The Vagenda

Why You Shouldn’t Bother Calling Yourself Ms


‘Oh, just put Ms.’

Whenever I’m asked, ‘Is it Miss or Mrs?’, I find myself saying this in as casual and non-threatening a voice as possible. ‘Oh, don’t you go troubling yourself, let’s just put Ms for your convenience,’ is the tone I’m going for. Heaven forfend you should worry, for even a second, that you’ll be on the end of some frightening feminist diatribe.

I have used Ms since I was eighteen.  My brother, with that casual and instinctive ability for a wind-up common to all older siblings, would insist ‘You’re not Ms.  You’re just trying to sound grown up. You’re a Miss.’

‘I don’t have to be,’ I would always bite. ‘I’ll be Miss if you’ll be Master.’ Why the irritating assumption that Ms was only for divorcees, lesbians and spinsters, all of them secretly bitter that matrimony was out of their grasp?  My generation would change all that: we’d be scrappy and sexy and all called Ms, married or not.

Fifteen years later, I have come to accept that ‘Ms’ has failed. Partly because it is unpleasing to say, the hissing, voweless meanness of the word, which pulls the speaker’s lips into a sour pucker. Partly because it has no pedigree, it was simply plonked into the language without a backstory. It still carries all its old assumptions: that the user is angrily seeking to conceal her matrimonial state, and is spoiling for a fight about it.

But I still believe that a title should be a term of respect, and that respect should not be graded. ‘Miss’ carries no status, ‘Ms’ is aggressive and ‘Mrs’, I’m afraid, is respectable and dowdy. ‘But I want people to know I’m married!’ is the cry from some of my female friends. ‘I’m proud of it!’ And yet there is no equivalent term for a married man. If a demonstration of one’s marital state is such a pressing need, you’d have thought that the other half of the population would have sorted out one of their own.

Other nations have managed this far better. In France, ‘Madame’ is a respectful term of address for adult women, with ‘Mademoiselle’ reserved for little girls and times when one wishes to be flirtatious. Germany now uses only ‘Frau’, and has relegated ‘Fraulein’ to the past. So here is our answer. Rather than introducing yet another layer of complexity into the status of women, in the UK we should simply have abolished ‘Miss’ and all gone for ‘Mrs’. That should be the only option on the forms, the question never asked.

Ms has failed because it retained the existing power structure – there was still a more desirable term of address for women. When given the option, most married women still opt for the title that gives them more status, which is a pretty sensible move when looked at dispassionately. Power doesn’t readily shift downwards. This can be seen by the trend for male forenames to become female ones. Billie, Georgie, Sam,  Jamie,  and even traditionally gender-neutral names like Kelly and Hilary have moved from male to female. They never, ever go the other way. Given to a girl, they confer a spunky, appealing boyishness, since male characteristics are still the most prized. Can you imagine a shift the other way? If a friend of yours called their son Valerie, wouldn’t you find yourself thinking ‘Poor little scrap. He’ll never hear the end of this in the playground’?

Brighton has recently introduced the title ‘Mixter’ to their official forms, to permit a gender-neutral term of address. Brighton, I applaud and love you, but you are wasting your time. If we are to adopt a respectful, neutral title, one which confers to all users a lack of judgement and a sense of human dignity, then there is only one real choice. Mister.

We should all of us, men, women, and those of us who occupy the middle ground, be Mister.  Oh yes, I can hear you shout, let’s be more imaginative. Why not ‘Citizen’, with its delightful overtones of Superman, or a wholly new word, maybe ‘Confabulous’? I understand, but we will never, ever get those who have access to powerful titles to adopt another, even for such noble ends as equality. (We have all met people who, having attained professional titles such as Professor or Reverend, insist on using them in a non-professional context, like when you meet them at a wedding. To these people, I say Stop It. )

Men will never give up Mr. And why should they? It confers respect, is straightforward, and implies no judgement. It does everything a title should do.

Let’s join them.

-Imogen Harris

51 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Bother Calling Yourself Ms

  1. Thankyou so much for writing this article! As a newly qualified teacher I thought alot about wether I would be Miss or Ms and in the end I went with Miss because that’s what the kids call all women: married or not! But it never quite has the same ring of respect that “Sir” commands. I love your suggestion! Let’s all be Misters!

