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
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
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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