A few years ago I was filling in a form for a new bank card and the first section is to fill in my personal details. I crossed the ‘Miss’ box for my title not thinking twice. I had always identified as Miss and thought that Ms was just a term for an older woman – and had never considered it further. But for some reason that day I was curious, so I Googled what it actually meant. The definition of Ms is ‘a title used before the surname or full name of any woman regardless of her marital status.’ I was pretty shook that this was even an option. I had just assumed that at all times of identifying myself, I had to disclose my marital status. But why, if men don’t?
Since that moment, I’ve identified as Ms and get pretty annoyed when people assume I am a Miss. It is the norm, but I don’t think it should be. And I think if more people were aware of what Ms meant, or the connotations of a woman’s title having to always disclose their marital status, more of us would identify as Ms. I’ve converted quite a lot of my friends to do the same thing because lets be serious, why does it matter what our marital status is? And why should we be disclosing this on forms and to people we’ve never met?
Origins of Titles
The origins of the Mrs/Miss/Ms title comes from the 1500s as a shortened version of Mistress, originally meaning a female employer of servants (which would typically be the wife of the man running the household) or an unmarried woman who was having an affair with a married man e.g. a single woman living her single life and married men being unable to control their sexual desires. Mrs typically meant an older woman and Miss meant a younger woman, but as time went on these titles became linked to marital status. The origin of Mr is a shortened title for Master, a title which every man gets to enjoy whether married or not. Seemingly, whether a man is married or not isn’t important. Legally, for women it is.
It was the feminist movement in the 1960s, specifically Sheila Michaels, who turned the term into a symbol signifying a woman’s right not to be defined by any relationships to men. I thank Michaels greatly for that. Ms is essentially the equivalent to Mr, and we should be shouting about it and using it more. Apparently, you should use Ms when ‘you are not sure of a woman’s marital status, if the woman is unmarried and over 30 or if she prefers being addressed with a marital-status neutral title.’ I think we should scrap the first two considerations. We should all prefer to be addressed with a marital-status neutral title, given that men do just that.
Gender in Language
I know that a lot of people won’t think that language is really important when it comes to discussing sexism, but language in itself is an implicit representation of the role of women in society. At least, it represents the role of women back in the day and a distinct lack of willingness to change language in an attempt to equalise genders. At most, it has a real social impact on women in the workplace, job market, politics and more.
English is not a grammatically gendered language, so it’s interesting to pick up on male bias which is more covert. The conscious effort to raise awareness about the ‘default male’ in the English language recently has hit a significant backlash. Trying to exchange mankind to humankind, fireman to firefighter and wingman to wingperson really shouldn’t be so offensive. Other covert male-centric language is common. When writing, if referring to a person who we do not know the gender of, you refer to them as ‘he’. I remember when I first started my first professional job as a Legal Assistant and I learnt that emails addressed to an unknown recipient should be addressed as ‘Dear Sirs’. I didn’t quite understand this, but complied nonetheless. I have since rethought my stance and now address emails and letters as ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. I would address emails as ‘Dear Madam/Sir’ but I guess that would be too controversial.
Globally, most languages are gender-inflected, where nouns, verbs etc. all have a gender. Take Spanish for example (as it’s the only language I really know anything about). Referring to a male teacher as ‘los profesor’ or a female teacher as ‘las profesora’ (o is masculine and a is feminine) isn’t too controversial, albeit still the default is masculine and adding an ‘a’ on the end makes it feminine. A group of female teachers are ‘las profesoras’. The problem shows when, if there is a group of 85 female teachers and 1 male teacher, the group automatically then gets called ‘los profesores’ (note the change from an ‘a’ to an ‘e’), immediately cancelling out the 85 women because a man is present. It might be small to some, but it’s pretty archaic if you ask me and more should be done to change that.
It’s easy to see this as just a symbolic problem with no real impact, but there have been studies that show that more ‘masculine coded’ job descriptions can actually impact whether a woman applies for a job, for example if the term used for the job is generic masculine. The European Parliament recommended in 2008 that job offers in countries with gender-inflected languages write (m/f) after the job title to explicitly make clear that the job is open for both men and women. This shows to me that there is a problem, given this attempt to reconcile it.
Interestingly, a study in June 2014 found that hurricanes given a female name cause significantly more deaths than those with a male name, as names lead to gender-based expectations about how severe a storm will be. The study showed groups deeming a hypothetical storm Alexander significantly riskier than hypothetical storm Alexandra, despite being given the same information regarding its potential strength and effects. So this does go to show that implicit sexism is important and can actually cost lives.
Change Your Title
So, language is a minefield and I don’t even know enough about it to write loads about the intricacies. But by all means I will be researching more. Really, I just want this piece of writing to be a call to action for all women to think carefully about their titles – or at least be aware of what they represent. And I want men to stop hypothesising on whether a woman is married or not when thinking about her title. Lets make it the norm to assume that a woman is Ms until corrected. Lets make it the norm for a woman to identify as Ms – she can then actively decide if she wishes to identify as Miss/Mrs. I assume this is an easier solution than creating a separate title for men based on whether they are married or not – I can’t imagine the uproar if we tried to introduce a second title for men.
I don’t know about you, but I will be called Ms O’Neill until I die. Yes that’s right, I don’t plan on changing my surname either (if I even decide to get married).