why “mrs” and “miss” are always wrong

wedding table card

“Mrs” always bothered me, even during that brief time I was an ultra-fundamental christian (I may write about that some other time ;D ), though at that time I wasn’t sure why. “Mrs John Smith”… really? Do you not exist as an individual?

Ms doesn’t have as long a history as Miss or Mrs. Though its origins are elusive, it appears to have first been proposed as an alternative in the beginning of the 20th century. It’s used commonly today when the marital status of the woman in question is unknown.

Let’s look at the Emily Post Institute for the rules on addressing correspondence. At the top is the header “Addressing a Woman” (nice that we’re first!). We scroll down through all the complicated situations: single, married, separated, divorced, widowed, etc, etc. The next header is “Addressing a Couple”, which seems even more complicated, what with all these women doctors demanding their earned titles. So next should be—nope, it’s “Business”. That’s it, the end.

Why is it men are always addressed as Mr? It’s because men are people. Men are individuals. When you are a man, you make yourself. You define yourself.

When you are a woman, you are defined. And when it comes to addressing a woman, you are defined by whether you are taken or available. Whether or not you are owned.

When you introduce yourself as “Mrs Smith”, you are conveying your owned status. You are telling the world, “I belong to my husband. I am taken.”

When you introduce yourself as “Miss”, you are telling the world that you are available. That you want them to know that you are on the market—that you define yourself by this search.

Another thing about Miss—Miss is used for children. When Miss is used for an adult, you are still identifying yourself as a child.

If women want the world to see them as individuals—to define themselves instead of letting the world define them by their availability—then Ms is the only correct way to identify yourself and other women. I challenge you to only use Ms when identifying yourself and addressing others, from today forward.

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7 Comments

  1. Noticed said,

    March 8, 2010 at 6:46 am

    Thanks for this.

    I’ve long preferred the Ms. title, but never put my finger on the “defining yourself” vs. “being defined by others” dichotomy.

    As someone who kept her name when I got married, I still get a kick out of the difficulty people seem to have when addressing letters to my husband and me.

  2. dreamingiris said,

    March 8, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    Thanks for your comment =) I’m not married, but I’ve told people that I plan on keeping my name if I do, and some of the reactions have been priceless! I would think people would be used to it by now.

  3. Nanette said,

    March 8, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    A well argued opinion, but let me offer you a different perspective to show why I think your “always wrong” is… well, wrong.

    As a child (I am 51) I was taught to address non family adults as “Mr” or “Mrs” as a sign of respect. Many white children were taught to only accord that respect to white adults, whereas Black (or other of color) adults were to be addressed in whatever manner the white child felt like – sometimes that worked out to calling all non-white adults by their first names, no matter how those adults preferred to be addressed or defined.

    That’s one point. The next is the long – very, very long – history of white erasure or ignoring of the existence Black families, particularly intact Black families, marriages, so on. Slavery ended long ago – the sense of ownership some white people feel over various Black people, their lives, their families, their traditions, their self-definitions so on, continues to this day. You see it all the time in news reports or in other venues, both blatant and subtle. An example of the latter:

    During the 2008 primaries, someone (I can’t remember who or what publication) wrote a story on something or other, in which they mentioned – all in a row – Mrs. Bush, Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Obama. See what they did there? Who were they disrespecting in that formation, if anyone? And in what way?

    Anyway, not to go on and on, but in any case I would be reluctant decide for anyone else how they should be addressed. What may seem to you to be a sign of respecting their individuality – addressing someone who has introduced themselves as Mrs by Ms instead – may instead be looked at by some, especially those with a history, as a vile insult.

    • dreamingiris said,

      March 8, 2010 at 6:25 pm

      Nanette,
      Thank you so much for comment. I had no idea of the history of these terms in regards to race. I’m very new to feminism, and I’m trying to teach myself everything I can about feminism, racism, homophobia and transphobia, and more. As a young person (25 this month), I haven’t experienced all the changes in society you have and I really appreciate your perspective.

      I agree with your statement: “I would be reluctant decide for anyone else how they should be addressed.” I believe everyone has a right to define themselves. I’m still somewhat divided on the issue, though. Should I address a person the way they want to be addressed if I feel it is detrimental to the state of women—to the way society sees women? I honestly am not sure.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment =)

      • Nanette said,

        March 8, 2010 at 7:05 pm

        Hi dreamingiris,

        Happy birthday 🙂

        We are all learning as we go along, so no worries. While the whole “Mrs, Miss, Ms” thing has never been all that important to me, for whatever reason, I think it may be more detrimental to the state of women to take even their small choices away from them because you think you have the better idea. And you may at that, but still.

        I live in California where “Ms.” is pretty much the default; however, if someone says they prefer to be called “Mrs.” I just switch to that. It doesn’t bother me because there can be other reasons besides identity and ownership for someone preferring that form of address. The history I mentioned above, but also possibly a sense of partnership with their spouse or something. Or take newly married (and newly allowed to be married) lesbian couples who may thrill at the idea of being addressed in a way that was not even (legally) possible a few years ago. I’ll gladly address any who want to be as Mrs (and the ones who don’t, I wont). It’s not the same dynamics as there is no male involved, but unless we get each woman’s life story before addressing her as she wishes to be addressed (and why should we?), it’s difficult to tell if the address is demeaning or affirming to them or to women in general.

  4. March 12, 2010 at 5:07 am

    My Partner and I don’t use the Mr/Mrs/Ms tags at all. We use our full names instead. My partner has a name which is not her birth name making the Mrs/Ms tag inappropriate. This works very well for us and we are happy with it. I find that these days the tags are being used less. For example, when I write to someone I use the full name because that way you can’t offend anyone.

    • dreamingiris said,

      March 12, 2010 at 9:16 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Graham! I think that’s great that you don’t use them at all. I think the ideal would be either no tags at all, or if there was one generic term of respect for everyone. The term “-san” in Japanese is a perfect example of this. It conveys respect and formality, and can be used for anyone and everyone, regardless of gender.


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