Updated: Sep 9, 2020
Writing by Isi Williams. Illustration by Dafne de Fine Licht (@dafnedefinelicht on insta)
Micro-aggressions exist in every part of our lives as women. They’re either something you don’t notice because you’ve grown up dealing with them or they’re something that you’re forced to put up with. I believe that we can never truly understand the full extent of microaggressions that exist around us, and I personally pick up on or learn about something new every single month. One, in particular, is the continuing use of the titles Miss and Mrs.
I’m sure we all know about the custom of wives taking their husband’s surname. This idea came about during the 9th century when the doctrine of coverture was formed in England. It meant that once a woman was married, ‘her legal existence as an individual was suspended under “marital unity,” a legal fiction in which the husband and wife were considered a single entity: the husband’ (Gupta, 2007). This meant that women had little control over their own lives and became, in essence, property of their husband. And although this doctrine took effect when the woman became married, it essentially starts at birth when a girl is given the surname of her father and can only change it once married, to her husband’s name. Yet, even though coverture was mostly dismantled in the late nineteenth century, the traditions set by it are still upheld in our society today.
Researching the history of a woman’s title in Britain revealed that a lot of change came with a shifting society in the 1800s. For instance, Miss and Mrs both come from the word Mistress, but at the beginning of the 19th century Miss was used to describe young girls and Mrs was used for older women - married or unmarried (Erickson, 2014). It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the titles Miss and Mrs gained their associations with a woman’s marital status. The reason that this is a sexist notion is that it is essentially a title that lets society know who you belong to: your father or your husband.
When I was growing up, I was taught that Ms was only to be used for widows or divorcees. I’ve since discovered it is also associated with women whose marital status you don’t know or women over 30 who are unmarried. However, Ms can also be a completely neutral alternative which has no linkings to your marital status whatsoever. It is widely used by women who don’t want to disclose this information, and I would argue that it should be used entirely in the place of Mrs and Miss, which hold such weighted sexist values. ‘The introduction of Ms as a neutral alternative to “Miss” or “Mrs”, and the direct equivalent of “Mr”, was proposed as early as 1901’ (Erickson, 2014), so it’s curious that this hasn’t been more widely recognised as a feminist title.
If you’re part of an organisation still using Mrs and Miss on forms or in documents, then please ask them to consider removing it. It is a small action to take, but I believe it’s a step in the right direction. Many organisations are already making the move to streamline data to just ‘Ms’, ‘Mr’ and ‘Mx’ - a gender neutral alternative that also needs to be embraced. We as women have to show a bigger demand for this language, for us and our trans siblings, demonstrating that we don’t want to be defined by our relationships to the men around us. And changing your title on documents from Miss/Mrs to Ms may seem like a small thoughtless act, but it represents something much more significant and contributes to the kind of society that I hope we’d all like to live in. One where women are autonomous and don’t have to answer to or be owned by men.
Gupta, S., 2007. Coverture. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/topic/coverture>
Erickson, A., 2014. Mistress, Miss, Mrs Or Ms: Untangling The Shifting History Of Women’S Titles. [online] Newstatesman.com. Available at: <https://www.newstatesman.com/cultural-capital/2014/09/mistress-miss-mrs-or-ms-untangling-shifting-history-women-s-titles>
Erickson, A., 2014. Mistresses and Marriage: or, a Short History of the Mrs. History Workshop Journal, 78(1), pp.39-57.