Women at War

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 188th installment in the series.

June 24, 1915: Women at War 

By mid-1915 most Europeans understood that they were in the grips of an epochal cataclysm, as nation states turned modern industrial productive techniques to the task of killing men en masse and met with breathtaking success in this aim—if not the strategic ends it was meant to serve. The Great War was also destroying old ways of life, undermining institutions and traditional social structures and feeding an expectation of sweeping change in all aspects of society and culture. Nowhere was this truer than in the always fraught field of gender relations. 

On June 24, 1915, the British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (who’d been arrested in May 1914 for taking part in a protest demanding the vote for women, image above) gave a speech at the London Polytechnic institute that was revolutionary in its patriotic fervor. Her shocking suggestion? The notorious rabble-rouser made headlines by demanding that women be allowed to work in factories in support of the war effort. Pankhurst told her audience of mostly middle-class women and their male supporters: 

Women are eating their hearts out with desire to see their services utilised in this national emergency… we realise that if this war is to be won, the whole energy of the nation and the whole capacity of the nation will have to be utilised in order to win… We here and now this afternoon offer our services to the Government, to recruit and enlist the women of the country for war service, whether that war service is the making of munitions, or whether that war service is the replacing of skilled men who have been called up, so that the business of the country may go on. 

Pankhurst acknowledged that this idea was controversial, albeit perhaps a bit mockingly: “I expect I am the biggest rebel in this meeting and am one of the biggest rebels in the country.” But she also directed fierce criticism against the male establishment for its shortsightedness in leaving a huge resource untapped: “How is that men can be so behind as not to see that the fire of patriotism burns in the hearts of women quite as strong as it does in the hearts of men.” And she noted that some of the country’s leaders, including Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and the newly appointed Minister of Munitions, David Lloyd George, also supported the idea; in fact, following Pankhurst’s speech Lloyd George allocated £2,000 to help organize marches and demonstrations in favor of women going to work in factories (below).

Social Coercion 

In fact all the combatants had already mobilized women to help the war effort in a number of important ways. From the very beginning of the war, officials encouraged women to aid the recruitment effort by urging men to enlist, and shunning those who didn’t; one British campaign asked women to pledge “never to be seen in public with… any man who has refused to respond to his country’s call.” In Britain social coercion extended to the notorious practice of women and girls shaming “slackers” by handing out white feathers (symbolizing cowardice) to young men of military age in public. 

Many women responded to these calls: Canadian soldier, Louis Keene, noted during leave in Cheshire, “The young ladies in this neighborhood have no use for a man who is not in khaki, and with customary north of England frankness tell them so.” But there’s no question that most women—even ones who encouraged their male family and friends to enlist—deeply regretted the necessity, especially when patriotic duty conflicted with the maternal bond. Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, recalled meeting a young U-boat officer who breezily asserted: “‘We either go to the bottom like a stone and are drowned instantly, or else we come back victorious.’ I saw such a sad look come over his mother’s face as the laughing boy said this…” 

Female Soldiers 

Although this practice was virtually unknown elsewhere, in Russia small numbers of women actually enlisted as soldiers, bore arms, and served at the front. In November 1914 one Russian woman, Sofia Pavlovna Iur’eva summed up their motivations as she declared her intention in a letter to the Women’s Herald, a monthly magazine: 

I too burn with the desire to be useful to my dear homeland, but I do not feel called to be a nurse: I want to enlist as a volunteer in the active army… Do not think this letter is a hoax, or the whim of an unbalanced mind—no, in this I see my calling, my purpose, my happiness! I want to shed my blood for the fatherland, to give my life for my homeland!

One of the most famous female soldiers, Maria Bochkareva, known by her nickname “Yashka,” received special permission from Tsar Nicholas II to enlist, and later in the war formed an all-women’s “Battalion of Death,” whose exploits captured the popular imagination in 1917-1918 (below). 


But there were other, less famous examples of women serving in the ranks of the Russian Army. In 1915, Ruth Pierce, a young American woman detained in Kiev on suspicion of being a spy, saw a female soldier whom she described in a letter home: 

When we left the monastery, a group of wounded soldiers were just entering. With them was a woman in a man's uniform. Her hair was curly and short, and her chin pointed. Her feet looked ridiculously small in the heavy, high, soldier's boots, and in spite of a strut her knees knocked together in an unmistakably feminine manner. But the men treated her quite as one of themselves. One soldier, who had had his leg cut off up to the thigh, supported himself by her shoulder. I have seen several women soldiers in Kiev, and they say there are many in the Russian army. 

