Monday, October 26, 2009

A happily married Ms.

In its Sunday magazine yesterday, The New York Times published an interesting article on the genesis of the title "Ms." I had always thought the title to be a result of the second-wave feminist movement, but it seems people were advancing the idea of a title for women not contingent on marital status as long ago as 1901.

In the Nov. 10, 1901, edition of The Sunday Republican of Springfield, Mass., tucked away in an item at the bottom of Page 4, an unnamed writer put forth a modest proposal. "There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill," the writer began. "Every one 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. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts."
How to avoid this potential social faux pas? The writer suggested "a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation," namely, Ms. With this "simple" and "easy to write" title, a tactfully ambiguous compromise between Miss and Mrs., "the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances." The writer even gave a pronunciation tip: "For oral use it might be rendered as 'Mizz,' which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis' does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike." Read more...

OK, that wasn't the most gender equality-centered argument, but it was 1901, so...

Despite the article in The Sunday Republican, "Ms." was rarely used as a title for decades:

It was certainly unknown, in 1961, to Sheila Michaels, a 22-year-old civil rights worker in New York City, who one day spotted it on a piece of mail that her roommate received. In fact, she initially took it as a typo, albeit a felicitous one. Fiercely independent, Michaels abhorred having her identity defined by marriage. Struck by Ms., she became a one-woman lobbying force for the title as a feminist alternative to Miss and Mrs.

This NYT article got me thinking about my personal preference for the term "Ms." Well, I prefer it as much as I prefer any title. The whole notion of Mr./Ms./Mrs./Miss seems antiquated. I can't think of the last time I referred to someone as Mr. or Mrs. unless they were friends of my parents or my friends' parents. I can't think of the last time anyone called me Mrs. unless the person was under 18 or a someone in the service industry. That kind of formality just isn't done least where I'm from. We call our bosses, our colleagues, our neighbors, even new acquaintances by their first names. There's really no reason to get too bothered about whether folks call me Mrs. MarriedName or Ms. MaidenName-MarriedName, which I prefer. And I don't get too bothered. But I do prefer "Ms."

I don't understand, in this day and age, why women need be defined by whether they are married or not. Some of us will never marrry. Many of us don't want to ever marry. Too many of us still can't get married because of our sexuality. And, for damn sure, in 2009, most women who are unmarried would scarcely call themselves "maidens." The idea of tagging a modern woman with the "Miss" tag until (presumably) she becomes a fully-actualized adult only upon marriage is both icky and idiotic.

Also, I love my husband to death. I am fully committed to being his partner for life. That said, I don't identify with Mrs. MarriedName. I am my husband's wife and a part of his family, but that is not all I am. The person that I was pre-marriage still exists. I am still a part of my extended maternal and paternal families, and these are still the families I identify most with. Their stories are my stories. This is, in part, why I chose to (inconveniently, it seems) hyphenate my last name. It is also why I find the "Mrs." label that somehow privileges my marital status strange and uncomfortable.

I welcome anyone to call me by my first name, or "Tami," my "for short" name. If last names are involved, Tami MaidenName-MarriedName works fine in our informal world. But if you must use a title, consider me a happily married "Ms."


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