[sixties-l] Who are you calling "Ms."?

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Thu Aug 03 2000 - 02:14:30 CUT

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    Who are you calling "Ms."?
      Margot Mifflin, Salon
      July 31, 2000
      It started at a children's backyard birthday party when a little girl I'd
    never met ran up to tell me about a puppet show, stopping
      first to ask my name. I gave her my given name, but she said her mother
    wanted her to use people's "grown-up names -- like
      Mrs." When I told her she could call me "Ms. Mifflin," I saw by her
    confusion that this hadn't been offered as an option. So I
      found myself on my knees explaining it, secretly hoping that her mother
    wouldn't come after me with a garden hose for imparting
      this feminist fact of life to her 5-year-old daughter.

      In the next few weeks, I became acutely aware of how often I was not
    addressed as Ms. socially. School officials, car
      mechanics and telemarketers all used Mrs. or Miss, hitching it
    arbitrarily to my surname or my husband's.

      I began asking friends when and by whom they are called Ms. For most, it
    happens only at work. An administrator at my
      daughter's elementary school told me that although many teachers choose
    Ms. as a courtesy title, most students call them Mrs.
      whether they're married or not. And so it seems that Ms. -- popularized
    in the '70s and intended to elide marital status as Mr.
      does -- has become the norm in the professional world. But it hasn't
    stuck socially. Why?

      Certainly, Ms. carries '70s feminist baggage that's anathema to
    post-feminists and anti-feminists alike: To them, it's not just the
      name of an eye-crossingly boring magazine, it's a title only
    fist-thumping proselytizers adopt.

      They might be surprised to learn that modern feminists did not come up
    with Ms. in the first place. The title's earliest documented
      appearance was on the 1767 tombstone of a Massachusetts woman named Sarah
    Spooner. Some scholars have theorized that it
      was first used, like Miss and Mrs., as an abbreviation for Mistress, a
    14th century translation of the French maitresse (a term of
      respect for women of prestige).

      In the 17th century, Mrs. was used for adult women, married or not; Miss
    was used for girls. Only in the late 18th century did
      these titles begin to denote marital status, possibly as a result of the
    Industrial Revolution, during which women began working
      outside the home, and needed their sexual availability clarified.

      Though Ms. has been attributed to first-wave feminism, its use and
    specific meaning during the late 19th century are unclear. In
      the 1940s, however, it was appearing in secretarial handbooks as a
    counterpart to Mr. Second-wave feminists embraced it, and in
      the debut issue of Ms. magazine in 1972, the editors explained the title:
    "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." By the 1980s,
      according to public opinion polls, about a third of U.S. women endorsed
    its use.

      In an increasingly egalitarian culture, with more women marrying later
    (or not marrying at all) and retaining their birth names
      after marriage, Ms. is more fitting than ever. It's equally useful for
    divorced women who shed their married names.

      But for a courtesy title intended as a neutral counterpart to Mr., Ms. is
    larded with sticky, often contradictory associations. For
      example, a 1998 survey of 10,000 Midwesterners revealed that women who
    use Ms. were perceived as better educated and
      more independent, outspoken and self-confident than those who use Mrs. or
    Miss. But they were also presumed by the
      respondents to be less attractive and less likely to be effective wives
    and mothers.

      Of course, the resistance of traditionalist folk to Ms. comes as no
    surprise. What stumps me is the schizoid use of the term by
      female professionals. How does one explain the career women who use their
    birth names at work and their husband's names
      socially? What about the divorced businesswoman who told me that her
    teenage son's friends call her "Miss Thompson," which
      she considers to be a nice conflation of Ms. and Mrs. Or the New York
    Times weddings page, which is filled with female
      lawyers and executives who "will use [their family names] professionally."

      Neoconservatives, socialites and the pre-feminist generation aside, why
    would a 21st century woman choose to identify herself
      foremost as a wife? And if she does, why only away from work?

      Hoping for illumination, I turned to an arbiter of social etiquette, Miss
    Manners (columnist Judith Martin), and found my identity
      crisis theory immediately confirmed. I dialed her number wondering
    whether to address her as "Miss Manners" or "Ms. Martin,"
      but found that her secretary referred to her as "Mrs. Martin."

