R.I. ACLU executive director Steven Brown issued the following statement today in recognition of the 30th anniversary of the R.I. Supreme Court decision in Traugott v. Petit, in which the ACLU successfully overturned a lower court ruling requiring married women to use their husband’s surname on their driver’s licenses:
“It may seem absurd now, but it was only 30 years ago today that the R.I. Supreme Court definitively ruled that a married woman could actually decide what her name was. The RI ACLU volunteer attorney in the case, Sheila Cabral-Sousa, perhaps summed things up best at the time when she said: ‘The very least you can have in this damned life is your own name.’ But the fact that the ACLU had to bring a lawsuit to win that right says much about the paternalistic discrimination that women in society routinely faced, and continue to face to this day.
“It is true that the past thirty years have seen many victories for women’s rights. In other cases here in Rhode Island, for example, we have successfully challenged a state law requiring husbands to be notified before a woman could have an abortion, and another statute that barred a woman firefighter from seeking employment at an all white, all-male fire department. However, the struggle against gender-based discrimination continues to this day in the fight for equal pay for equal work and similar issues.
“A look at some of the comments made by public officials only 30 years ago in this case serves as a stark reminder that gains for women’s rights remain of recent vintage and, therefore, remain far from complete. That is why it is worth recognizing this anniversary.” Those comments appear below:
Excerpts From RI Superior Court Judge Thomas Needham's Ruling Upholding the DMV's Requirement Position That Married Women Use Their Husband's Name on Their Driver's License:
“[O]ver 200 years as part of our American culture reflecting a longer history of similar acceptance throughout the Western Civilization, can we continue to ignore the fact that society has long accepted that the new legal name [of a married women] is that of the surname of her husband? … Can we continue to ignore the facts of life? The Court thinks not . . . . All married women are required to use their legal names, that is, their Christian names, followed by their husband’s surname, when registering a motor vehicle or applying for an operator’s license.”
Comments From Eugene Petit, the Registrar of Motor Vehicles at the Time:
“[Requiring married women to use their husband’s name] is in the best interest of the safety of the community. It will keep bad drivers off the road and give us better control of the registry….[It is] patriotic. Listen, I respect gals in every phase. I hope they just respect society in this.”