Meghan Markle smiling
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OPINION

Meghan Markle’s “Ms” is her most important title

Is the fact that the future royal is not going by “Miss” a feminist statement, asks Ella Risbridger

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By Ella Risbridger on

There is a lot to love about wedding announcements. Yesterday’s royal wedding announcement is no different, really: two people, very happy, shiny ring, kiss, eternal love. You know the drill.

But there was something about the press release that caught my eye: two letters, very simple, very small. Not a big deal. (They felt kind of like a big deal to me.) It was Meghan Markle’s title: Ms Meghan Markle. Ms Markle. Ms Markle.

I have never known whether I ought to be a "Miss" or a "Ms". I’ve stuck with "Miss", mostly. "Ms" has always seemed kind of like a statement. A feminist statement and one I don’t necessarily have the shoulder pads to pull off – not "Mrs", not "Miss", but none of your business. My relationships are none of your business.

And when we’re talking about Meghan Markle, currently centre stage not for her impressive career but her choice of fiance, “Ms” feels like a small but necessary corrective.

Sitting among the Highnesses and Graces of the British aristocracy, these two letters speak to something important about what Meghan Markle might bring with her – they have a rich history of old-school feminism, working women and sisterly solidarity.

It’s important to note that “Ms” isn’t the default, either. House style guides differ: The Guardian suggests using “Ms for women subsequently unless they have expressed a preference for Miss or Mrs”, but The Telegraph grudgingly accepts that “Ms is permissible out of courtesy when it is the title that the person herself requests be used".

You have almost certainly – if you’re a “Ms” – had to correct people on this. You have had to request it over and over. You have had to push for it. It is still not – in Britain at least – the norm.

Kate Middleton, you might remember, was always “Miss Middleton”.

It’s clear: 'Ms' isn’t the mark of a divorcee. It never has been. This is for everyone. Without reference to their 'domestic situation'

There’s a popular idea that “Ms” means a divorcee – but there’s surprisingly little to back that up. A handful of forum threads, discussing ways to address a divorced woman, claim that “Ms” is obligatory for anybody not wanting to go by her ex-husband’s name. This doesn’t seem like much to go on. Worse, it doesn’t seem at all in the spirit of the title.

First formally proposed in 1901 (in a small newspaper from Massachusetts), the title “Ms” was supposed to be “a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation”.

“To call a maiden Mrs,” the article went on, “is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss.”

Inferior! Insult! Whatever kind of woman you are, you can always be wounded by a comparison to the other kind. These titles aren’t facts of nature, remember – they are human ways of ranking and stacking power. Who matters more? What kind of woman is the right kind of woman? Are you the right kind of woman?

It was picked up by 1950s secretaries to make it simpler to address women in business. Enough women were involved in business that “debating between Miss and Mrs” was taking up valuable time; furthermore, there’s an implication there that marital status isn’t what matters any more.

There’s an interesting little parallel here with 18th-century Britain. Dr Amy Erickson, speaking to the New Statesman, explains that “socially ambitious young single women used ‘Miss’ as a means to identify their gentility, as distinct from the mere businesswoman or upper servant”. If “Miss” has held on to these connotations – of social climbing, gentility and a rejection of business – what might “Ms” mean?

No surprise, then, that the title was chiefly popularised by second-wave feminists, aiming explicitly for “a feminist alternative to Miss and Mrs”. It’s clear: this isn’t the mark of a divorcee. It never has been. This is for everyone. Without reference to their “domestic situation”.

And then there’s Debrett’s. Where else but Debrett’s to parse the semantics of a royal engagement announcement? For 250 years, they have been the ultimate arbiter of British etiquette. Fortunately, their view was clear: “The only question is whether she prefers to be Mrs, Miss or Ms… if in doubt, ask the woman in question.” Ask the woman in question! What a simple and brilliant idea – ask her. Just ask her.  

It’s that kind of agency – that shoulder pads, shoulder-to-shoulder, women-in-business, solidarity agency – that gives me just a little bit of hope. It’s that kind of just-ask-her woman that I want to be, too. And so, as Meghan Markle inevitably becomes a Duchess (or Princess Harry, apparently), I might just change my own title, too. Shake off that Miss (used historically only for little girls) and let myself become, at last, a Ms.

@missellabell

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Photo: Getty Images
Tagged in:
Feminism
meghan markle
Modern marriage

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