Pet Names for Women – Inappropriate? Disrespectful?

Nine women graduated from Rutgers Female College in 1886, and three of these nine women went by the pet names Hattie, Bessie and Mamie (diminutives of Harriet, Elizabeth and Mary/Margaret) during the graduation ceremony.

A writer at the now-defunct NYC newspaper The Sun had a strong opinion about this:

“[I]t seems very incongruous, and it is very incongruous, to give scholastic degree to a young woman who is spoken of only as if she were a baby who had not yet mastered the pronunciation of some of the consonants, and who changed the construction of words to suit the limitations of her infantile vocal organs.”

Here’s more:

In the domestic circle such nursery names have sweet and tender associations, but they sound quite silly when they are read out at a college commencement as the serious appellations of young women who are deemed worthy of grave scholastic degrees. Suppose that when Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes was given an honorary degree in England, the other day, he had been described as Ollie Holmes or Noll Holmes.

These three young women allowed Dr. Samson and Dr. Burchard to address them before a large audience as if they were little girls in pinafores waiting for a present of a doll or of sweetmeats, instead of young ladies about to receive diplomas certifying that they had mastered studies within the ability of maturity only. They and their friends were not in the least indignant at the familiarity, but took it as altogether nice, pretty and proper.

Among the other recipients of degrees were two Marys and two Elizabeths, who were so called in their degrees, but Mamie and Bessie probably looked on them as the victims of the prejudices of old-fashioned and unreasonable parents. Yet we can never think of Mamie and Bessie and Hattie as dignified young women so long as they put those baby names on their cards.

The author didn’t strike me as being a feminist, but that’s how I saw his/her basic argument: women looking to be respected in the public sphere do themselves a disservice when they allow pet forms of their names to be used on serious/formal occasions.

And, back in that era — back when pet names typically were pet names (and not legal names) — I think I would have agreed. Because pet names would have denoted immaturity, familiarity, perhaps weakness — certainly not maturity, independence or power (traits that I imagine progressive women of the 19th century would have been aiming for).

These days the argument sounds a bit silly, though, as diminutives (e.g., Allie, Callie, Ellie, Sadie) are just as likely to be used as standalone legal names.

What’s your opinion?

Source: “Hattie, Bessie and Mamie.” Sun [New York] 12 Jun. 1886.

13 thoughts on “Pet Names for Women – Inappropriate? Disrespectful?

  1. I have a daughter named Isabelle. In middle school, there were two Isabelle’s in the same class so the teacher decided to call my daughter Izzy to not confuse the two. I told the teacher we did not use nicknames – we named her Isabelle because it was a beautiful name. The teacher ignored our request and soon certificates and official school papers began coming home with “Izzy” on them even though my daughter reminded the teacher daily that her name was Isabelle. I finally had to go to the principal of the school and demand that all her school paperwork be reissued with her correct name. They, of course, thought I was silly and too demanding. Now, 5 years later, there are still several students from that class who call her Izzy and she corrects them but luckily the nickname has not stick. Sometimes, kids and their parents are almost powerless to keep a nickname from starting! I still feel that the teacher was presumptuous to select a nickname for a child!

  2. There is no is issue with it if that is your choice…a lot of guys go by pet names well into adulthood. It’s always been my biggest pet peeve with my name though. My name is the nickname and it would have been so nice to have a formal option for professional use. Hattie is totally cool, but use Harriet so she can have the “suit and tie” option

  3. To be fair, Jaime is not a nickname, its the portuguese/spanish equivalent of James. And in the UK, Jamie is used as a standalone name, without James, even today. I think they’re seen as different names now.

  4. I’m not sure that it is accurate that “pet names typically were pet names (and not legal names)” in the 1880s. Leslie Dunkling is generally reliable on first names, and his 1870 US list includes in the top 50: Jennie, Annie, Minnie, Bessie, Elsie, Nellie, Lillie, Lulu, Carrie, Fanny. The Social Security list for 1880 is similar, though as it is based on SS applications which would have been filled out by adults, you could argue that women wrote the name they went by rather than their legal birth name. (This is true for men as well). At any rate, it seems to me reasonable that the women in the article quoted above actually were named Bessie, Hattie, etc. You might fault the parents for bestowing pet names on them at birth, but not the bearers for using their actual first names.