Nursing 

Across Europe, women also volunteered by the tens of thousands as nurses and assistant nurses in military hospitals (there were still very few female physicians or surgeons at this time, due to their traditional exclusion from the upper ranks of the medical profession). In Britain alone, around 24,000 professional nurses volunteered to work in military hospitals from 1914-1918, while 90,000 young, mostly middle class women joined Voluntary Aid Detachments formed by the Red Cross or Order of St. John, where they served as nurses’ assistants and ambulance drivers, among many other functions (below, a VAD recruiting poster). Around 35,000 men also served in VADs. 


In the chaotic early days of the war, British women volunteers played a major role in organizing nursing for wounded men on the Western Front, but inevitably their efforts eventually came under supervision by male officers and civilian officials—an outcome that obviously grated for women used to working autonomously. One volunteer nurse, Sarah Macnaughtan, noted with some bitterness that women were unceremoniously pushed out of management positions: “One sees a good deal of that sort of thing during this war. Women have been seeing what is wanted, and have done the work themselves at really enormous difficulty, and in the face of opposition, and when it is a going concern it is taken over and, in many cases, the women are turned out.” 

Although conditions weren’t as bad as in the trenches, nurses and VADs often worked in circumstances that were dangerous and extremely unpleasant by any standard, and especially for young women used to the comforts of middle class English life. When working near the front lines they were exposed to shellfire and bombs from German airplanes, and they were also exposed to typhus and other diseases by patients who returned from the trenches covered in body lice. They often lived in unheated tents and worked for days at a time without rest during major battles (not to mention the emotional stress of tending to an endless procession of mutilated and dying men). As the war dragged on they contended with shortages of food and other necessities, and an alarming number of VADs died from disease or simple exhaustion during the war or shortly after it ended. 

Unsurprisingly, given the risks many women who wanted to volunteer also faced opposition from male family members whose “permission” they still had to ask, in keeping with the ingrained sexism of the times. On July 19, 1915, Joseph Vassal, a French doctor serving in Gallipoli, wrote to his adored English wife expressing alarm and disapproval over her desire to go on a medical mission. Vassal employed every rhetorical trick he could in an argument liberally mixing guilt, frank self-interest, and not a little chauvinism and condescension: 

Let me tell you that I do not approve, and that I don’t want you to leave Europe with a war mission. I am absolutely put out and annoyed. I don’t understand where you get such ideas. There are enough men to support the horrors of war without adding women… From an egotistical and personal point of view I could not, without great anxiety and agitation, see you exposed to grave dangers. I cannot even bear the thought of it. There are enough fighters in your family and mine. And then imagine that one day I might arrive ill or wounded at Toulon or Marseilles. You would be gone!... I beg of you to keep quiet. I am excessively annoyed at what you are trying to do.

Replacing Men

While nursing was a traditionally female occupation, beginning in 1915 women were also encouraged to enter new, traditionally male areas of employment, most notably in manufacturing and agriculture. This was a major shift, reversing (at least temporarily) a century of conventional wisdom and cultural mores.

Throughout the Victorian era and into the 20th century, most people took it for granted that women had no place in manufacturing, as they supposedly lacked the strength and intelligence required for skilled industrial labor. Young women were permitted to operate looms in textile mills, as weaving was a traditionally female pursuit, but they were expected to leave this employment after marriage in order to raise families. Otherwise women’s employment was confined to other traditional jobs like taking in washing, mending clothes, and domestic service (as well as prostitution, though never officially acknowledged). The idea of women working in a steel mill or shipyard would have struck most 19th century Britons, men and women alike, as ludicrous as well as dangerous. 

The move came in response to an impending economic and military crisis resulting from the huge manpower demands of the First World War. By June 1915 there were over 2.2 million men serving in the British Army, and enlistment would raise this to around 2.7 million by the end of the year; after conscription was introduced in 1916, the figure climbed to 3.9 million by the end of 1917, not including colonial troops from the Dominions. At the same time losses were mounting rapidly: by the end of 1915 the United Kingdom had suffered around 550,000 casualties, including over 100,000 killed on the Western Front alone. Most of the wounded were unable to reenter the labor pool (indeed, most recovered wounded returned to the front).

As a result, by mid-1915 around 2.5 million men had been removed from the pre-war labor force of 13.9 million, which included 10.6 million men and 3.3 million women; in other words, the male work force had been reduced by a quarter, and the loss would rise to nearly half by the end of the war. There was simply no alternative but to fill this crippling shortfall with women workers—even if it meant allowing them into traditionally male occupations. 

