In Catalyst Wedding Co. editor Liz Susong's weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the crazy history behind common wedding traditions we may take for granted. Liz investigates here.
Deciding how to address wedding invitations can feel like walking into an etiquette minefield. You’ve got Emily Post on one shoulder and Gloria Steinem on the other, your mom was a bra-burner, but your mother-in-law is a traditionalist, and you’re doing your best to avoid offending both the Millennials and the baby boomers. It’s a tall order.
Many believe that addressing a married couple as Mrs. and Mr. John Smith is a tradition as old as time, but it’s actually much more complicated. Historically, “Mrs.” was not an indication of marital status, but rather of social standing. Mrs. and Mr. are short for Mistress and Master, both terms that describe “a person who governed servants or apprentices...we might say a person with capital,” according to Dr. Amy Erickson. “‘Mrs’ was more likely to indicate a businesswoman than a married woman.”
So what changed? The media, of course. Novels of the mid-to-late 1700s depicted “young gentry Misses and upper (single) servants titled Mrs.” Miss used to refer to children of the upper class. But then, “socially ambitious young single women used ‘Miss’ as a means to identify their gentility”, and slowly the shift occurred. “The boundaries between the old and new styles are blurred, but Mrs did not definitively signify a married woman until around 1900.”
Jane Austen had a role to play, as well. In the 19th century, England was the only place in Europe where a woman took her husband’s surname upon marriage. Jane Austen referred to married women in her books using their husbands’ full names to establish seniority, as in “Mrs. John Dashwood” from Sense & Sensibility.
Even in the late 20th century, many women felt the practice of replacing a woman’s name with her husband’s was offensive. While it would be quite uncommon today for your neighbor to address you in passing as “Mrs. Bob Burger,” it’s still viewed as proper wedding invitation etiquette to address a married couple as “Mrs. and Mr. Bob Burger.” There are etiquette guides that stretch for miles describing how to address everyone from “a divorcee who is still using her former husband’s name” to “a married couple, wife is a doctor.” What’s strange is that this etiquette does not account for how people actually feel about their individual identities being subsumed into their partners’.
Jessica of Texas says, “I cannot stand when mail is addressed to ‘Mr. and Mrs. His Name.’ In fact, I refuse to open it. I make him do it because that's not my name.” As for her preferred alternative, “I'm perfectly happy with anything that acknowledges me as a separate person or simply addresses us as a family.”
Abby Farson Pratt, a calligrapher in Virginia, says “I think most brides and grooms default to the patriarchal standard for names because it's tradition, it seems more formal, and there's an established rule book.” But she suggests that “If you're having a less formal wedding, just use people's names! Radical, I know.”
Cindy of Missouri took this approach. “We addressed our invitations just as we'd do any other mail—no titles, no formalities.” She suggests the following format:
First Name Last Name for single people
First Last & First Last for couples who don't share a last name; First & First Last for couples who do
The ______ Family for the few people we invited who had kids
Some people elect to maintain the Mrs. and Mr., inserting them into the above formula where appropriate. But not Regina of Ohio: “I didn’t use Mr., Mrs., or Ms. at all! It made my mother-in-law very upset.” She laughs, “At least she assumed it was an etiquette faux pas on my part rather than a choice driven by feminism.”
Erica of North Carolina says, “I feel like the practice of erasing a woman's given name once she is married is simply the worst, and when people disregard what my actual name is and use my husband’s name, it is super disrespectful.” She makes a great point: “Additionally, it is just easier to use each individual's name on the invite, as it guarantees there is no question about who is invited.”