MaleFirstName LastName. Or Mrs. HUSBAND NAME. I guess that’s progress?


    Comment by Sara Hall — August 20, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

    • When researching this, I found so much current discussion online expressing so many different opinions on the deployment of Mrs./Ms. and all their possible variations, that I felt lucky to be dealing with 40 – 50 year old archival material rather than active documents.


      Comment by Heather Halliday — August 21, 2013 @ 10:12 am

      • This is such a good discussion. We had a similar conversation about discovering women’s names at a recent SAA Women’s Collections Roundtable forum hosted by Newcomb College Institute, Tulane. Traditional cataloging rules support form of name by preferred usage, but Heather is trying to form the folder heading to increase identity and also to establish a pattern for the rest of the collection.

        I encourage Heather to increase identity further (when known) by providing the fullest form of the name in her example above: Blance MaidenName Etra (Mrs. Harry Etra)

        I enjoyed Heather’s recognition that women are commonly the member determining a family’s charitable giving. It brought to mind a personal incident when I received a solicitation from my alma mater that was addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Thomas C. Melvin II, when I had a long record of giving to the institution as an individual under my own (full) name. I promptly wrote them back — without a check enclosed — to remind them that my husband had never given to my alma mater and never would, and that if they wanted to continue to receive anything from me they could address their requests to me by my full name, which is also the form of name that I use professionally. Needless to say, they updated their donor contact preferences for me and I hope they learned something about assumptions.

        And interestingly, I do think that Emily Post and Miss Manners are very helpful in understanding traditional and contemporary social and professional usage of forms of names, inclusion of titles, and how to form names when used jointly.

        Sad to see that Sophie Newcomb College is now Newcomb College Institute, isn’t it?

        L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin 🙂


        Comment by lrjm — August 23, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

      • Thank you very much for the feedback, Rebecca!
        I agree that it would be helpful to increase access by also including maiden names wherever known. Unfortunately, none of these fundraising files seemed to span long enough to allow for that, as these women’s charitable giving habits did not begin until after they were married.


        Comment by Heather Halliday — August 26, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

  2. […] the conversation from Heather’s August blog post, “Mrs. Who”, I couldn’t help but notice that all of the committee members except the chairman use their […]


    Pingback by Have you a little time on your hands? | thiscangobacktothearchives — January 13, 2014 @ 2:26 pm

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