7. womens status: Miss Mrs and MS

This is the manuscript blog; Best read in sequence so start with 1 and work your way through. Enjoy!

I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to avoid being called MRS and there are good reasons for this. I want to be my own person and not defined in relation to a man. But as I was growing up I noticed there weren’t that many options when faced with official forms or customer service people. Miss or Mrs – that was it! (My interpretation of these ‘honorifics’ was that they signaled that I was either looking for a man, had found one, or wasn’t able to catch one. None of which was flattering.)

One (rationalized) motivation for embarking on my PhD was that if I got it – then it would be possible to get round the obstacle of declaring my status when I could put ‘Dr’ on all official documents that asked for titles! Yet despite the fact that ‘Dr’ figures prominently on my Qantas Club card, these days I am always greeted as MRS: (It would be considered an insult at my age to call me Miss I suspect – and it is clearly considered polite for staff to use one or the other!) I’m almost tired of protesting that I am not married, and that I voluntarily don’t have a husband.

This is not an overreaction. While we might not register these relationships of women to men at a conscious level – they still work to make man the mainstay and woman the appendage: (though this is rapidly changing as the information economy advances).

If you want some measure of how fundamental Mr was to Mrs you only have to look at the fuss that there was when term Ms was widely adopted in the 1970s; it disrupted the normally unquestioned social order and therefore was denounced and ridiculed.

I know that it was once a form of respect to address an older woman as MRS, but this is the 21st century. And it’s about time we looked more closely at why women are defined by three titles – and what effect this has on how we are seen and valued:

MR IS THE NOUN: IT STAYS THE SAME –

Women, however orbit round the man,

and depending on their relationship to him  – are

Miss,

Mrs  – or occasionally

MS.

Woman – no matter the title, is always the satellite and never the centre.

In the mid 19th century, when she was in her fifties, the famous English political commentator Harriet Martineau, wrote to all her friends and colleagues informing them she was too old to be called Miss any more. To preserve her dignity, she said, she wanted to be addressed in the future as MRS Martineau. She did not link Mrs with marriage as we do now.

dale spender - whats wrong with women

Actually this was not such a bold move. For centuries the custom had been to use the terms Master and Mistress to name those who were in charge of the house. The Master was the authority figure who ruled overall – and the Mistress was in charge of the domestic arrangements.

Over time Mistress had been shortened to Mrs, and for those who didn’t have aristocratic titles, this was a term of respect: Harriet Martineau wasn’t married, she was notorious for not keeping house – but she was determined to have the dignified identity that went with age and achievement.

She wanted to be MRS – without the man. But while her declaration was accepted then — things were about to change.

Word meanings have a habit of evolving according to the needs of the times and when in the 19th and 20th century, ‘childhood’ for example was invented, young people started to be seen as individuals in their own right.  So Master became the correct form of address for a young male (of a certain class) and Miss for a young female – where both were presumed to be unmarried.

While England was mainly a rural and semi-village/town-based society, where everyone knew everyone else’s business – there had been no obvious need for designations that indicated who belonged to whom. But with industrialization, and the great migration from country to city  – and life among strangers – there was a pressing demand to define relationships in order to avoid any ‘misunderstandings’ or misbehaviours,

By the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, Mrs became the easy way to identify which man had rights over which woman.

Miss meant unmarried;

Mrs meant wife.

(And mistress started to mean something else entirely.)

Men – who stood in their own right – didn’t require any markers that indicated whether they were married, single, predatory, adulterous, dangerous or divorced.  If they lacked formal titles such as Sir or Lord etc – they were known respectfully as Mr!

As the standard bearer for humanity  – men’s marital status – their relationship to a woman or women  – does not need to be declared:  and it plays no part in determining their maleness.

And it is this absolute inability to escape the clutches of this relationship to the male that I find positively galling. My adult identity/ status/ personal domestic arrangements are fundamentally determined by a man.

At an ‘advanced’ age the title Miss can make a woman appear pitiful, no matter what she does or who she is (as Piers Morgan revealed when he asked Miss Condoleeza Rice did she still have hope?). Miss is a value judgement over which the woman has no control. It is one of those invisible ties that keeps pulling her down, undermining her sense of competence and confidence. It is an indication of immaturity, of self indulgence (being a ‘miss’)  – not a grown up! Because she lacks a man as an anchor!

Mr however never loses face: it isn’t associated with age, or success with the ‘ladies’ – or a place in the world. It is a constant and unchallenged assurance of position and identity that women do not have. It reasserts the lofty heights from which men survey the world below: it works to hold women back rather than – as Sheryl Sandberg proposes – to ‘lean in’.