Matters came to a head during the “Shell Scandal” in the spring of 1915, when British publishing tycoon Lord Northcliffe used his newspapers to accuse the government of throwing away the lives of British soldiers because it failed to produce enough artillery shells, leading to bloody defeats at Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge. Facing growing public scrutiny of his management of the war, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith dismissed his Liberal cabinet and formed a new coalition government including Lloyd George, an opposition Radical who would organize munitions production. Lloyd George headed a new Ministry of Munitions, which would oversee the British government’s own munitions factories and was also granted far-reaching power to intervene in private industry by Parliament with the Munitions of War Act, passed July 2, 1915. 

The last obstacle to women joining the industrial workforce was potential opposition from the male-dominated British trade unions, which had long sought to protect the privileged position of skilled workers by strict controls on who could hold what job. Historically, this specifically included preventing women on the shop floor, as the unions feared (probably correctly) that factory owners would pay women less for the same work and use this competition to drive down wages. In fact, the oft-repeated notion that women were physically and mentally “incapable” of skilled industrial labor was at least partly an economic gambit to protect men’s wages by exploiting sexist views.

Lloyd George, industrialists, and women activists like Pankhurst finally overcame trade union opposition with a series of compromises that reserved the most skilled (and therefore highest-paying) jobs for men, who were also later excused from conscription to maintain production, and also guaranteed that men who left for the front would be able to return to their jobs when the war was over. In other words, women’s employment was a temporary measure only.   

Nonetheless women’s employment made a lasting impression on British attitudes towards women in the workplace. By 1918 the British labor force was composed of 8.1 million men and 4.9 million women, meaning women’s share of total employment rose from 24% at the beginning of the war to 38% by the end. Within these figures, over the same period the number of women employed in the munitions industry jumped from 212,000 in 1914 to 900,000 in 1918, while the number employed by private engineering firms rose from 170,000 to 597,000. The trend was hardly confined to Britain: in Germany, the proportion of women as a share of the total workforce increased from 22% in 1913 to 35% in 1918. 

War of the Sexes 

The surge in female employment had immediate effects on cultural mores, for example the idea that a male companion was required for travel, as diarist Vera Brittain noted in the first half of 1915: “No one, this time, suggested going with me to London; already the free-and-easy movements of girl war-workers had begun to modify convention.” But this was just the tip of the iceberg: women’s introduction to the workplace also began to change the balance of power between the sexes in other areas—including sex itself. 

Brittain, who became a VAD and started nursing on June 27, 1915, described how the experience of working with wounded men afforded her a very different perspective than other young women of her age:

Throughout my two decades of life, I had never looked upon the nude body of an adult male… I still have reason to be thankful for the knowledge of masculine functioning which the care of them gave me, and for my early release from the sex-inhibitions that even today—thanks to the Victorian tradition which up to 1914 dictated that a young woman should known nothing of men but their faces and clothes until marriage pitchforked her into an incompletely visualised and highly disconcerting intimacy—beset many of my female contemporaries, both married and single. In the early days of the War the majority of soldier-patients belonged to a first-rate physical type which neither wounds nor sickness, unless mortal, could permanently impair, and from the constant handling of their lean, muscular bodies, I came to understand the essential cleanliness, the innate nobility, of sexual love on its physical side. Although there was much to shock in Army hospital service, much to terrify, much, even, to disgust, this day-by-day contact with male anatomy was never part of the shame. 

According to Macnaughtan, also a nurse volunteer, the experience was fairly common: “Dr. Munro told me that last night he met a German prisoner quite naked being marched in, proudly holding his head up. Lots of the men fight naked in the trenches. In hospital we meet delightful German youths.”

The war also produced changes in attitudes about marriage, at least in Britain, as parents showed greater understanding of impulsive, romantic decisions made in the maelstrom of war. This benefited young middle class women like Brittain, who could now have more say in who they married. When Brittain announced her engagement to the poet Roland Leighton in 1915, her parents didn’t object despite his relative lack of “means,” a consideration which had previously trumped virtually every other characteristic, including personality: 

… the War… had already begun to create a change of heart in parents brought up in the Victorian belief that the financial aspect of marriage mattered more than any other. The War has little enough to its credit, but it did break the tradition that venereal disease or sexual brutality in a husband was amply compensated by an elegant bank-balance.

