This week in Columbia's History: When Mary Stuart kept her name, a ripple effect began in women's rights

On May 10, 1972, a Howard County judge ruled that Mary Stuart, a 22-year-old who had kept her last name after marriage, would have to register to vote under her husband's name. When the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed the decision later that year and allowed Stuart to keep her name, the Columbia resident found herself at the forefront of a landmark case, which set a precedent allowing Maryland women to choose whether or not to take their husband's name after marriage.

Stuart sued the Howard County Board of Elections for disenfranchising her by striking her from the voter rolls. After moving to Columbia, she had registered to vote as "Mary Emily Stuart." The county maintained that her surname was legally that of her then-husband, Sam Austell Jr.


The county election board's lawyer, Charles Hogg, argued that if a woman were allowed to use her given last name to vote, it would open the door to fraud,the Baltimore Sun reported.

T. Hunt Mayfield, the Howard County circuit court judge who heard the case, agreed. While Stuart could use her chosen name in other circumstances, he said in his decision, requiring her to register under her husband's name was a "reasonable requirement" for "record keeping" purposes.


Stuart's subsequent appeal, which drew national attention and included an amicus brief written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was an attorney with ACLU in New York at the time, was an early launching ground for broader progress in women's rights in Maryland, according to Michelle Siri, executive director of the Women's Law Center of Maryland.

Mary Stuart
Mary Stuart (Courtesy photo/Mary Stuart)

The case, Siri said, "set the stage for a lot more feminist litigation." The decision in favor of Stuart, she said, was an early success that not only benefited Maryland women, but added weight to similar women's rights cases emerging across the country.

Stuart, now a professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said she didn't keep her name to make a statement.

The name Mary Stuart, she said, had been passed down through generations, possibly — though her family never confirmed it — tracing back to the 16th-century monarch better known as Mary, Queen of Scots. When Stuart's grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Scotland, he brought with him a red cut-glass decanter, which had always belonged to the Mary Stuart of the family.


"That was me, I was Mary Stuart," she said. "That was my name, that was a part of my sense of identity.

"And then I got a letter that said there could be no doubt that when a woman was married, the name was her husband's. Well, you know, that was really a quandary for me," said Stuart. "Who wants to give up their right to vote?"

Stuart moved to Columbia soon after getting married, and said that people there were "largely very supportive" of her keeping her name. It was another Columbia resident who encouraged her to move forward with a lawsuit. She decided to sue the county after meeting Nancy Beling, her neighbor in the Tilbury Woods apartment complex in Harper's Choice, who was also prevented from voting using her own last name.

The two women made contact with a women's rights foundation which offered legal support. Beling and her husband, however, left Columbia before the case was heard in court. By the May hearing in Howard County's circuit court, Stuart's case stood alone.

Stuart's case got a lot of press throughout 1972. The attention, she said, made her self-conscious.

"When I would read what people would write, I would be so embarrassed," Stuart said. "Being in the limelight like that … there are people who enjoy that, but that wasn't my nature."

The 1972 letter notifying Mary Stuart that her license would be revoked unless she registered under her husband’s last name was addressed to “Mrs. Mary E. Austell.” She returned the letter to the MVA, with “No one by this name at this address” written on the envelope.
The 1972 letter notifying Mary Stuart that her license would be revoked unless she registered under her husband’s last name was addressed to “Mrs. Mary E. Austell.” She returned the letter to the MVA, with “No one by this name at this address” written on the envelope. (File photo/Baltimore Sun)

Her strong convictions, however, kept her going. "I wasn't going to back down," she said.

She began receiving nasty letters, telling her she was "threatening the fiber of society," and that she was a "hateful, spiteful person," Stuart said. Someone once called her a "militant feminist destroying the basic fabric of American life," she told the Sun in October 1972.

Though the attention was difficult, the repercussion that most affected Stuart came in June that year, when the Maryland State Motor Vehicle Administration revoked her driver's license. The news coverage of the case had drawn the attention of deputy MVA commissioner Bill Bricker, who had her license revoked.

In 1983, Bricker and Mayfield, the Howard County judge who ruled against Stuart, both told the Sun that they had both changed their thinking, and that they now both agreed with Stuart's side.

At the time, however, the MVA was adamant that Stuart had violated MVA policy by using her name. For a while, Stuart said, there was a police car parked by her window, which residents were convinced was "to catch me when I drove."

Not voting was one thing, Stuart said, but not being able to drive, "really puts a crimp in your style."

The MVA addressed envelope carring the notice that her license would be revoked to "Mrs. Mary E. Austell." Stuart returned the envelope with the name crossed out, and "No one by this name at this address" scrawled across the bottom.

Stuart had to rely on a friend, fellow Tilbury Woods resident Mark Wasserman, to drive her from Columbia to the University of Maryland in Baltimore, where they both took graduate classes.

"There was a little bit of hardship for her," Wasserman said. "For me, I just pitched in and helped close a transportation gap. It was fun. She's a great person."

Stuart's appeal was held in October 1972 at the Court of Appeals of Maryland.

Bader Ginsberg, who co-founded the ACLU's women's Rights Project, was the lead attorney on an amicus brief the ACLU filed in support of Stuart.Stuart did not realize until this year that the now Supreme Court justice had been involved with her hearing.

Sally Gold, a family lawyer in Baltimore, said that Stuart's legal battle was a landmark case — both for the state of Maryland, and for Gold personally, as a young professional woman in the 1970s.

Gold said that today, families have many more diverse combinations of names than before the 1970s — something she says Stuart made possible.

After the court ruled in her favor, Stuart said, she began to meet women who were keeping their names, women who had never heard of her case. "I was just pleased that it wasn't an issue anymore," she said.

The case, Gold said, had meant a great deal to her.

"It took someone like Mary Stuart saying 'Whoa, you can't do that to me,' and having the fortitude to take it as far as it went," Gold said.

Stuart's friend, Wasserman, described that same fortitude.

"There's this steely determination in Mary that I think this whole episode provoked," he said. "I don't think there was ever a doubt that she was gonna see it through and make her point."

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