Q&A with Mary Stuart: Making a Case for Women’s Voting Rights

Published: Sep 15, 2017

(Mary Stuart headshot)

In 1972, professor Mary Stuart fought to keep her maiden name and vote in Maryland, in what became a landmark case for women’s rights. Forty-five years later, the professor of Sociology, Anthropology, and Health Administration and Policy at UMBC reflects on the experience and the ways it has impacted her teaching at UMBC.  

– Allison Cruz ’18

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AC: When did you move to Columbia, Maryland, and why?

MS: I think we moved to Columbia, Maryland, in 1971. I had graduated from college that year and got married. We were locating there because we both had worked with children at a summer camp for children with dyslexia. I taught horseback riding and he was a tutor. There were maybe four or five families who lived in Columbia whose children had been at the camp. They said if we would relocate to Columbia, then they would organize themselves so that he would have a core of students to begin tutoring. That seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

AC: How long have you taught here at UMBC?

MS: I joined the faculty at UMBC in 1996, twenty-one years ago.

AC: What brought you to teach at UMBC?

MS: I actually wanted to come teach at UMBC because I like the culture here. Like many people, I had heard Dr. Freeman Hrabowski speak. I felt like it was a campus where there was support for diversity and there were values that I could support. Because it was a young campus, it was innovative in ways that many older campuses weren’t.

AC: In what field do you teach?

MS: My field is health policy and health services research. I was very interested in helping educate the workforce, especially innovative health policies that could improve care for people and also potentially save money by providing better care for really sick people. Also, I was working with Medicaid data, which are large databases. It was very difficult to hire people with the skills we needed to do the kind of work that needed to be done.

I felt like UMBC had the interdisciplinary combination of departments that could help educate the workforce we needed. I also felt like I had a commitment to women and minorities. I felt that one of the best things you could do to help women and minorities was to educate them in skills that the labor force really needed.

AC: What do your courses generally focus on?

MS: My two favorite courses that I’ve taught are Organization and Delivery of Health Care and the International Field Research Program. The first class is self-explanatory, I think. In the second class, students prepare their research plan during the spring semester, and then I take them to Switzerland for a week and they actually do the research that they’ve planned.

AC: So, you were the landmark case for women’s right to keep their maiden name in marriage and still be able to vote. What was the significance behind your keeping the name Mary Stuart?

MS: The Scottish heritage had been really important in my family. My great-grandfather had raised sheep in Scotland and, in fact, won awards. He actually won a silver tea set that’s engraved to him from the Prince of Wales for the best pen of sheep in the show. Then my grandfather came to the U.S. when he was nineteen.

Growing up, there were many things we did as a family that involved Scottish culture, like going to the Scottish games and hearing the bagpipers, and my father playing the bagpipe music to wake us up. My grandparents would tell stories about Scotland, and I got to meet other relatives who had come from Scotland.

AC: Were there other reasons why keeping your maiden name was important to you?

MS: When I was in high school, I really remember thinking either I keep my own name or I don’t get married because I’m not giving up the name Mary Stuart. It was a famous name because of the Queen of Scotland, Mary Stuart, who was ultimately beheaded but the Scots were very loyal to her.

The name Mary Stuart was me, it was part of my identity.

AC: Did you ever wonder if keeping your name after marriage would cause any problems?

MS: I spoke to a lawyer before I got married, and he said there wouldn’t be a problem. Just be consistent. He said never use your husband’s name. Always use your name.

AC: When did the legal battle to keep your own name and vote begin?

MS: It began when I registered to vote in Maryland, at least I thought I had registered to vote. I got a letter back that said I would have to refer to my husband’s name in order to vote.

AC: What kinds of challenges did you deal with during your fight to keep your name?

MS: One of the hardest challenges, or inconveniences, was when the MVA office revoked my driver’s license because then I couldn’t drive. I also found the media attention difficult to deal with. There was a lot being written because it ultimately became the landmark case in a woman keeping her own name. As it progressed through the stages, there was a lot of local and national media. I got letters from people and some of them were very supportive, but some of them were really nasty.

AC: At the time, did you consider the legal battle to keep your name as being a women’s rights issue or is that something that you considered later?

MS: It’s not like I went out looking for a fight. But when you’re faced with something that’s important to you, it just seemed like a matter of principle. I needed to stand up for what I believed in and then see it through. That was the long and short of it.

AC: When the courts finally did rule in your favor and you were able to keep your name and vote, how did you feel in the end?

MS: Well, I was really grateful and also happy to be able to drive again. It was also very important having the American Civil Liberties Union in New York come in and file a Friends of the Court brief. I learned that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had taken the lead on that for the ACLU in New York. I thought, oh my. Clearly the ACLU recognized that this was not a case to lose, that it was important to win this case.

AC: You were surrounded by lots of media attention during the legal fight, but when was the first revisit back to your experience since then?

MS: The first revisit was the article by The Howard County Times. Their reason for revisiting was for the 50th Anniversary for Howard County, they were reviewing some of the history of the area and they came across this case.

AC: When did it hit you that you were making a statement for women’s rights in Maryland and across the nation as well?

MS: I believed it was important for women’s rights but I didn’t realize that this would be the landmark case in a woman’s keeping her own name. In The Howard County Times article, they mention Sally Gold who is a lawyer in Baltimore. I was actually introduced to Sally Gold at a fundraiser some years after the case was over, and she said, “Oh, Mary Stuart. You’re the landmark case.” That was the first that I really understood that this was a landmark case that somebody would recognize.

But at the time I understood that it was important for me and other women to be able to keep their own name. We needed to win this case.

AC: Is there anything that you would like to add about this whole experience?

MS: Looking back on where we started with this interview, I think that being at UMBC has been a really important chapter in who I am and what I believe and being able to act on what I believe. I think it’s an exciting university that reflects the values that I have.

Most of us only have a small contribution in the river of how culture evolves and how the law evolves. But if each of us does our part, then society will be a better, more equitable place for women, minorities, and people of diversity. This campus really represents that kind of hope.


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