I actually thought the problem was on the way to being solved when in the 1970s, independent women took matters into their own hands and reclaimed the term Ms. Many women were recently divorced and thought it was absurd that their only choice of status on official forms was ‘married’ or ‘single’: were they or were the not ‘owned’ by a man?

Arguments were put forward for it to become legally possible for women to act like men, to stand in their own right and to use one only one term – MS!

And it was widely adopted  – for a while – in popular and official use. (I used to be called Ms then at the Qantas check-in desk when there was a desk to check in.) Ms was the title of the very successful feminist magazine in the United States: Ms magazine which survives to this day began life with the opening statement –

Ms. is being adopted as a standard form of address by women who want to be recognized as individuals, rather than being identified by their relationship with a man.” -Ms. Magazine editors 1971 (Gloria Steinem)

There were many people who didn’t like this new-fangled term – which ironically is the oldest abbreviation of Mistress. Some complained that the word was ugly – others that the spelling didn’t indicate how to pronounce the word  – and this from a population that had no difficulty with the beauty or the pronunciation of   Mr and Mrs!

There were purists who accused women of vandalizing the language – but I don’t recall anyone coming right out and saying that they didn’t like it because it changed women’s status: I don’t think I heard parliamentarians protesting at the use of MS on the grounds that it gave women existence in their own right instead of the old relationship that indicated male ownership. In fact I don’t know what explanation PM Howard used to justify throwing out the term chair person (introduced by the previous Labor government) and defending the return to ‘proper parliamentary language’ such as Chairman etc.

But I know what happens when the language is used to put women back in their place. And I know the arguments that men have put forward to justify their own visibility and authority, and the fuss that has been made when there have been attempts to overthrow their centrality and put them in the shadows.

Not that I think all women’s meanings are untainted. If Jane Grey (who comments frequently o nthis topic)  IS a lady – I don’t recommend her definitions!

As anti-God language has seeped into our culture’s communication, Christians have often adopted it without question… the title “Ms.” now holds a prevalent place. Whether we have been conscious of it or not, when we use “Ms.,” we are using a word symbolizing autonomy, the opposite of obedience to the law of God.

When faced with the question, Mrs, Miss, or Ms, think carefully about what you use. If you enjoy autonomy, if you support the feminist movement, if you really couldn’t care less about identifying yourself with your father or your husband, then go ahead. “Ms” was made for you.

But if you are a God-loving, Bible-believing, authority-honoring daughter or wife who loves her influential role in society as a woman under authority, then take your “Mrs” or “Miss” and embrace it [1]http://janegrey.hubpages.com/hub/Mrs-Miss-or-Ms

Personally, I think the future is on my side: the legalization of equal marriage might not make a difference to the title and status of men – but I don’t think many lesbian partners will each embrace ‘Mrs’ and define their marital status  and   identity in relationship to unnamed men.

Of course it will be much easier for gay married couples however who get to keep their title as Mr and identify themselves with male authority and heads of the household; they can both be masters in their own home.

I do however wonder about the recent following announcement in the Daily Mail (London).

Daily Mail –May 2013

A British local council will start including the honorific Mx on official forms to in a bid to be more accommodating to the transgender community.

Campaigners say that Mx – short for Mixter – is a gender neutral alternative to Mr Mrs Miss and Ms

Brighton and Hove City Councillors transexequality panel said the lack of honorific options on current forms does not provide for people who do not identify as a male or female.

(Quoted in Courier Sunday Mail, 5th May 2013)


 

Comments

  1. says

    In the 1970s my mother was an agent for a linen catalogue. The parcels would arrive addressed to Mrs. Judy Heslin. My father, a man’s man, complained and insisted the parcels be addressed to Mrs. Les Heslin. My mother duly passed this request onto the suppliers and the next parcel to arrive was addressed to Mr. Judy Heslin. I still laugh about it to this day.

  2. Andrew says

    What need do we have of these titles at all? I mean one could argue that Mx etc are still forms of discrimination based on status, being less than Dr, Rev, Lady etc.

    • Lesley Campbell says

      I agree. I use Ms when I must but increasingly just use my name. I declare my privilege – I am independent and an individual not defined by any man.

  3. Denise Lovric says

    For some decades I have been annoyed and irritated that a person has to identify themselves using these gender based terms or “titles” at all.
    When it is required to identify specific gender eg; medical records, passport, insurance etc., surely identifying the physiological gender is all that is required.
    Thoughts?

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