Is Ms. vs. Miss vs. Mrs. Still an Issue?

Or it as big of a deal as it used to be? Do people even think about this anymore? Prior to a few weeks ago, I’d considered this issue to be a thing of the past, something our mothers or grandmothers had to consider. I don’t know if it was a lack of attention to the topic or just a lack of anything to pay attention to, but I’d always considered the Ms./Mrs./Miss debate to be a thing of the past. Everyone was Ms. unless they expressed a preference for one of the alternatives, and I assumed everyone else operated under the same rules. Now that I’m working in a school, however, I’ve suddenly become very aware of it, and I’m asking myself if the issue has been dead for so long that it has gotten restless in its grave and decided to come plague your resident feminist.

Flowchart. 1) What is the gender? Male answer leads to "Title = Mr." and Female answer leads to 2) Is she married? No leads to "Title = Miss" and Yes leads to "Title = Mrs."
You’re doing it WRONG.

This was a big deal during the second wave of feminism, so much that there’s even a magazine for it! Until a little while ago, the only attention I paid to the word was when reading the wonderful Ms.magazine, still a shining beacon of printed feminism. I knew why it was named that way, of course. I knew it was a statement on the independence of women, a reminder of the awakening so many experienced. Ms. stands alone, purposely left ambiguous. Not like Miss, the title of one who is not married, or Mrs., the title of one who is. Unlike Mrs., it is not a feminine identifier or extension of Mr. Husband. It could be that of a married or unmarried woman, but the point is not to make a title on the basis of someone else. The complexities of the subject have been written on by many feminists far more extensively (and far better) than I can write on them. Even though I personally like the way “Miss” looks when written out, I don’t use it. I never call anyone Mrs. or Miss, not to make some feminist point, but out of pure respect. I don’t know about their lives or their preferences, and it’s common courtesy for me to default to Ms. unless I know not to. Okay, so maybe I am making some feminist point (aren’t I always?), because I like to address women on the basis of their own bodies and minds, just as I do men. But apparently some people don’t see this as a simple, respectful position.

In the last three weeks, I have been referred to as Mrs. on several occasions at the high school where I’m interning. To be clear, there are no markers indicating that I wish to be called this. I am young (23 last month), and I appear so young that students and faculty alike have mistaken me for a student despite my professional attire. I do not wear a wedding or engagement ring of any sort, and I don’t wear any identification with a title. And yet, my own supervisor routinely introduces me as Mrs. Whatever, and I have to clarify by saying something like “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Ms. Whatever.” That’s one sentence too many. Teachers introduce me to students like this. Honestly, I’m perplexed.

When this become the thing to do again? Was there a big patriarchy meeting I didn’t know about where the overlords planned to make Mrs. the default? I’m reaching, but I can’t help but think maybe it’s a big ploy to get us career women married and in the kitchen! In all seriousness, this is the kind of insidious sexism that eventually builds and builds until we’ve created a whole new generation that thinks women get to be identified by men. Even if it isn’t intentional, and I’m fairly certain it’s not, it is harmful. When we address young girls as Miss, we are expecting them to grow up and get married. We are expecting it to be a temporary name to be transformed later, and we are not giving them the choice. I’m not necessarily calling for the elimination of all but Ms., but I am calling for the respect to default to it if personal preferences are not known. Some people like to be called Miss or Mrs., for reasons that are their own. This is just a feminist issue, it is one of etiquette and respect. While not everyone is a feminist, I like to think that everyone at least wants to be polite. Right?

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

10 replies on “Is Ms. vs. Miss vs. Mrs. Still an Issue?”

Ms. as a default, until preferences are known, seems very much to be reasonable. My experiences of a school environment (as secondary school pupil) though, were that Miss. and Sir were the defaults if name (and so, title) weren’t known. Even then, Miss. and Sir were often used anyway. The point about calling young girls Miss. is an interesting one, as alongside Miss., I’m used to boys of that age being called Master.

Let me tell you: when you work in customer service, it becomes a Big Fucking Deal.

I wait tables, and a lot of time you have to address people directly (“Sir, what can I get you to drink? Ma’am, would you move your elbow so I can set this down without burning you?”). Men just get “sir,” regardless of age (unless they’re a kid– even service jobs won’t get me to call a 10-year-old ‘sir’), but women are either “miss” or “ma’am,” and it can get loaded. Particularly if they’re the sort of older woman who tries very hard to look young. There’s no “ms.” equivalent for direct address, too. You’re stuck with either “miss” or “ma’am.”