  2. As a teacher – I have no problem with the word Miss (just as well, as I can’t even go to the supermarket without hearing it). The fact that my 11-19 year old pupils call me Miss, rather than my first name infers respect, and in most schools it’s used for both married and unmarried women, thus breaking down those barriers.

    Some people in the media have complained about the comparison between Miss and Sir, Sir being a title, Miss coming from a time when women teachers would be Miss (from the word Mistress, equivalent to Mister) because the minute you got that ring on your finger you were expected to give up your career. But language evolves, and there doesn’t feel any difference between the two words to me now. Having the pupils call the male teachers Mister wouldn’t work: children are lazy and have chosen for both genders the word with the least syllables.

    Totally agree with the author about Ms, it’s more difficult to say, and tends to require explanation. Why can’t we all be Miss?

  3. I feel that feminism has given up on this one. You’re right: Ms has failed. So many women have done the Vichy France thing of calling themselves Mrs: cringing collaborators desperate to placate the patriarchy and secure such pitiful crumbs of status as being *married* to one of the masters of the universe. And Miss is just plain low-status. Actually, they all are. Being a woman is to be of low status in our society. But becoming Mr is a dated kind of feminism, where we pretend to be men because we can’t make being a woman good enough.

    I don’t know what the solution is for women in general, but getting my PhD was bliss because suddenly I had a gender-neutral title that immediately secures respect – infinitely better than Ms, and much better than Mr, which is still gendered. Dr gives nothing away except my own achievements in life. This seems the only acceptable way forward – a title that can be used to show respect but that gives nothing away. Unfortunately, a gender-neutral title used by everyone in society is not going to happen, and I’m out of ideas for what to do instead. Perhaps inventing a title for unmarried men (or married) men, and using that to communicate the marital status of men so that it isn’t just women demeaned in this fashion?

  4. I use Ms because it feels like the least crap option for me – Miss feels initialising, Mrs feels cringy, and it’d feel “wrong” to use it as an unmarried woman anyway – but I’ll readily admit it still feels clunky and like I’m trying to make some sort of point. I agree with Teabag above, I long for the day when I get my doctorate and this is no longer an issue for me.

    Given that professional titles aren’t available to everyone though, I’d be up for Mr, no problem: a) why’s it so important to bring gender into our communications anyway? And b) I’d imagine getting rid of gendered titles would be helpful for trans and non-binary people, so why not?

  5. Yes, Ms doesn’t work. One of my teacher colleagues calls herself Ms, and her pupils simply call her Miss as Ms doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily and the youngsters just can’t manage it.

    I would very much like to become a Mr. The more I think about it, the more I like it. Could it catch on?

  6. About six months ago I started using Ms. I know it is only a small thing, and as many anti-feminism commenters argue “there are much more important things you could concern yourself with”, but to me it’s a little way of saying ‘I want things to change’. I also think it starts a conversation, and in turn gets people thinking. The question “Why aren’t you just a Miss?” opens so many avenues for discussion (this is what I have found anyway!) that perhaps in a little way it could get more people involved with feminism. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking…
    I agree that we need an alternative, I just don’t know what it could be!

  7. Why a title at all. Is our name not enough. Can’t we just use our surnames instead of a prefix if it causes problems. It might sound like we are all at public school for a while but we’d get over it. It wouldn’t denote sex, or educational achievement. It would just be the thing people call you.

  8. Introducing yourself as Professor so and so at a wedding may be gauche but using your title outside of work shouldn’t be frowned upon. Echoing Teabag and Ember, most earned titles are more telling about a person AND are gender neutral, so why not use them? Surely the best option is to create a new title without historic significance?

  9. Hi Imogen – this is a cool article! Was at school with you so v proud of you! Well done and well said. I funking hate being called Mrs… and often wonder why even the most mundane forms require a title – so dull. Anyway… good to see what you’re up to. Sylvie x

  10. I’m another grudging Ms. I’d prefer not to have a title at all, but since forms often demand it, I put the one I find least unsavoury, and have done since I was about 16. Unfortunately my plan to get a PhD has failed, so I’m stuck with it for the time being, until we can dispense with the need for such things altogether (although I’m technically a Master of Physics – so could I maybe call myself Master? Hmm…).

