So France is doing away with the mademoiselle, officially at least. It begs the question should we in the English speaking world follow suit. Of course, for the French there’s no middle ground. They don’t have that truncated, rather weighted alternative “Ms”. Women who do not warrant a Dr or similarly specific honorific are stuck with describing themselves by which side of the matrimonial fence they happen to occupy. It’s not a position men ever have to clarify – even historically, when there may have been a world of difference between the Masters, Misters and Esquires in the room, you wouldn’t have been able to tell by whether there was a doting wife waiting for them at home simply by a formal introduction. It’s funny how some things linger.
Of course, back then, it all came down to worth, how much respect the person you were addressing was due. A man who was addressed as Esquire, for example, was generally a man of means, landed but not titled. By the same logic, since a woman gained a firmer footing in society once she had been passed from her father to her husband, it made sense to distinguish between those who’d hooked their ticket out and those still waiting on the shelf. The omission of that identifying middle letter was a radical step – assuming a woman’s worth was not simply dependent on her husbands. It took a while to catch on.
I’ve always assumed that “Ms” was a construct of the feminist movement in the 60s or 70s and certainly it wasn’t until then that those radical little letters got some traction. I’m neither a philologist nor a linguist so I’m not getting into etymology here but it seems logical that “Ms” was a compromise that occurred to several forward thinking minds over the years, certainly this New York Times article from 2009 places it as far back as 1901. Given the meaning of the word, it’s hardly surprising it’s gathered a bit of baggage knocking around for over a century.
I was very small when I first heard the word Ms and even then I knew it was quite a powerful little word, certainly a lot more combustible than “Mr”. It was a word you didn’t call someone unless invited and when a woman described herself using it then you knew she was doing it for a reason. I formed the idea that a Ms was a independent, strong, glamorous creature in a whole different league to the fluffy Misses and frumpy Mrses. Now I was making these assumptions in London in the 70s and 80s, and the women I was making them about were all actresses or journalists or writers so my views could have been a little slanted. But early assumptions tend to stick and it never occurred to me, once I reached form-filling age, to use any other honorific but “Ms”. I also might have been a little influenced in my career choice.
Even when I got married I didn’t drop the Ms. I didn’t change my name either but that’s a whole different post. It just never seemed relevant. I love my husband but he doesn’t define me. I don’t consider my worth any different because he’s around. I’m me and that’s all there is to it. I’m always surprised when anyone suggests the word has negative connotations – I just assume we’ve moved past all that. Of course the very fact that I’m writing this post and asking this question goes to prove that we haven’t but what can I say? I’m an optimist. I’m also happy to describe myself as a feminist and don’t qualify my use of the term by specifying whether the first letter is upper or lower case. But I know there are plenty who disagree.
I’ve been corrected on several occasions when I’ve automatically used Ms when naming a witness in a trial. In each case they would have preferred “Mrs” and have tended to be of an older generation but when I could I’ve always made the change. I use “Ms” when I’m writing to be neutral, but ultimately it’s up to each of us how we choose to be addressed.
So what does “Ms” conjure up for for you? Do you picture boiler-suited man haters or dour killjoys? Does it matter? Is officialdom so out of touch anyway that it doesn’t matter a damn what bleeding box you tick? Do you revel in “Miss” or “Mrs”? Do you care?