On the other hand, Brittain shared the fear of other women that the war was separating them from their male loved ones not only spatially but spiritually as well: 

To this constant anxiety for Roland’s life was added, as the end of the fighting moved ever further into an incalculable future, a new fear that the War would come between us—as indeed, with time, the War always did, putting a barrier of indescribable experience between men and the women whom they loved, thrusting horror deeper and deeper inward… Quite early I realised this possibility of a permanent impediment to understanding. “Sometimes,” I wrote, “I have feared that even if he gets through, what he has experienced out there may change his ideas and tastes utterly.”

At a lower level of emotional involvement, some women were more apt to show men kindness, and even romantic attention, out of simple pity for soldiers going to the trenches. In August 1915 Piete Kuhr, a 13-year-old girl living in East Prussia, noted in her diary: 

In the evening we all sit on the Wegners’ bench in front of the house singing songs with the soldiers or listening to their stories from the Front. Sometimes the soldiers flirt with Gretel’s elder sisters, but in a nice way, and the sisters put up with it because we all know that the regiment has to go to the Front in a few days’ time and the soldiers will probably be killed.

Other flirtations were apparently more ardent, though equally fleeting. While convalescing at a hospital in provincial England in June 1915, the Irish soldier Edward Roe was invited to tea hosted by two elderly ladies of the local gentry: 

For the past twenty minutes I have been watching the antics of two pretty maids in dainty bibs and frilled caps. They squeezed their heads out of one small window and have been blowing kisses in our direction without cessation… Madam noticed me glance several times in the direction of the maids… Alas, poor maids, they could not withdraw in time. Madam asks me to pray excuse her for a couple of minutes and made for the house. I presume that the maids got a scolding whilst I was sampling the varied brands of confectionery during Madam’s absence.

Human nature being what it is, some men took advantage of the chaotic situation to the detriment of their female partners, aided by limited communications and frequent movement, which made it easier to conceal deception. One Canadian officer, J.A. Currie, recalled one soldier who forged romantic connections with several British women but finally got caught in his web of lies:

In an unfortunate moment he had taken a trip to Paisley and wife No. 1 had pounced on him while he was visiting wife No. 2 and there was a scene… So I suggested to Wife No. 1 that she leave him alone till after the war if he gave her an assignment of his pay of twenty dollars a month. Like a sensible Scotch woman she saw the wisdom of Solomon in my suggestion and accepted it. Wife No. 2 received the separation allowance and the King got the services of a first class soldier and all three interests were satisfied. 

While bigamy (or indeed polygamy) was clearly not acceptable, some wives were willing to accept the fact that their husbands would probably sleep with other women, provided it didn’t become “serious.” The poet Robert Graves, who as an officer was responsible for reading and censoring soldiers’ letters home, recalled one striking example on June 6, 1915: “I had a letter to censor the other day, written by a lance-corporal to his wife. He said that the French girls were nice to sleep with, so she mustn’t worry on his account, but that he far preferred sleeping with her and missed her a great deal.” 

Of course some women inevitably became pregnant outside of marriage—and then had to deal with the consequences alone, as the man responsible was at the front and quite possibly dead. This often meant turning to illegal abortion. In his novel Young Woman of 1914, the German novelist Arnold Zweig described the plight of Lenore Wahl, an upper class Jewish girl who found herself pregnant by Werner Bertin, a Jewish artisan’s son, in the first half of 1915: 

She could not fight for her family’s consent to the marriage in the face of abuse for her misconduct, or by a process of blackmail. But how could she go away and have the child without any money? And where should she go? And how avoid notice? In a little place like Potsdam? What parents would forgive their daughter such a scandal?... “If you don’t survive the war, I should give up. A child would only make things worse.” At present, she said in a level voice, it was no more than a little scrap of flesh that could be clipped off like a fingernail. In times like these one must always be ready to make a move without much luggage. 

Prostitutes 

As always throughout human history, during the Great War some women turned to the “oldest profession” to make ends meet, and this proportion probably increased as shortages grew over the course of the conflict. Although there are few firsthand accounts left by prostitutes themselves, male observers left some impressions which may give a limited idea of their difficult lives. Philip Gibbs, an English war correspondent, talked to several French women who resorted to prostitution because of the war. One explained: 

“It is difficult to live. I was a singing girl at Montmartre. My lover is at the war. There is no one left. It is the same with all of us. In a little while we shall starve to death. Mais, pourquoi pas? A singing girl’s death does not matter to France, and will not spoil the joy of her victory!”… The other girl leaned forward and spoke with polite and earnest inquiry. “Monsieur would like a little love?” I shook my head. 