  11. You know, I totally disagree. I’ve been Ms. since…ever.
    And I’ve been a married lady for 20 years.
    I address all my mailed female friends’, married or no, correspondence to Ms. as well, because I am addressing her.
    I would NEVER address her as Mrs. Husband’s First & Lastname and Mrs. Friend’s First & Lastname has a separate connotation, so really Ms is what works.

  12. I love being Ms. I’m also a teacher and my students often ask about this title. They are normally very interested and it has been a great vehicle for discussion on gender values- with both boys and girls finding the inequality in traditional titles distasteful.

  13. I’m a grudging Ms as it’s the least worst option and if it labels me as an older woman of feminist leanings and indeterminate or concealed marital status I don’t care because that is what I am. Part of the problem with its uptake is that it was initially deemed American, and is awkward to pronounce. Call me old-fashioned but I don’t like salespeople etc calling me by my first name on their first encounter with me, especially the shortened version. I wish there was a better-sounding alternative, until there is it has to be Ms.

  14. “So many women have done the Vichy France thing of calling themselves Mrs: cringing collaborators desperate to placate the patriarchy and secure such pitiful crumbs of status as being *married* to one of the masters of the universe. And Miss is just plain low-status.”
    To compare married women who choose to use the title Mrs to Nazi collaborators is beyond ridiculous and insulting. I thought feminism was about women working together, not criticising others’ legitimate choices?

  15. Another great post!! I use Ms but have never felt like its really the solution, I just object to my title denoting whether I have been given by my father to my husband or not! I’d love to drop titles altogether and be defined just as myself, not a status. Just a thought.

  16. Another married teacher happily using Ms here! *waves* As a teacher you get used to answering to pretty much anything – I work with little ones and get called ‘mum’ every few weeks.

  17. Ahhh I never get more annoyed than when someone tells me I’m odd for being a Ms because it’s ‘just a term for dried up divorcees’. I love being a Ms, but would never presume to ask everyone to be a Ms. The word means something fabulous to me, but clearly not everyone else :)

  18. Ms hasn’t failed. I’m an academic and most academic women I know, married or unmarried, consistently and successfully use ‘Ms’ (as well as Dr) and it’s not considered “aggressive” – it’s generally accepted that our marital status is none of anyone’s business, and we are perfectly at liberty to use a valid title.

  19. Hear Hear, Therbold! Have been a “Miz” forever, which is how people pronounce Ms anyway.

    And a note: in France it is EXTREMELY gendered. A traditional pick=up line is “Are you Madame or Mademoiselle?” (In other words, are you someone’s property or can I claim you? *shudder*). I’m only called “Madame” because I’m over 50 so you are automatically assumed to be married; but when they learn of my non-marital status, I’m suddenly “Mademoiselle.” I keep suggesting that women be addressed as “Madelle” but they all just laugh. Yep there is a ways to go over here.

    I think men and women could perhaps be addressed as “Fab”, short for “Fabulous.”

  20. I am a chosen Ms and opted for that title when I was in my mid-teens. Figured it wasn’t anyone’s business whether I was married or not. Ms is also pleasing to the ear than Miss in our dialect (ahh colonials, sometimes we do break them words).

    However, I am travelling overseas in a couple of weeks and discovered to my horror I have to specify. Now, this is awkward, I am married, but not many people know, and I have retained my old name (hell, we only got the piece of paper for marriage for a visa). Not used to having to declare whether I am a Miss or Mrs!

    Having said all that, I wish we could just abolish these titles, but understand it won’t work yet.

  21. Interesting article! I’ve never thought of ‘Ms’ as an alternative to Miss or Mrs though, I think of it as an abbreviation of both. In the same way that ‘Mr’ could theoretically stand for ‘Mister’ or ‘Master’, on paper, addressing someone as ‘Ms’ says ‘I don’t want to presume that you’re married or not’, and I call myself Ms. because I don’t want my name to be preceded by my marital status. I think its more of a personal choice, than an attempt to make all titles uniform… I always say, call people what they want to be called!

  22. thats funny, I remember at school when someone didn’t understand something they could stretch Sir or Miss into 3 syllables

  23. Wait, I thought it was good manners to use Ms. for every women that you don’t know or until you’re told otherwise. Like signing off a letter ‘faithfully’. I this so commonplace its not worth mentioning?

