Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"Ms.": Ending the Miz-ery of the Miss/Mrs. Binary

It may seem like there isn't much in a name or title, but as we saw when Senator Boxer recently insisted on being called by her title "Senator" instead of "ma'am," it is an important part of a person's name that can indicate a lot about them.

Jezebel has a piece today on the first time the title "Ms." was used, which was in 1901! Despite its long existence in our society, the term is still not used all that often. In fact, the New York Times only started using it in 1986 because, according to the letter they sent to FMF President Eleanor Smeal, they believed that "'Ms.' has become a part of the language."

If you think about it, it really is important that our language has a word that does not indicate the marital status of women. As the comments on the Jezebel site show, women appreciate the ambiguity and freedom of the "Ms." honorific, and many express their feelings that Ms. should always be used. When I asked my fellow intern, Maria, how she felt about it, she passionately exclaimed, "I think everyone should just go by 'Ms.' because 'Miss' is a diminutive. We don't distinguish between little men and big men." And we certainly don't address men based on their marital status. You'd think that today we could finally realize that a woman's success and position in life is not based on her marital status.

Another topic that came up in the Jezebel comments was whether or not to take your spouse's name when getting married. I remember talking about this in my Intro GWS course, and a pretty lengthy discussion on the pros and cons of hyphenation versus keeping your name versus creating some combination of your last names. Personally, if I got married, I'd probably keep my last name for several reasons; including that I don't think my position and title should include whether or not I'm married. Does it really matter if I'm married? Why do people need to know? When I think about it, there really is no good reason to not keep my own name.

Without making this the longest blog ever on an honorific, I just want to throw out that while it is pretty awesome to have a term that does not reduce women to a martial status, it might be more awesome and liberating to have an honorific that is gender neutral! I'd be interested to hear what everyone's opinion about this is. What could be a gender neutral title? And, should all women just keep their last names when they get married? Is it not feminist to take a spouse's name? Do you think it matters?


Danielle said...

I like the questions you pose at the end on gender neutral honorifics! The play M. Butterfly toys with this idea, but I think we'd need to use a title that doesn't begin with the letter "M."

I've also heard arguments suggesting using "Ms." automatically connotes a political stance, ie feminazi. Which is still problematic.

What I find truly fascinating is how women of a certain age often continue to use their married names after a divorce.

JenCarl said...

The people who argue that using 'Ms.'automatically connotes a political stance, I've found, are usually men who try to fight against whatever change women make (especially when it's something that changes the way they are viewed in relation to men) or women who don't want to seem like feminists because it's unattractive to men. Of course 99% of the women I've encountered like this would demand the same respect and equality we do from any situation, they just don't want to appear that they care. The other 1% truly still want to live in the matrix and think a woman's place is in the home, etc etc. To them I say: I'm so happy we live in a country where that's a lifestyle you can choose. :)

Becky said...

1) I think the idea of a gender neutral honorific is cool....don't even know where we'd begin, though.

2) The big issue for me, in terms of keeping/changing the last name has more to do with hypothetical children than anything else. I don't feel any great desire to change my name--I LOVE my name--but I DO feel very strongly that I want our family unit to be easily recognizable and named as such...."we are the so-and-sos." I think that's really important. Not to mention traveling with kids is way easier if you have the same last name.

If you keep your name, do the kids get the husband's, the wife's, a hyphenated name, or a whole different name altogether? I know a family where husband, wife, and son all have different last names. That's cool for them--it was something that was important to them and that they were comfortable with--but it's not what I want for myself. I want to maintain and honor my own name and identity....but creating family unity is also really, really important to me.

Criss L. Cox said...

I agree the family (parents and children) should have one last name, but who says it has to be HIS? I'd love to see more couples take the woman's last name as the family name.

I like "Ms.", but it's still just a variation on "Miss", which is a diminutive. How about "Madam"? In politics and such, the man is "Mr." + title = "Mr. President", "Mr. Speaker of the House"; a woman is "Madam" = "Madam President", "Madam Speaker of the House", "Madam Director". Why don't we all take on "Madam" as the female honorific?

(I know it has negative connotations as well, since "madam" was also the title of the woman running the whorehouse, but at least she was a take-charge businesswoman, no?)

WendyM said...

Found a link to someone else discussing the same topic! Check out