What’s Amiss with “Ms.”

Mrs Hannah More

The idea was first proposed in 1901.   An anonymous writer suggested in the November 10 issue of The Sunday Republican of Springfield, Massachusetts, that all women be called by the title “Ms.”  The goal was to honor the female sex while avoiding the embarrassing mistake of calling a maiden “Mrs.” or a matron by the “inferior title” of “Miss.”  Somehow, the notion never caught on and the embarrassments continued unabated.

Until the 1960s, that is, when civil rights worker Sheila Michaels, inspired by what she assumed was a typo in her roommate’s mail, made it her personal campaign to erase the titular distinction that, to her thinking, made women’s identity dependent on their marital status.  The “Ms.” crusade came into its own when it received the imprimatur of feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who then made it the title of the feminist magazine she founded a few months later.  From that time on, more and more women self-identified as “Ms.” and the new honorific found its way onto standard forms, questionnaires, and mailing lists.  Victory.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to respectability.  Many Americans remained attached to the older titles that, if they had been for a while banished from the aforementioned forms, now worked their way back in and took their proud place alongside “Ms.”  There were now three options and three potential stumbling blocks.  As divorces proliferated, so did the opportunities for embarrassment, although they were now likely to hinge on calling a woman “Ms.” who demanded to be a “Mrs.” or vice versa.   We have at last reached a state of equalitarian befuddlement in which no one knows what to call anyone of the female persuasion.

Allow me to suggest a solution.  Let’s call all women “Mrs.”  I have never liked “Ms.”  I do not like linguistic gimmicks and the pronunciation mizz grates on the ear.  On the other hand, the requirement that women must earn their adult title by getting married grates on the conscience.  Furthermore, in an age of rampant divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation, distinguishing the married from the “un-”   has become pointless.  Being of a certain age, I find that young people, if uncertain which title to bestow on me, generally select “Mrs.”  Most likely the English language would have evolved in this direction on its own had not “Ms.” muddied the water.

If you, gentle reader, dislike this proposal of mine because you are attached to tradition, consider that there is an older tradition of calling single women “Mrs.”  The eighteenth-century English reformer Hannah More never married, but she was called “Mrs. More” as a gesture of respect.  Sheila Michaels herself became aware of this practice through reading the novels of More’s contemporary, Henry Fielding.  Etiquette guru Miss Manners has noted that, historically speaking, the married have had no monopoly on “Mrs.”

So, ladies and gentlemen, let us adopt the universal “Mrs.”  It’s sensible, satisfying, and sonorous.  And it will rid us all, once for all, of those mizz-erable miss-takes.

5 responses

  1. In my opinion, I find this entire Mr., Ms., Miss., Mrs. a bit overrated. I go out of my way to not use them, but when I have to, I use Ms. But I understand where you’re coming from. A unanimous title would be a good move.

  2. I propose eliminating Ms, go back to Miss and Mrs, and adopt an equivalent moniker which, along with Mr, designates a man as married or single.

    • Oui, Monsieur.
      And I’ve been waiting for a responder to bonk me with the reminder that, a few centuries ago, “Mister” and its variants were not titles for all males, but only men of status. In the case of women, social status and marital status were intermingled. Hannah More, after all, was gentry and behaved accordingly. A universal “Mrs.” would simply be one more step in the march of democratization.

  3. This is a wonderful article, full of information I hadn’t known, and funny in a tragic kind of way. Thank you, “Mrs.” Frear, for your contribution to the literature on the subject! By the by, aren’t German ladies called “Frau” when they get older, whether married or not?

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