Maternal ≠ Marriage and Motherhood

Lilly Davis

PROVIDED BY ADOBE STOCK.Pictured are dolls Allan and Midge and their children. This was the Happy Family set produced by Mattel.

The idea that women must take the man’s last name had been a cultural and societal norm since 1855, until Lucy Stone broke it.

In the past, women would always take their husband’s last name.  When we think of the women’s suffrage movement, we often think of the feminist duo, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.  But in fact, the duo was a trio, and the third name often forgotten is Lucy Stone.  According to TIMES Magazine, “Stanton once described Stone as, ‘The first woman in the nation to protest against the marriage laws at the altar, and to manifest sufficient self-respect to keep her own name, to represent her individual existence through life.’” Stone wanted to keep her last name as a sign of protest and a stand for marriage equality.

Often girls are influenced from a young age that they should look forward to marriage and finding a husband. Media also portrays this through things like Disney movies where a “princess should be swept off her feet by a prince.” There is one form of media that does not aspire to do that: Barbie. Stone’s accomplishment, Barbie was invented and later came Ken. Most do not know Barbie and Ken have full names, Barbie’s is Barbara Millicent Roberts and Ken’s is Kenneth Sean Carson. Since coming out with the Ken doll, fans have wanted Barbie and Ken to get married and have children. Notice how that has never happened. The creator of Barbie, Ruth Handler, wanted to showcase to young girls that marriage and motherhood do not have to be the ultimate ideal for women. Considering this, they instead gave her a kid sister named Skipper, to signify that Barbie can have maternal qualities without having to marry and have kids.

On a chat with National Public Radio, M. G. Lord, author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, stated that Handler herself said to her that she would not classify herself as a feminist. But following in feminist Stone’s ideals, Handler strongly stated that Barbie would never marry because it could limit her possibilities to be whatever she wanted to be, just like Stone expressed so many years ago. On the flip side, Mattel did want to give girls who wanted a doll with a family an option. They created Barbie’s best friend Midge, Margaret Hadley Sherwood, known as Happy Family Midge. She was Barbie’s traditional opposite.  Mattel proceeded to create Ken’s best friend Allan, also known as Allan Sherwood . They got married and had children together, and we can hope Allan took Midge’s last name.

Though, these points were challenged when the new Barbie movie came out.  Midge was first shown at the beginning of the movie with Skipper living with her and not Barbie. The narrator stated, “Midge was Barbie’s pregnant friend.  Let’s not show Midge actually. She was discontinued by Mattel because a pregnant doll is just too weird.”  This was before Barbie traveled to the real world and discovered motherhood and children and understood hardships. Ultimately, we find that Barbie wants to experience real life and “not be stuck in a box”. She asked at the end of the movie if she could become human and Ruth tells her she cannot control her from what she wants to achieve. She compared Barbie to her own daughter stating, “We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come.” A collage of short clips of childhood and motherhood, love and grief, adventure and excitement, and old and young is then shown. Though we do not know if Barbie goes on to start a family of her own in the real world, we do know that she became a role model to Sasha, the teenage girl, in the Barbie movie. 

Marriage and motherhood were never pushed on Barbie by Mattel. Barbie today is a strong feminist icon for girls everywhere expressing they can be whoever they want to be. This is just how Stone wanted to be. She did not want to take a man’s last name and lose the mark she had already left on the world. Just as Lucy Stone challenged societal norms by keeping her maiden name upon marriage, Mattel’s portrayal of Barbie sends a powerful message that women can maintain their individuality and independence. This choice reflects the ongoing evolution of gender roles and reinforces the idea that women, trailblazers like Lucy Stone, can pave their own future, identity, and destiny, unburdened by traditional expectations of marriage. In this context, Barbie becomes not just a toy but a symbol of empowerment for generations of girls and women everywhere.