“Why it’s time to recognise the feminist power of ‘Ms’”

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Lucy Mangan
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I feel, in the wake of the death of the woman who popularised it, the need to apologise for my years of benighted, anti-‘Ms’ sentiment. American feminist Sheila Michaels introduced it, via an eight-year campaign, to the wider world in the Sixties, to give women an alternative title to ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ so that – like men – they did not have to divulge their marital status.

It was part of the wider feminist point that no woman should be defined by her relationship to a man. I have to confess that, for most of my life I dismissed ‘Ms’. Like many others, I saw it as an irritating affectation – an overreaction by precious types to a tiny problem when there were so many others more deserving of our time and energy.

Using ‘Ms’ gives me a valuable measure of privacy, autonomy and freedom – not just from other people’s expectations and prejudices but also from my own.

Then my friends started getting married. And as names suddenly began to change all around me, as email addresses kept being amended, making me feel like I was writing to a blurred, shadowy version of the person I knew, I began to appreciate the power of names and titles and their effect on us.

At one point, I noticed a bank statement at my newlywed friend’s house addressed to a stranger and pointed out helpfully that she had mistakenly opened someone else’s post. “Oh no,” she said. “That’s me now.”

She laughed. I shivered.

My consciousness/hackles raised, I began to notice how ridiculously often we are required to supply our marital status to people. I can just about see why, for all sorts of legal reasons (which probably themselves don’t stand up to scrutiny, but that’s a rabbit hole to disappear down), it might be necessary on medical forms, but anything beyond that? No. I once tried to buy an oven and the computer wouldn’t move on unless I ticked the Miss or Mrs box.

Why? Did it not think singletons were worthy of quality white goods? Did it want to make sure I was only going to be making meals for my husband after his hard day’s work? Or did it think I was planning to have sex with the oven and didn’t want to facilitate adultery?

We may never know.

What rankles most with me is having to define myself as husbanded or not in order to buy train tickets. I’m constrained enough by your parsimonious seat allowance, thank you. So by the time it was my turn to take a trip up the aisle, I was ready to cling for dear life to my surname and anything else that would help me maintain the identity I had forged over the 30-odd years before a bloke with whom I could just about bear to share a duvet and TV remote with had entered my life, flat and vagina (in roughly that order).

Using ‘Ms’ gives me a valuable measure of privacy, autonomy and freedom – not just from other people’s expectations and prejudices but also from my own.

If I get called “Mrs Mangan”, I don’t recognise the figure this conjures up – a tired woman with grey hair and greyer hopes, just about held together by the elastic waistband of her skirt. (That’s not my mother either – she was Dr Mangan, and many’s the irate conversation she has had over the years with people who automatically wrote ‘Mrs’ instead, erasing her profession at a stroke.)

My husband is someone I’ve chosen to live with, not someone who defines me in any way. If he had wanted to try to, I would never have given him the position. And thanks to one woman’s campaign 50 years ago, I have a valuable weapon to repel all those who would like to let him. I’m sorry it took me so long to realise it.

So rest in peace, Sheila Michaels. We’ll carry on the fight from here.

Images: iStock