  5. Some name-data for women born between 1861 and 1870 (which is likely when these grads were born) from the 1880 census:

    -Harriet, 691
    -Hattie, fewer than 10

    -Elizabeth, 2283
    -Bessie, fewer than 10
    -(Betty, 192)
    -(Libbie, 37)

    -Mary, 5973
    -Margaret, 1457
    -Mamie, 62

    And the census is self-reported, so some of those nicknames may still not reflect actual birth names.

    You make a valid point — these three grads *could* really be named Hattie, Bessie and Mamie — but I think it’s statistically unlikely (if these numbers are to be trusted, which is the tricky part).

    Source: Popular Given Names, US, 1801-1999

  6. What would the author of the article have said about Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter?

  7. That’s an interesting question.

    These are different times, though, so it might be apples & oranges.

    A lot of male leaders today — Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton — use nicknames to make themselves seem more friendly/familiar, both to employees and to the public at large.

    That wasn’t the case back then. Male leaders (presidents, CEOs) weren’t going for “friendly,” they were going for “powerful.” Andrew Carnegie didn’t go by Andy. Benjamin Harrison was never known as Ben. (And Theodore Roosevelt “never liked, or used, the name “Teddy.””)

  8. Nancy, I absolutely do not trust that census data. You notice that it states that the names are “standardized”? That means the compiler lumped all similar names together, and there are FAR fewer individual names than there should be. In the 1861-1870 decade, for example, the only “Ann-” name that appears in the census list is Ann. There is no Anna, no Annie, and no Anne. Now, we know that Anna was actually more popular in the later 19th c. than Ann, and furthermore, the only reason Ann appears as #2 here is that all the similar names have been combined. You can’t therefore conclude that Annie was unused in the 1860s. And the same with many other names–no Nellie, because it was combined with Ellen; no Lillian or Lillie, because they were combined with Lily; no Carrie, because it was combined with Keri (!); no Emma–combined with Emily. So please take this data with a grain of salt–it is not at all reliable.

  9. I know an elderly Nellie whose name is ACTUALLY Nellie… she was named for her Norwegian grandmother. The spelling in Norway at the time was Nelle, but it was pronounced as Nellie. Many, many Scandinavian names are short and nickname-ish, but they are legitimate names in their own right.
    There is no reason a Daisy with a mother named Margret with a grandmother named Greta couldn’t achieve a diploma in 1886. If I were a third generation Elizabeth, I’d want the name I’d always been called (Bessie) to be on my diploma! After all, mother Eliza and grandmother Ellie weren’t the ones graduating.
    The writer of this article sounds like a first-rate snob to me. A name snob at that!

  10. Hm, ok…I used FamilySearch to check out the number of hits I’d get on each name looking at the same criteria — births from 1861 to 1870 listed on the 1880 U.S. Census — and here’s what I got:

    -Harriet, 19,268
    -Hattie, 40,548

    -Elizabeth, 87,262
    -Bessie, 6,566

    -Mary, 600,410
    -Margaret, 58,497
    -Mamie, 5,951

    These numbers are also imperfect (they count both firsts and middles, for instance) but they do paint a very different picture — especially in the case of Hattie/Harriet.

    I think I stand corrected on the “pet names typically were pet names” thing. Looks like certain pet names in that era were indeed just as popular (as standalone names) as the names they were derived from.

    Thanks for catching me on that Diane. Appreciate it. :)

    p.s. I have been searching for an actual list of those 9 graduates, because I’m really curious now about their birth names! So far, nothing.

  11. Oh that galbithink lists … they are normalised data where lots of names were mapped to a few forms. The mapping tables are Open Source (see and links therein) and even include corrections of the gender of the name. Some names (e.g. Beulah and spelling variants) aren’t normalised, others are over-normalised (Thirza mapped to Theresa) and a few are plain wrong (male Is [probably an abbr. for Isaac] mapped to female Isabelle).

  12. Thanks for that link! Looking at the GINAP tables really makes me furious. After the sweeping statement about the importance of standardizing name data, it’s so ignorant to decide that Emma is really Emily and Kayla is really just Kay. A long discussion ensued on another forum I participate in, on whether “Rhonda” was used in the 19th c. The supporters, of which I was not one, pointed to the census data as evidence. Turns out, of course, that “Rhoda” maps onto “Rhonda.” I was excited to see those census lists when I first saw them, and they turned out to be actually worse than useless.

  13. Wow, I didn’t realize that was such a bad source of data. Thanks you guys. I think I’ve only used it once before (in a post about Civil War names, which I may need to rewrite now) but I’ll stop using it from now on.

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