    On an unrelated note, does anyone remember the children’s book Ms. Dusa about the supply teacher that used a basilisk stare to turn children to stone?

  24. I used to teach secondary school kids and would still get called “mum” every so often. They were mortified when they did it, mind.

  25. It was actually a reference to something Caitlin Moran said about Katie Price, but women who play a role in perpetuating inequality for all women need a good, loud wake-up call, so I don’t regret my analogy. And yet again, must I point out that feminism is about working for equality between the sexes, NOT about supporting women to make selfish, thoughtless ‘choices’ that actually work against equality and hold us back?

    No wonder progress is so slow when so many women are so badly confused about feminism that they think it is about ‘choice’ (any choice, however crappy and ultimately self-defeating) rather than equality. But to clarify: CAPITALISM is the thing that is about getting to ‘choose’ between a whole lot of pretty similar stuff designed by large corporations and offered for sale. FEMINISM is the one where women (and decent men) fight to improve society, sometimes making huge personal sacrifices like NOT calling yourself ‘Mrs Husband’s Name’ so that women as a whole can move forwards to a world where we aren’t defined by our marital status; where we aren’t labelled on every administrative form we ever fill out as either the property of a man (Mrs) or someone who has thus far apparently failed to become the property of a man (Miss/Ms).

  26. Same here – I’m a teacher who uses Ms and for the most part the pupils respect this. While they’ll always say ‘miss’ in class (often with about 5 ‘i’s) I don’t think this is remotely deliberate or considered – it’s what they’ve always said. However, their books all say ‘Ms C…..’ on the front and whenever they’ve written me a note they’ve used ‘Dear Ms C….. ‘ to begin it, so they do respect the choice I’ve made (which is awesome!) None of them have actually asked me about it, they’ve just accepted it, which I consider, again, pretty awesome.
    Also, when emailing/writing to a woman that you don’t know is married or not, ‘Ms’ is my default choice – just me?

  27. On the whole a great article about an issue which has long concerned me. However, I am one of those “professionals who having attained titles such as Professor or Reverend, insist on using them in a non-professional context”. I mean I don’t introduce myself as Dr X when I meet people, but then I would also not introduce myself as Miss/Ms/Mrs X either. But when filling in forms I put Dr or ‘Other’ if that option doesn’t exist. Why? For exactly the reasons that you propose us all using Mister – calling myself Dr doesn’t reveal anything about my gender or marital status and I like that.

  28. In the legal world, female barristers are almost invariably referred to as “Miss Surname” regardless of their marital status (and keep their maiden name, at least professionally), and female High Court judges as “Mrs Justice Surname”, again regardless of marital status – Although one judge recently got permission to be “Ms Justice” (see here: Judges who are referred to as masters are “Master Surname” regardless of gender (admittedly calling someone “Mistress Surname” in court might be a little odd!)
    I rather like that you are Miss as counsel and Mrs as judge – it means your title is related to how far you’ve got in your career and nothing else. It’s also a hell of a lot easier – if you had to check whether a barrister or judge was married before you addressed them life would be impossible! I admit that it might be said to perpetuate the idea that “Mrs” is somehow better, but I’ve always viewed it as more akin to the French changing the title with age/respect than anything else.

  29. I went to school on an army base. Women teachers were called “Ma’am” and it seemed totally appropriate; this is the female version of Sir, surely.

  30. Sorry, but no, this doesn’t make any sense.
    Firstly how is “Ms” dead if it’s on all forms now and plenty of people use it.
    Secondly, I just don’t see what is the logic behind everybody becoming “Mrs” all of a sudden. Surely it is much better to just stay “Miss” – the title you are born with – just like “Mr”. Anyway, using “Mrs” just feels wrong – if you are not married it implies you are (hence the”Mr” bit in the beginning) and if you are indeed married then people would just assume you are using it for that reason.
    I’ve been using Ms for a long time. I would just pronounce it as Miss but somehow I rarely have to say it out loud. Now that I am married I still continue to use the same title of course.
    By the way it’s strange to imply that Mrs somehow gets women more respect.. Seriously??

