The idea that a woman will change her title from ‘Miss’ to ‘Mrs’ when she gets married is a long-standing one. Here, freelance writer Tracy King explains why she’ll always refer to herself as ‘Ms’, even (and especially) after marriage.
Tradition. Like having sprouts at Christmas whether you like them or not, or waving a little flag during the last night of the Proms. Or, y’know, reinforcing gender norms created to keep women separate and unequal to men.
Trying to dismantle the latter sort of tradition is a bigger faux pas than refusing Uncle Bernard’s special eggnog, even when patriarchy is as bad for you as whatever the heck he puts in that stuff.
There’s no bigger British tradition than a royal wedding, and as I read over the media coverage of Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle, I thought for one brief moment that Britain had collectively moved forward and fallen in line with something I (and millions of women like me) have been saying for years – that the default way to address women is ‘Ms’. I thought this because she was being referred to as ‘Ms Markle’ by palace and press alike.
But then I remembered that before her wedding to Prince William, Katherine Middleton was referred to as ‘Miss Middleton’ absolutely everywhere. Meghan is ‘Ms’ because she was married before. A divorceé – with an extra ‘e’ to differentiate her from a male divorcé.
I’ve been a ‘Ms’ for as long as I can remember, even after marriage. Especially after marriage, in fact. Men do not have to declare their marital status in their title, I reasoned, so why should I? But decades later I still have to say “Actually, it’s Ms” in response to “Miss or Mrs?” Sometimes a form will be missing the option entirely, and I’ll have to write a cross email to the company or organisation explaining that they have no automatic right to know my marital status, particularly if they’re not demanding the same information from men.
It’s only really in newspapers that you see the formal divorceé or divorcé to denote man or woman; in general parlance they’re falling out of favour. This might be because we feel a bit awkward and pretentious saying it out loud, Joan Collins style (“I’m a divorce-aaay, darling”), or it might be that the redundancy of gendering divorce is obvious. And yet society persists in refusing ‘Ms’ as the default.
The politician Miss Anne Widdecombe publicly rejected ‘Ms’ in 2009, declaring that “(Miss and Mrs) have been around for a very long time”. Her views are common: appeal to tradition, and ignore the fact that tradition is built on shifting sands. Cambridge historian Dr Amy Erickson tells us that until the middle of the 18th century, ‘Miss’ was only used for children or sex workers. So much for tradition.
Surprisingly, the origin of honorifics was linked to class and financial status well before marital status. ‘Mrs’ was originally simply short for Mistress, meaning the boss or owner, exactly like ‘Mr’ was short for Master. ‘Mrs’ didn’t mean a married woman until around 1900. Titles for women got less equal – not more.
Appealing to tradition is simply cherry-picking the bits of history that best uphold the status quo. As a feminist, my (ironically unpaid) job is to challenge this. There’s nothing wrong in taking pride in your marital status, but there is everything wrong in expecting women to broadcast their marital status whether they want to or not. Equality is in the little everyday things as well as the big ones, and expecting women to go by ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ simply reinforces the notion that our value is in relation to someone else, not our achievements and personalities themselves.
I used to tell guys who hit on me, “Sorry, I’m married”, as though that’s the only reason they should back off. These days, although I’m chatted up a lot less, I simply say, “I am not interested”. I shouldn’t have to ‘belong’ to someone else for a man to get the message. I’m not chattel, and my worth is in no way tied to my suitability as a wife. This is basic feminism, and yet we’re still not at the point where ‘Ms’ is the default. I have female friends with PhDs who have given up trying to get officials to call them ‘Dr’ as it’s so much hassle, and god forbid a woman would want to use the gender-neutral ‘Mx’, the ultimate in ‘none of your damn business’.
‘Ms’ was re-popularised in the Sixties by the feminist Sheila Michaels, but has been around since at least 1901 as a neutral alternative to ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’, and before that was simply another shorthand for Mistress. Honorifics and their meanings have changed hugely over the centuries, so to resist the feminist ‘Ms’ is to reside on the wrong side of history.
While Meghan Markle will soon transform from ‘Ms’ to ‘Her Royal Highness Princess Henry of Wales’, I shall remain resolutely a ‘Ms’ – and the next time someone challenges me on grounds of tradition, I shall ask them which tradition that might be. I’m certain they won’t know.