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Why ‘Ms’ Is Important

July 9, 2011

(if we are going to continue using titles as a form of address)

I will, firstly, admit I have a strong visceral reaction to being addressed as ‘Mrs’.  If someone refers to me as ‘Mrs’ it is as if they have thrown a racial slur at me (if I were not identified as one of the privileged people by my colour).  I am not saying the two forms of address are equal in impact or intent, of course they are not.   I am simply saying that the reaction I have to the term is as strong.  I accept and understand that mine is a very strong reaction which many, many people will find hard to comprehend or relate to, and will simply perceive as an overreaction.  This blog explains, I hope, why I have that reaction.

It has taken me months to decide whether to write this, because previous statements in public forums have proven controversial and evoked strong reactions from many people who I respect and care about.  Ultimately though, that has shown me just how important this topic is to people.  This is my view and it is absolutely fundamental to my belief in gender equality.  It is at the core of my belief, and is deeply personal to me.

How a woman is addressed has repercussions not just for her but for her entire gender, unlike the title used by a man.  Mr is the title which indicates a boy has become a man, by reaching the legal age of majority, at the moment in the UK being 18 years old.  Master is the title by which a male child is addressed.

Miss and Mrs are titles which indicate whether a woman is married or unmarried; as either ‘owned’ by their husband or father, and in society whether she may be responsible for childcare.  Discrimination with regard to assumptions of a woman’s role in caring for children, and even whether they actually or potentially have children, still happens- if you are a ‘Mrs’ you are less likely to be employed in a full-time career/job because of this.  Employers still prefer to employ a man because they believe a woman will take time off for childcare reasons whether the woman has children or not.  Many people who express a belief in equality to me, have also stated that they can understand why an employer might wish to employ a man instead of a woman, because a woman may take time off to tend a sick child, or require maternity leave, or be less committed to the job because she has other priorities in life.  In other words, they can understand the discrimination that happens and are sympathetic towards it.  Economics becomes more important than equality.

Historically, women have been unable to access the majority of occupations, and are still limited in what they are ‘allowed’ to do by being discriminated against and limited to ‘feminine’ jobs. This also limits men in the fact they are viewed with suspicion if they wish to undertake jobs which are seen as traditionally female. Neither situation is acceptable to me. In a society where single parent households are more common, it is even more important for the genders that they are treated equally in order that they may access benefits such as parental leave from work (not maternity/paternity leave), or have an equitable chance to obtain employment, for example.

This is discrimination, and one way to ensure equal treatment is to have a term which does not immediately show what a woman’s marital status is. This is why the term ‘Ms’ was used so widely in the UK in the 1940s.   A woman’s marital status could not be assumed as the War had resulted women joining the workforce to do what had been the man’s jobs.  It was not obvious or known what a woman’s marital status was and it became obvious that it wasn’t necessary to know and in fact it was detrimental to both the women, and to the moral of the workforce, if it was known.  It was distracting, labelling and discriminatory.  ‘Ms’ was not a ‘feminist’ invention; it came about from necessity resulting from the war and was originally devised by the business world in conjunction with politics. Feminism utilised the term to maintain the equal status it conferred upon the genders.

In fact, the term ‘Ms’ was originally used in the 17th century, but fell out of favour, so is not a ‘feminist’ invention at all. It is a diminutive of ‘Mistress’ which like ‘Mister’ did not convey marital status. It is only as discrimination became more overtly rife in consequence of the fights for equality as suffrage (a movement of all genders, not just women) grew. As ever, as people demand equal rights those who wish to maintain their privilege increase the discrimination.  It always existed but as the fight for rights advanced, so did the opposition and oppression.

It is a woman’s right to choose how she wishes to be addressed.  If she wishes to be known as ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ then I will address her by that title.  I will not take a woman’s right to choose away from her, however much I may disagree with her choice.  I do not believe in oppression, and to remove that right would be oppressive.  However, it is important that a woman understand that by choosing to use one of those two titles, the implications on a wider social scale of her choice are acknowledged.

She will be discriminated against whether she is aware of it or not, and her choice to support inequality of titles is enabling further discrimination to continue within society.  However much activism she may do in the fight for equality, this choice is not part of that fight for equality.  I understand I may not be believed by women who have made this choice, I am viewed as an extremist to hold such strong opinions on the words, and that is fair enough.  It is everyone’s right to define the argument however it fits their social structure.  I have studied the statistics, I have heard the testimony, I know the facts, but as I wrote on my previous blog, the reader to interpret my words through the filter of their own experience and I have no control or say in that.

Words are powerful.  They lead by written example and are accessible by the world when put into a blog.  So this is my summation of my belief.  Master and Mister address a male as a child or an adult.  Miss and Mrs address a woman as ‘property’ of her father or her husband.  The titles are not used equivalently (if they were, this would be a void argument as there would be equality in title address).  They are not equal terms in etymological, legal and social ‘norms’, and do not support equality.


From → Ideology, political

  1. Agree absolutely and think you’ve explained your reasons (coincidentally also mine!) succintly, clearly and perfectly 😀

  2. Tracey Corbett permalink

    I thought I understood, but now I really get it. well done you so explaining so clearly and rationally. You should write more!

  3. I, too, think women have the right to be called whatever is more comfortable for them. I don’t have a problem with Mrs., and given the society we live in, I think it confers privilege in some areas even while being a point of potential discrimination for others. For example, when I sign petitions or send letters regarding marriage equality, I think it’s important for the recipient to recognize that there are straight married folk who think the cause is righteous and important. I think it’s harder for them to say, “Oh, this is just something gay and young single people who don’t really understand what marriage means are talking about, and we can ignore them.” When I sign petitions regarding women’s right to choose in re: abortion, I think it’s important that the recipients recognize that this isn’t just an issue for the young, loose, irresponsible women they imagine are the only ones who want abortions, but rather for all women, regardless of marital status, who expect to retain control of their bodies and their family planning.

    Here in Tucson where I live, I’ve come across a strange verbal habit that I’d never experienced before I lived here, wherein all women are frequently called “Miss.” My students all called me that…and it’s just “Miss,” not “Miss Cunningham.” It happens in the street, too, with strangers. I tried to fight it at first, but then I just gave up. I have slowly over the years started to be called “ma’am,” so I guess “miss” and “ma’am” would be equivalent to “master” and “mister.”

  4. I also have an aversion to the name changing and Mrs tradition prevelent in society and always have (from a young age) once I found out that is whats expected of women. I’ve noticed plently of young women (friends and acquaintences) who have gotten married recently and have done that (and have been encouraged to do so by their friends and family) and I admit that I don’t like it one bit. Give me the Icelandic naming system any day

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