‘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.