      In print, Miss Manners has called Ms. "a clever, useful invention." But
    she wisely cautions that "in this period of transition, it is
      courteous to address people in the fashion with which they feel
    comfortable." When I asked her if this transition would conclude
      with the exclusive use of "Ms.," she said: "If we're lucky, 'Ms.' will
    eventually become the standard female title."

      Miss Manners is usually a champ when it comes to balancing good sense
    with good form in tidy explanatory packages. But when
      I asked her about her personal choice, she let me down. "In the spirit of
    tolerance," she answered, "I use them all: Mrs. for my
      married name, Miss for my pen name and Ms. for anyone who cares to apply
    it to either. Out of pity for those who are sick of
      hearing explanations, I will refrain from offering any." So much for the
    imminent standardization of the clever, useful title.

      One impediment to our widespread acceptance of Ms. is the cloud of
    misunderstanding that still surrounds it. A 1998 study by
      Barbara Kelly of "folklinguistic attitudes" to the use of the term Ms.
    showed that many people link it to marital status. They
      assume it refers to a divorced, widowed or unmarried woman; that it
    deliberately conceals marital status, highlights single status
      or shows that a woman is not committed to her husband.

      How ironic that a title created to neutralize the issue of wedlock came
    to be so elaborately misconstrued in that very context.
      And let's not chalk this up to men: Fully 49 percent of the women
    interviewed by Kelly didn't understand how Ms. should be

      Stranger yet is the fact that many interpretations of female courtesy
    titles directly contradict each other, indicating that each has
      its own social Rorschach effect. One woman told me that Ms. makes her
    think of "a stuffy socialite who lunches at Le Cirque."
      Another said, "I do know some women who 'tolerate' being called Mrs.
    (with the husband's first and last name) in social circles.
      This is common among the wealthy, where for some reason they can't break
    tradition and give women individual identities."

      One woman who uses Ms. surmised that some people use Mrs. because they
    don't want their husbands to think they're "passing
      themselves off as not married." (Would we ever suspect a Mr. of doing
    this?) Some women change their titles by the hour or the
      year (Ms. until 5 p.m., Mrs. after hours; Miss to people who knew them
    before they were married ...), suggesting multiple
      personalities fragmented along the lines of work and marriage.

      The contradiction I see has nothing to do with taking a man's name, nor
    does it apply to befuddled youths who misuse Ms. simply
      because courtesy titles in general are in decline. It's the conditional
    use of Ms. that jars, implying that sexual/marital neutrality is
      suitable in the workplace but not in the outside world.

      Working women who shift to Mrs. once they are away from their desks
    assuage a distinctly Victorian fear: that professional
      achievement will magically unsex them. As Carl Jung put it: "In taking up
    a masculine calling, studying and working in a man's
      way, woman is doing something not wholly in agreement with, if not
    directly injurious to, her feminine nature."

      So the Ms. who socked it to the district attorney at work and goes home
    to become Mrs. proves that she hasn't sacrificed her
      marriageability on the altar of her career. Her feminine currency is
    validated with every utterance of the title, because at its
      crudest, Mrs. trumpets sexual status: taken.

      In the context of women's history, the fortification of this home/work
    divide is a dangerous business: It contradicts the logic
      underpinning some of the most important family-friendly initiatives on
    the public table: flextime, parental leave, job sharing and
      on-site day care -- all designed to allow personal and professional
    identities to overlap by strengthening connections between

      This division reinforces the Midwestern stereotype that an independent
    woman (Ms.) and a good wife (Mrs.) can't be the same
      person, and it's the reason Hillary Rodham, lawyer, was reborn as Hillary
    Rodham Clinton, wife, when her career became a
      potential liability for her husband's. At its most extreme, this
    work/home, public/private dualism drives every repressive patriarchy
      in the land, from the Mormon Church to the Taliban.

      On its evolutionary journey from feminist red flag to Everywoman courtesy
    title, Ms. still roils with semiotic undercurrents
      churned up during feminism's second wave. But that's no excuse for using
    it selectively. Tell me you reject Ms. because you're
      not a feminist, or that the title is tethered to a movement that
    overlooked you, or that your mother shoved it down your throat. Tell
      me that your marriage is your greatest accomplishment, or that you were
    married in 1956. But don't say Ms. describes you at
      work and not at home. It's just so 20th century.

      Margot Mifflin is the author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of
    Women and Tattoo. This story originally
      appeared at Salon

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