11 Surprisingly Feminist Baby Names From the 1930s
The 1930s is probably not the era you would initially look to should you be searching for feminist baby names. When I think personally think of "the '30s," I think the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and generally sad vibes. But here's the thing: many of the 20th century's most notable feminist activists were born in the 1930s, or at least around there. In sifting through the decade's most popular baby names, I found many are relevant today. Like, there are a lot of surprisingly feminist baby names from the 1930s. Color me shocked.
With names like Ava, Isabella and Sophia currently at the top of baby name charts in the United States, the general baby name vibes right now are glamorous and old-world-y. Many of the names popular in the 1930s are lacking that delicate, almost royal-sounding sheen. Now, I don't have any real evidence to back this up, but I would imagine that, as the babies born during the 1930s came into being during a nationwide crisis, their parents may have been looking towards the strong women they were raised by — mothers, grandmothers — and pulling from their legacies for their own children's names.
In addition to 1930s babes who grew up to be 20th century feminist heroes, there are a number of names on this list that are, like, super-historical. Like 14th century historical. And that, I think, is proof that while the feminist movement hasn't been around for that long, women have been fighting against constrictive social norms and systematic abuse since pretty much the beginning of society. And that fact makes me weirdly emotional, but mostly filled with pride.
A top 10 name in the 1930s that continued its reign through the early 1960s, Joan means "God is gracious." Though there are a whole lot of Joan-named humans you could name your kid after (Joan Rivers, Joan Baez, Joan Jett), my personal favorite is Joan of Arc. You know, the teenage, French, female peasant who became a canonized Roman Catholic saint, war hero, and overall badass in the 1400s.
Yes, Betty is generally considered a nickname for "Elizabeth," but in the 1930s, Betty was the second-most popular name for girls. Sure, you could associate Betty — which means "pledged to God" — with Mad Men's Betty Draper (I wouldn't, but, um, whatever), you could also take a look at Betty Friedan, the women's rights activist, founder of the National Organization for Women, and author of The Feminine Mystique, which is casually credited with sparking the second-wave feminism movement.
Josephine, which comes with a slew of cute nicknames (JoJo, Joey, Josie, Jo), was a popular name throughout the first half of the 20th century, and it's become a moniker for strong women throughout history. Josephine Baker, for example, was a groundbreaking performer who first hit the stage in the 1920s. Baker utilized burlesque, dance and comedy to create a unique routine that launched her to success, particularly in Paris. She also famously never relied on a man for financial support, which was incredibly rare during her era.
Though Thelma seems hella old school, it's actually pretty new when it comes to long-term popular names. British writer Marie Corelli is generally credited with inventing the name Thelma in 1887 in her novel, aptly named Thelma. Though parents naming their kids Thelma in the 1930s probably just thought it sounded nice, contemporary parents have a more feminist-minded point of reference: the seminal, fierce female friendship film Thelma & Louise . If you have not seen this movie, do so immediately.
Johnnie is a cute, gender-neutral name now and it was a cute, gender-neutral name in the 1930s, when "Johnny" was #78 for boys, and "Johnnie" was #199 for girls. Right on, Gramps and Gram. Right on.
Yes, I know that Emma is super popular right now and has been for a while, and thus we are all drowning in potential "Emmas" to name our kids after (like contemporary feminist Emma Watson). But Emma was also popular in the 1930s, and though there is zero proof of this, I'd like to believe that it was because of Emma Goldman, labor activist, free love proponent, and mama of anarcho-feminism.
Lucy is on the rise throughout both the U.S. and Europe right now, and its "parent name," if you will, Lucille (which means "light"), was #85 for baby girls born in 1930. You know who was just beginning her rise to super-stardom in the 1930s? Lucille Ball, who broke barrier after barrier for female comedians and was the star of I Love Lucy, the comedy voted the "Best TV Show of All Time" in a 2012 survey conducted by ABC and People magazine.
OK, the reason I am including Patricia on this list of feminist names is actually because of a nickname of Patricia, but whatever. Patti Smith, poet, writer, visual artist, muse and queen of androgyny, continues to be a force to be reckoned with. Nothing too '30s-specific about that, I just love her so much.
I only just learned about Margaret Cavendish, subject of Danielle Dutton's recent novel Margaret the First (which is incredible and you should all read it) and godmother of science fiction. Yep, that sometimes snooty, male-dominated genre owes its existence to 16th-century-era "Mad Madge." She was a remarkable woman. Margaret Cavendish was the first British woman to write published works. She rolled up to events with black stars painted on her cheeks. One time, she showed up to the theatre in a topless dress with rouged nipples. I want to be her.
I periodically work as a bookseller because I'm a huge literary nerd, and any time someone asks for resources on feminism, I tell them to begin with Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 and preached against the systematic under-educating of women. As it so happens, Mary was the #1 most popular baby name in the 1930s.
Hey, Gloria Steinem. Your name means "glory" in Latin (could have probably guessed that), it was super popular in the 1930s, it was made extra-famous by Patti Smith's cover of Van Morrison's song "Gloria," and let's not forget, it was also popularized by...you. You know, you, Gloria Steinem, queen of contemporary feminism, overall badass. Good job.