Ideally I think we could do away with suffixes altogether. Photo: michela ravasio
Ever since I got married and didn't change my name, I've hovered over the title box on application forms. Ms, Mrs, Miss? There seems no good reason to be Mrs Oakes, I didn't marry Mr Oakes. Am I too old for Miss, too married for Ms? Then a quick segue into a rage: why does this form need to know if I'm married at all?
The history of these titles is this: they all derive from the word 'mistress' – which has different connotations these days. But forget those for a moment and imagine how Game of Thrones it would sound to enter a room and be announced as 'Mistress Oakes'. I digress. Fourteenth century dictionaries tell us that 'Mrs' originally meant a woman who was skilled, who governed or taught. Or who was a whore or concubine. (Way to mix it up, guys.) By the 17th century it had transitioned into solely indicating she was married. Miss, on the other hand, has always meant a woman was yet to tie the knot. Both were used as shorthand to indicate whether a woman belonged to her husband or her father.
'Ms' has a more colourful history. It was literally a suggestion made in an op ed in 1901 in a Massachusetts newspaper. According to historians, the anonymous writer made "quite the splash" suggesting that, "everyone has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden 'Mrs' is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title 'Miss'."
Indeed. 'Ms' (pronounced 'Mzz') was offered up as a "more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation." Progress! Despite the story going 'viral' 1900's-style and appearing in papers from Iowa to Minnesota, the term was largely forgotten until it was revived again by a total badass named Shiela Michaels in the 1960s.
Michaels was a 22-year-old feminist warrior and civil rights worker from New York City who saw the word 'Ms' on a piece of her roommate's mail. While at first she shrugged it off as a typo, it soon became a catalyst for a decade-long, one-woman campaign for change. The New York times says,
"The turning point, came when she was interviewed on the progressive New York radio station in late 1969 or early 1970... During a lull in the show she plunged into her impassioned plea for Ms. Her advocacy finally paid off. The following August, when women's rights supporters commemorated the 50th anniversary of suffrage with the Women's Strike for Equality, Ms. became recognised as a calling card of the feminist movement."
But just as some women (unnecessarily) fear the label 'feminist', the awkward-to-pronounce 'Ms' has also had a history of being shunned. It's not just women who don't want to self-identify as feminists in their Netflix application that don't like 'Ms'. Look no further than the style guides of major news outlets for the ways we try to avoid it. The Economist states that it will use the title a person adopts, but warns that 'Ms' is an "ugly" title. The UK Telegraph says that Ms should only be used if a subject requests it herself. The Sydney Morning Herald shares a similar stance, stating the title is used "only when the woman concerned is known to prefer it, or when reasonable effort to find out the preferred honorific has failed."
There's no arguing it doesn't roll off the tongue. I recently started volunteering at a primary school and was introduced as Miss Oakes, I can tell you first hand, it's pretty hard to get second graders to get on board with the 'Mzz' sound.
Being married is important to me but it is by no means a great achievement by which I want to be identified or judged or something that I think is the business of electricity and gas companies. While in most aspects of women's lives choice is paramount, when it comes to a title I'd like to argue that fewer choices would be more powerful. If it's not necessary for men to indicate or withhold their marital status then why should we?
Ideally I think we could do away with prefixes altogether. If we really need to push on so that students have something to call teachers, and dignitaries can feel appropriately elevated then I think we women should have one uniform title like men. One that does not indicate marital status. Like the op ed columnist back in 1901 that floated the idea of 'Ms', I'd like to put forward a few potential options. We revert to 'Mrs' for all women of any marital status (its meaning has evolved before, it can again), we all embrace the 'ugly' word 'Ms' for the perfect catch-all term that it is, or this: wild card option - we drop all of the current options, forget their rich and varied history and proudly pronounce ourselves Mistresses one and all.
Follow Sarah Oakes on Twitter @Sarahoakes