However other prostitutes seemed well-practiced, especially in the official state-sanctioned brothels established by the French government for soldiers on leave from the Western Front (above, official rates for various brothel services). One Irish soldier, Edward Casey, left a description of his businesslike encounter with a French prostitute which quickly dispels any romantic illusions about the transaction. After standing in line, he first met the elderly “madam” of the house, who inspected his genitals for evidence of venereal disease: 

Opening my fly, pulling out my thing, I noticed her hands were dirty. I must have passed the examination. She held up five fingers and said “francs”. A young girl came, led me by the hand and to a very small room… My Whore was in a hurry, taking off a kind of slip and… lay without any clothes on [and] said, “Hurry! Others are waiting.”… [I felt her] pulling me on top of her, and guiding my stifun [stiff one] into her. She began to move her body in a circular motion, and with[out] making a move I ejaculated. I got the shock of my life: I was finished before I had started. Finished, the girl washed my business [and] said, “You were very quick and very good.” I was hustled out the door and on to the street.

See the previous installment or all entries. 

Star Wars Fans Are Petitioning to See J.J. Abrams's The Rise of Skywalker Director's Cut

Joonas Suotamo, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, and John Boyega in Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (2019).
Joonas Suotamo, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, and John Boyega in Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (2019).
Lucasfilm Ltd.

We've all seen the use of petitions in Hollywood before, such as when disappointed Game of Thrones fans signed the now-iconic petition for HBO to remake the final season of the epic series with "competent writers." Unsurprisingly, the petition didn't work—but it did likely cause some mild humiliation for showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

According to ComicBook.com, a new petition has popped up for another major fandom: Star Wars. This one is calling for the release of the supposed three-plus-hour director's cut of The Rise of Skywalker, which is believed to be director J.J. Abrams's personal telling of the final film in the Skywalker Saga. This new plea for the "J.J. Cut" has already amassed more than 6200 signatures on Change.org.

As ComicBook.com reports, the studio cut Abrams's work down to two hours and 22 minutes to adhere to the estimated patience of the average moviegoer. However, on Reddit, user egoshoppe stirred up some controversy by claiming that Abrams was "devastated and blindsided" by the changes that were made to the most recent film, and that they were made without the director's approval. The person claimed to have gotten information after speaking "with someone who worked closely on the production" of The Rise of Skywalker. Whether or not the claim is true, it has made fans even more determined to see the film's original cut.

Though the Game of Thrones petition didn't work, if enough people come together, maybe we could get at least a bit more footage from The Rise of Skywalker than was released in theaters. The Force is strong with these ones.

[h/t ComicBook.com]

The Real Names of 30 Famous Actors

Brad Pitt promotes Ad Astra at the 2019 Venice Film Festival.
Brad Pitt promotes Ad Astra at the 2019 Venice Film Festival.
Maria Moratti/Getty Images

There’s no business like show business for having to leave your birth name behind. Movie stars throughout the past century have often adopted new names for a ton of reasons, from evading racial bias to pure whim. Here are 30 celebrities who you may not know changed their name, and who you may never look at the same way again.

1. Brad Pitt

One of the simplest stage name changes for one of the most famous men on the planet: It’s difficult to think of Brad Pitt as anything other than Brad Pitt, but the Oscar-winning star of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was born William Bradley Pitt. Does Bill Pitt have the same ring to it?

2. Rihanna

Rihanna attends the "Queen & Slim" Premiere at AFI FEST 2019 presented by Audi at the TCL Chinese Theatre on November 14, 2019 in Hollywood, California
Rihanna attends the Queen & Slim at AFI FEST 2019.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Like Brad Pitt, the actor and singer from Barbados goes by her middle name professionally. She was born Robyn Rihanna Fenty. "I get kind of numb to Rihanna, Rihanna, Rihanna," she told Rolling Stone, noting that her close friends and family still call her by her first name. "When I hear Robyn, I pay attention."

3. Michael Caine

English actor Michael Caine, throwing a punch, August 1965
English actor Michael Caine, throwing a punch, August 1965
Stephan C Archetti, Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Some actors streamline their names to be more memorable, which is what Maurice Micklewhite did when he became Michael Caine in 1954. He considered becoming Michael Scott (that’s what she said), but picked Caine because of Humphrey Bogart’s film The Caine Mutiny. In 2016, after a half-century of using the stage name and being unbelievably famous, Micklewhite finally legally changed his name to avoid hiccups at airports.

4. Audrey Hepburn

A photo of actress Audrey Hepburn
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

The daughter of a Dutch noblewoman, Hepburn was born Audrey Kathleen Ruston and baptized as Edda Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston. Her professional name is sleeker, but it still would have been lovely to see "My Fair Lady starring Edda Hepburn-Ruston."