Honestly, I don’t think most people even think about using “Ms.” unless they are corrected, and even then, they think you are making a big deal out of nothing, just to be contrary.

I don’t recall learning of “Ms.” as an option in school. I remember seeing “Ms.” Magazine and asking my mother what it meant. Sometime in my 20s, when I realized that married or not, I would always belong to ME and neither wanted nor needed a title denoting my marital status, I started using Ms. I correct adults, but when young children call me “Miss,” I don’t bother, because it’s too much work and feels petty.

Those who are in a mindset or an environment where equality issues are important, get it. I just think most people aren’t in that space, and that the omission isn’t malicious.

I tend to default to Ms. unless told otherwise (or if the woman in question had earned a title like “Doctor” or “Reverend/Mother”). But that’s only in conjunction with her name; if I don’t know her name but need to get her attention, I use ma’am. It’s a habit from my military days.

I hate it — HATE it — when someone falls into the default Miss/Mrs. regardless of the situation. My last semester of college, my least favorite professor (who is FINALLY retiring in the spring) was talking about how another professor was helping him by having one of her students video-record our presentations (so he could watch more closely for speaking skills and content). He kept calling her Miss Bascom. Once he left the room (I suck at heat-of-the-moment calling out, or I would have done so in as innocent/nice a way as possible) I commented “I thought DR. Bascom had worked hard for years and earned her doctorate, too. Right?” (Nevermind that she’s an established professional and only a divorcee because of abuse; no, no, he had to act like she was a brand-new, fresh-outta-grad-school “girl” who was just so darned CUTE with her technological aptitude.) That right there is how my brain translates “miss” when it’s used to refer to an adult (or a teenager; I can tolerate it when it refers to someone under the age of 12, even if it still irks a bit; I tend to go for “sweetie” for that category).

I can deal with “Mrs.” if it’s a title chosen by the woman in question; I mean, I live in the South. I don’t know how long I’d be able to get away with “Ms.” after I get married. It’s just more of a thing. And most of the women I’d spend time with who prefer “Mrs.” aren’t the type to “get into feminism”, unfortunately (I still spend enough time with moderate religious people that think feminism is about women being the best and men being scum).

And I mentioned using “ma’am” — it’s a habit I picked up in the military. Any woman who is my equal or superior (whose name I don’t know or who I want to specifically “show respect”) gets ma’am. Especially if I’m acknowledging her experience or trying to get her attention (“excuse me, ma’am” is much more universal than “excuse me, miss”).

And, of course, if I’m asked to call someone a particular title/name/combination, that’s what I call them. I have a friend who is an Episcopal priest, and finds the “official” title a bit clunky, so instead of “Mother Emily” she’s “Momily”. Even though it sounds “informal”, I feel like calling her Momily (as she wishes) is more respectful.

I never knew where Ms. came from, but I assumed it was polite to use that honorific if one didn’t know what a woman preferred. And it seems odd and somewhat infantilizing to call a single older woman “Miss.” Like, those women are older than me, they have lots of life experience, are wiser, etc., and I would call the same as someone my age or younger? Those women have earned my respect, and I think “Ms.” fits.

I was taught to use Ms. unless I knew a woman’s preference. I have a vague memory of a teacher in grade school reading us a book where the lady animal was Ms. Lastname and explained the reason behind the honorific.

Maybe kids today just don’t know. It might be an opportunity if you correct them about your own name for them to learn. It is just manners, but I bet it’s not something that people think to teach their kids. (Unless they have whatever book was read to me.)

For myself I have always insisted on Miss because I’m proud of being single and independent. But that’s just for myself. When I first applied for a credit card, the space for honorific offered Mr, Ms, or Dr or you could fill in what you wanted. I filled in Miss and they printed my card like that. People comment on that sometimes.

I’m getting married in a few months and I’m keeping my name, but I’ll be sad to lose the Miss. I’ll probably adopt Ms.

How do you pronounce Ms. though? And Dutch is very easy on this, every woman is a mevrouw. Which you could compare with Mrs. but exactly is far closer to Ms. because the Miss version of Dutch is terribly outdated (really, if some Dutch person ever calls you juffrouw or mejuffrouw

Usually it’s pronounced Mizz. I always put that down on forms; I hate being called Mrs. and Miss just seems so dismissive, especially as older men are pretty much the only ones who ever call me that.

(Though really, nothing made me feel as old as when I realized I was a Señora instead of a Señorita.)

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