“And is it ‘Miss’ Wilkinson or ‘Mrs’?" the woman serving me at my local bank asks. "It's ‘Ms’,” I reply. She gives me a strange look, then responds coolly: "I'll put ‘Miss’. ‘Ms’ is only for divorced women and you look too young to be divorced.”
Following the death of Sheila Michaels – the US feminist who campaigned tirelessly to popularise the title ‘Ms’ – it’s incidents like this that make me question how much has changed since she began her campaign in 1961. Michaels had a simple dream. A dream to address the misogynistic idea – inherent within the titles “Miss” and “Mrs” – that women should only and always be defined in terms of their relationship to the men in their lives. But 56 years on, many people here in the UK are still unclear on what “Ms” stands for, associating the title with "maiden aunts", "spinsters" or "divorcees" (all terms with negative connotations that are used to discriminate against and demean older women). "I use ‘Ms’ as I prefer not to disclose my marital status,” 30-year-old Karen Scammell tells me. "However, most people I have discussed this with believe it can only be used if you are divorced."
Having recently tied the knot myself, I’ve been astonished by the sheer number of people who assume that when you get married you become “Mrs” by default. This is evidenced by the cards and letters I've received to Mrs Ben Nunn (not a person), Mrs B Nunn (not me), Mrs Nunn (my partner's mum) and Mrs Wilkinson (still not me).
Historically speaking, the whole question of honorifics is only a recent one. "All of these words – ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Ms’ – are abbreviations of the same word: ‘mistress’,” Amy Erickson, an economic and social historian at the University of Cambridge, tells me. "In the seventeenth century, ‘Mistress’ or ‘Mrs’ was an exact equivalent of ‘Master’, signifying a wealthy man or woman who employs servants or apprentices – so it was a status title. Ninety-five per cent of the population were known only by their name.”
The 18th century saw the rise of the businesswoman, which meant more women taking up ‘Mrs’,” Erickson explains. The gentry didn’t much like this and wanted a way of differentiating single gentry women from the riff-raff, so they invented ‘Miss’, “but it wasn't until the 19th century,” Erickson tells me, “that the majority of the population started using these titles”.
Women who simply ask for the same privilege as men – who are born ‘Mr’ and die ‘Mr’ – can be accused of trying to ‘hide’ their marriage
Titles became bound up with women taking their husbands’ names, “a peculiarly English phenomenon”, Californian-born Erickson points out. “It has to do with property law, because England was the only country in Europe where the husband took all of the wife's property – and he didn't just manage it, he owned it.”
“Of course, in European languages,” she notes, “everyone uses the equivalent of ‘Mrs’ – France is ‘Madame’ on all official forms, and in Spain everyone is ‘Señora’.”
But the UK still hasn’t caught up and women using “Ms” as a more neutral alternative to “Miss” or “Mrs” often find that it provokes the opposite reaction in others. "I once used ‘Ms’ when I got the impression the person I was talking to was trying to find out my marital status for no valid reason,” one friend tells me, "and the person I was with asked if I'd decided to become a 'raging feminist’.”
What’s more, women who simply ask for the same privilege as men – who are born “Mr” and die “Mr” – can be accused of trying to “hide” their marriage. “I think that's something that women who don't use ‘Mrs’ – and even more so who don't change their names – get thrown at them a lot,” Ceri Law, an academic from Chelmsford, observes. “It gets implied that they're somehow ashamed or ambivalent about their marriage and even partner!”
Of course, another solution would be to have no titles at all. Erickson suggests: “We can just use names – I mean we did for centuries. Titles are hardly necessary – it's just a cultural habit.” This could provide a welcome solution for many people whose gender identities don’t match those they were assigned with at birth, too. “If you're non-binary, that sort of gendered language always causes problems”, says Jamie Pallas, a communications and project officer for Gendered Intelligence, an organisation that aims to increase understanding of gender diversity.
But, equally, some trans people view titles as a positive thing. “They let people give a signal to the world about how they identify,” Pallas adds. As a trans man, Pallas uses “Mr” himself, but has friends who use the gender neutral “Mx”.
And with titles looking set to stay for the foreseeable, Sheila Michaels’ equal alternative for women surely deserves more airtime. For Erickson, in today’s society it’s a no-brainer. “I'm technically ‘Dr’,” she admits, “but I use ‘Ms’ wherever possible instead to make sure that it gets widespread coverage.”
“Speaking of coverage, do we need another ‘Ms’ campaign?”, I ask Erickson. “Hmm. It could be interesting,” she replies. “The main opinion-formers here are the news media, so getting them to use ‘Ms’ as standard unless requested otherwise will have the biggest impact.” This was certainly true of Michaels' campaign, which gained serious ground after making it on to the front cover of The New York Times in 1986.
Meanwhile, those of us who believe that Michaels’ vision is still worth fighting for can all do our bit – at home, at work and when dealing with officious bank clerks, too.