5. Cary Grant

Cary Grant is pictured in a publicity photo circa the 1940s
Cary Grant is pictured in a publicity photo circa the 1940s.
Getty Images

Hepburn’s co-star in Charade played a man with a lot of aliases, which had to have been at least a little familiar since Cary Grant began life as Archibald Leach. In 1931, Leach impressed the general manager of Paramount Pictures, B.P. Schulberg, enough to score a contract with the caveat that he pick a name that sounded more American. They came up with "Cary Grant" together.

6. Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe
A photo of Marilyn Monroe.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Most everyone knows that Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson and that she was a natural brunette. Before acting, she modeled and sometimes flip-flopped her name, going as Jean Norman. But when she signed with 20th Century Fox, an executive there changed her name to "Marilyn" because she reminded him of Broadway actress Marilyn Miller. Monroe is Norma Jeane’s mother’s maiden name.

7. Albert Brooks

573683
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TCM

Is there any need to explain why Albert Einstein changed his name to Albert Brooks? The legendary comedic factor and filmmaker was born into a showbiz family. His mom was a singer, and his father was a comedian on the radio. His brother, the late Bob Einstein, didn’t have the same need to change his name.

8. Tina Fey

Tina Fey attends the 2018 Tony Awards Meet The Nominees Press Junket on May 2, 2018 in New York City
Jenny Anderson, Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

It seems appropriate that Tina Fey, who is famous for playing 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, is actually named Liz. Born Elizabeth Stamatina Fey, the former head writer of SNL and creator of 30 Rock has used the shortened form of her Greek middle name since early in her career, which kicked off in grand fashion with a banking commercial (and by "fashion" we mean: "Check out that swell vest").

9. Mindy Kaling

Mindy Kaling of 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' speaks onstage during the Hulu segment of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association Press Tour in Los Angeles in 2019
Rich Fury/Getty Images

Vera Mindy Chokalingam got her start doing stand-up, where she noticed that emcees would butcher her last name or mock it, so she shortened it. She also chose to go by her middle name, which her mother chose for her because she watched a lot of Mork & Mindy while she was pregnant.

10. Spike Lee

Spike Lee attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Radhika Jones at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on February 09, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California.
Spike Lee attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, California.
John Shearer/Getty Images

The legendary filmmaker goes by Spike, but his birth name is Shelton, which is also his mother’s maiden name. She gave him the nickname "Spike" when he was a baby because he was tough. With that in mind, "Spike" has been his identity since almost the very beginning.

11. Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman attends the premiere of FOX's "Lucy In The Sky" at Darryl Zanuck Theater at FOX Studios on September 25, 2019 in Los Angeles, California
Natalie Portman attends the premiere of FOX's "Lucy In The Sky" in Los Angeles, California.
Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Getting a professional start at a very young age, the Israel-born Neta-Lee Hershlag was an understudy on Broadway at 11 and starred in the hitman movie The Professional before she turned 13. To protect her family’s identity, she adopted her grandmother’s maiden name as her stage name.

12. Vin Diesel

Helen Mirren and Vin Diesel attend the 45th Chaplin Award Gala at the on April 30, 2018 in New York City
Helen Mirren and Vin Diesel attend the 45th Chaplin Award Gala in New York City.
Jamie McCarthy, Getty Images

“Vin Diesel? Of the New Brunswick Diesels?” It’s no surprise that “Vin Diesel” is a made-up name, but it’s interesting that Mark Sinclair didn’t come up with it because of his acting ambitions (even though he’s been acting since he was a child). Vin Diesel became Vin Diesel when he was a nightclub bouncer in New York City, which is why his name makes him sound like a nightclub bouncer. He’s the one who made us believe a bouncer could become an international movie star.

13. Helen Mirren

A name like Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironov makes it sound like Helen Mirren was born to Russian royalty, but she was the child of an immigrant diplomat-turned-taxi driver in London. Her father, Vasily, and British mother, Kathleen, Anglicized the family name to Mirren in the 1950s. In 2003, after four decades of stellar work (plus Caligula), Mirren was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, making her name even more impressive.

14. Sir Ben Kingsley

Sir Ben Kingsley arrives for the European premiere of "The Jungle Book" at BFI IMAX on April 13, 2016 in London, England.
Sir Ben Kingsley arrives for the premiere of The Jungle Book at London's BFI IMAX.
Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

The celebrated actor changed his name, like so many actors do, as a survival technique. He wasn’t getting stage work under his birth name, Krishna Pandit Bhanji, but almost immediately got roles once he started going by Ben Kingsley. Unlike other actors, Kingsley has completely absorbed the stage name as his own, even signing his paintings with it.