  31. I’ve always used Ms quite happily. Coming from a place where titles don’t exist (heck, my language doesn’t even have gendered pronouns), I didn’t realise it carried these connotations. Lots of my female friends use Ms – in fact, it seems to be the norm. As someone here mentioned, it might be that Ms hasn’t failed in all circles.

  32. I think that titles are meaningless. People should ignore the ‘sound’ of the word ‘Ms’ and the presumptions that come with a meaningless ‘Miss’ or the prudence of ‘Mrs’; my name is my name, I accept it or I don’t. As for French people getting it right, I think they have exactly the same problem. Every time I called my french teacher ‘Madame…’ it made me feel exactly the same way as calling a British person ‘Mrs…’ . It also shouldn’t make someone ‘sexy’ simply because they are called ‘Miss’ or ‘Mademoiselle’ . It’s just a title.

  33. Interesting article on a very oldfashioned system. What about leaving titles out all together? Works in Norway!

  34. I taught in Spain during an erasmus year and got called ‘maestra’ or ‘maestra Fiona’ by the kids, or if they tried to translate to English it became ‘teacher’. I definitely didn’t break the illusion and tell them that the more accurate translation of ‘maestra’ in a classroom context in Britain was ‘miss’, not ‘teacher’. ‘Maestra’ made me feel like I could go home after school and write a symphony! :)

  35. I know what you mean – but ‘giving up on Ms’ because it still feels awkward at times is just like saying feminism is a word some (still) aren’t comfortable with. I’ve used Ms since I was 18, while single, while married and despite having the title Dr at work because it just makes sense. And it is on almost all the forms now. Don’t give up!

  36. Please speak for yourself. I am a feminist. I believe in equality for women and that we have a way to go. I am also a Mrs because on the form that is my choice. Miss or Mrs. If you think feminism doesn’t involve a choice then that is your choice.

  37. I am another Ms and use it at school (teaching high school boys). I always correct them when they use Miss or Mrs and to them now it is automatic. I even got an exam paper with Mrs then Miss crossed out by the student and Ms written instead. :)

  38. I agree it’s clunky. But as a married woman who kept her surname, it doesn’t feel right calling myself Mrs Welch… so Ms it izz.

    And I actually do like to spoil for a fight if questioned :-)

  39. Titles are unnecessary. Why does the gender or status of a person need be broadcasted at all. They work in favour of the ones in charge so will most definitely not be scrapped.

  40. I don’t think “Ms” has failed, and it is certainly preferable to calling all women “Mrs”, which reinforces the perception that women have no value unless a man has “chosen” them, or “Mr”, which implies women aren’t worth their own title. It’s not always appropriate to use first names, so I don’t think eliminating titles will work. I used Ms, before during and after my marriage, it’s now pretty common on forms etc here (Canada), and frankly, my marital status is irrelevant and nobody’s business in most situations, so Ms works for me!

  41. I don’t think calling everyone “Mr.” is a good solution because it pushes the notion that maleness is the default further into the culture! I could deal with everyone being Mrs. or Miss, though I would go for Mrs., since Miss still does have a youthful connotation for me. Didn’t they recently legally change things in France so all women are “Madame”? I thought I heard that somewhere…

    I for one love the idea of everyone being “Mixter”, and I intent to use that one when I write down my husband’s and my name in a formal context! “Mixter and Mixter…” Yes! Makes me feel like a rad dj! :-D

  42. I don’t use a title although a lot of online forms insist on it – and non-online ones as well. No love for example to South West Trains who put a MR in front of my name on my network railcard when I had very deliberately left the title field blank. The better forms have an option for ‘other’ or to leave it blank. I don’t think I’m unique in this – as people have said, titles in Norway are pretty much extinct, and Quakers do not use unearned titles.
    I did wonder if we would go the French / German route and have ‘Mrs’ for all adult women (if they actually want to use a title) – being as it is derived from ‘Mistress’, as in ‘Mistress of her household’ which doesn’t imply marital status.

  43. To me, as I get older, ‘Miss’ feels infantalising. It’s certainly a problem that men don’t have to think about. I feel it should be about age, as Chris, above, suggests. ‘Miss’ for the under 18s, ‘Mrs’ (or a new, agreed upon term) for the over 18s. I say release ‘Mrs’ from a link to marriage, and just have it as the adult choice for women – otherwise, the whole debate is over defining ourselves according to our marital status.