15. Awkwafina

Awkwafina attends the 2020 Critics' Choice Awards in Santa Monica, California.
Awkwafina attends the 2020 Critics' Choice Awards in Santa Monica, California.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Critics Choice Association

The show is called Awkwafina is Nora From Queens because Awkwafina is Nora from Queens. Born Nora Lum, the rapper-turned-actor chose her stage name at 15 and views it as a full alter ego that embodies that wild, teenage energy that she learned to tone down in college. She carried the name over into her acting career for Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians, and The Farewell.

16. David Tennant

David Tennant speaks onstage during the ‘Call of Duty: WWII Nazi Zombies’ Panel at San Diego Convention Center on July 20, 2017 in San Diego, California
Joe Scarnici, Getty Images for Activision

The guy who became an actor because of Doctor Who—and then became The Tenth Doctor and married his favorite Doctor’s daughter, who played his cloned daughter in an episode of Doctor Who—was originally named David McDonald. He picked a stage name for the rather boring (and common) reason that there was already another actor named David McDonald in the union. Since Tennant started working at 16, he did the 1980s teen thing and named himself after Neil Tennant, the lead singer of the Pet Shop Boys.

17. Demi Moore

Actress Demi Moore attends the signing of her memoir "Inside Out" at Barnes & Noble Union Square on September 24, 2019 in New York City
Demi Moore at a book signing of her memoir, Inside Out, at Barnes & Noble Union Square.
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for ABA

Model Demi Gene Guynes changed her name when she married musician Freddy Moore at the age of 18 and held onto the name after their divorce a few years later, having used it for her role on General Hospital. There’s also some confusion about her first name, with some publications referring to her as Demitria despite Moore confirming that Demi is indeed her birth name. Of course, the more popular confusion about her first name can be cleared up like this: It’s pronounced Duh-Mee, not Dimmy.

18. Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton arrives at the 31st Santa Barbara International Film Festival in Santa Barbara, California.
Michael Keaton arrives at the 31st Santa Barbara International Film Festival in Santa Barbara, California.
Jennifer Lourie/Getty Images

Batman star Michael Keaton is an example of an actor who needed to change his name because there was already an actor in the Screen Actors Guild with his birth name. Since actors’ names are their trademarks, it’d be like someone named Coca-Cola wanting to join the Soda Union. When you know that Keaton’s birth name is Michael Douglas, you can probably imagine why he had to pick a new moniker. He thought about becoming Michael Jackson. Ultimately, he went with “Keaton” and not for any particular reason (though there is one pervasive rumor—more on that below). Yet to this day, he has never legally changed it; he still goes by Michael Douglas in real life.

19. Diane Keaton

Diane Keaton at the 2020 Writers Guild Awards West Coast Ceremony in Beverly Hills, California.
Diane Keaton at the 2020 Writers Guild Awards West Coast Ceremony in Beverly Hills, California.
Amy Sussman/Getty Images for WGAW

Ever since Michael Douglas changed his name to Michael Keaton, a rumor has floated around that he chose his now-famous name because of an attraction to Annie Hall actress and all-around titan Diane Keaton. Michael has dismissed the rumor, but not even Diane Keaton is actually a Keaton. The actress was born as Diane Hall; she chose her mother’s maiden name as her stage name. (And yes, the fact that she shares a surname with one of her most famous characters was very much intentional.)

20. Chevy Chase

Chevy Chase attends the premiere of The Last Movie Star in Hollywood, California.
Chevy Chase attends the premiere of The Last Movie Star in Hollywood, California.
Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

The former SNL star's nickname/stage name was given to him by his grandmother, who took it from the medieval English ballad "The Ballad of Chevy Chase." But Cornelius Crane Chase is named for his grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt Crane. It turns out that Chase's Community character’s father being named Cornelius was a nice inside joke.

21. Whoopi Goldberg

Whoopi Goldberg attends Netflix’s ‘Quincy’ New York Special Screening on September 12, 2018 in New York City
Brad Barket, Getty Images for Netflix

Whoopi. Funny name for a funny person (and a serious actress with an EGOT under her belt). She started life as Caryn Elaine Johnson, and her silly nickname-turned-stage name means exactly what you think it means. “I was a bit of a farter!” Goldberg admitted during an interview with Graham Norton. “The theaters I was performing in were very small, so if you were gassy you had to walk away farting, and people would say I was like a Whoopee cushion.”

22. Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers star in Carefree (1938).
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers star in Carefree (1938).
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With a natural gift for performance, Frederick Austerlitz became the most famous American dancer of the 20th century. Like Spike Lee, it was Fred Astaire's mother who changed his name: When the family pursued a vaudeville career for their two children, she dropped the last name and replaced it with Astaire when he was 18.

23. Ginger Rogers

Astaire’s dance partner didn’t go by her birth name either: Virginia Katherine McMath changed her name after winning a Charleston (the dance, not the city) competition in 1925 and heading on tour. Ginger comes from her first name, and Rogers is her stepfather’s last name. She initially toured as "Ginger and her Redheads."

24. Queen Latifah

Queen Latifah attends the 2020 NBA All-Star Game in Chicago, Illinois.
Queen Latifah attends the 2020 NBA All-Star Game in Chicago, Illinois.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

When Renaissance woman Queen Latifah released The Dana Owens Album in 2004, she was being true to her roots. Born Dana Elaine Owens in 1970, she changed her name when she was eight years old after finding Latifah (meaning delicate, sensitive, or kind) in a book of Arabic names at a time when others in her New Jersey neighborhood were switching to names with Arabic origins. When it came time to go pro, she added the “Queen” to evoke strength.

25. Jamie Foxx

Jamie Foxx attends a screening at Cinemark Baldwin Hills in Los Angeles, California
Jamie Foxx attends a screening at Cinemark Baldwin Hills in Los Angeles, California.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

When Eric Marlon Bishop was starting out in comedy, he felt that female comics were put up on stage first since there were fewer of them. Looking for a somewhat androgynous name to misdirect emcees picking which stand-up hit the stage next, he chose Jamie, and he landed on Foxx as an homage to comic legend Red Foxx.

26. Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur at a podium on stage.
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Two things that might surprise you about The Golden Girls star: One, she was in the Marine Corps. Two, she was born Bernice Frankel. She married another Marine, Robert Aurthur, after she was honorably discharged, and modified that new last name to act as her stage name.

27. Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga attends Lady Gaga Celebrates the Launch of Haus Laboratories at Barker Hangar on September 16, 2019 in Santa Monica, California
Lady Gaga attends the launch of Haus Laboratories in Santa Monica, California.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Haus Laboratories

It’s appropriately mysterious that there are conflicting accounts as to how Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta came by her stage name. The root of it stemmed from producer and then-boyfriend Rob Fusari comparing Germanotta’s sound to Queen’s "Radio Ga Ga." Fusari takes credit for the full name, saying his phone autocorrected “Radio” to “Lady” when he texted her one day. (He relayed this version of the story when he sued his ex back in 2010.) Gaga disputes that recollection, however; she says she liked how the stately elegance connoted by “Lady” offset and played with the craziness evoked by “Gaga.”

28. Jackie Chan

Actor Jackie Chan makes a public appearance
Kiyoshi Ota, Getty Images

Peerless as a modern martial arts star, Chan was born Chan Kong-sang in Hong Kong. He picked up "Jackie" while working in construction during college, where he worked with a man named Jack who thought highly enough of Chan to call him "Little Jack." More surprisingly, Chan’s mom called him Pao Pao ("Cannonball") as a baby, and it’s slightly disappointing that it didn’t became his stage name. Pao Pao Chan is an ideal martial arts movie star name. Jackie’s cool, too.

29. Portia De Rossi

Portia de Rossi attends the Nate and Jeremiah for Living Spaces Upholstery Collection Launch at Casita Hollywood on October 3, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
Portia de Rossi attends the Nate and Jeremiah for Living Spaces Upholstery Collection Launch in Los Angeles, California.
Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Living Spaces

Usually aspiring actors will change a name they find clunky to something almost blandly inoffensive. The opposite is the case for Amanda Lee Rogers, who legally changed her name at the age of 15 to the Shakespearean "Portia." "In retrospect, I think it was largely due to my struggle about being gay," de Rossi told The Advocate. "Everything just didn’t fit, and I was trying to find things I could identify myself with, and it started with my name."

30. Kirk Douglas

Some of the time you learn an actor’s real name, and it makes perfect sense why they wanted to make the change. Other times you learn that Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch and wonder why he abandoned the raw power of that name. He grew up extremely poor but was able to attend the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts on scholarship where one of his classmates was Betty Joan Perske (a.k.a. Lauren Bacall).

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER