It’s a sign of how much sleep I’ve had lately that I can’t remember whether the discussion on the use of “Mrs” “Ms” and “Miss” was held on Plans or somewhere else (I’m *pretty* sure it was Plans) but as it’s one of those perennial issues I wanted to discuss it here, as well as offering my personal, farfetched solution.
I haven’t been able to find any solid data about the title preferred by married women in their 20s and 30s, but anecdotally I’ve observed that many women, myself included, are willing to take our husbands’ surnames but are very unwilling to be addressed as what the Indiebride boards would call “Mrs. Hislast” (maybe that should be “Mrs. Ourlast” – but you know what I mean). Ms. Hislast is fine, an unadorned name is fine, but the sight of the birthday card from grandparents or ad flier addressed to “Mrs. Adam Smith” is cause for severe wincing. Part of this is probably the feeling of your identity being subsumed; for the most part, our generation of women weren’t brought up with the idea that marrying a man meant that we would be dominated by him in every way, including by his full name. But it also seems – and again, this is all anecdotal – that women of our age don’t particularly thrill to being addressed as “Mrs. Jane Smith” either (and which isn’t technically correct, anyway), even though it’s their own full name there, and not their husband’s. It seems that a lot of the problem is with the “Mrs” alone.
In my case, my distaste for “Mrs” is based mostly on vanity and a bit on the old joke about “Whenever you say Mrs. Smith, I think my mother-in-law must be standing behind me.” Simply put, “Mrs” sounds as dowdy as hell, not to mention about thirty years older than I am. It’s strange, because I know a lot of women – all much older than me – who refer to themselves as Mrs. and don’t fit the dowdy stereotype in the least. Considering where I live, I’m sure there are many young women out there who are proudly “Mrs” – I just haven’t taken the initiative in discussing it with them. But I can’t imagine having this sort of distaste for the title if I had lived fifty years ago. The culture shift since then has been so violent that I can’t imagine living in a world without “Ms.” though it does grate on the ear somewhat, in my opinion (and when it’s pronounced as “Miss”, as it often is, it sometimes seems like distinguishing between the two is pointless – why not just roll them together and make “Miss” the default for “Not announcing marital status”?)
Of course, a big issue is the fact that “Mrs” is an unequivocal announcement of your marital status. “Miss” can be ambiguous (women authors, even a century ago, would professionally be “Miss Mansfield” even if said Miss Mansfield happened also to be the wife of Mr. Murry). And these days it’s not so much in fashion to make a big deal of your marital status – getting married is no longer the main (even life-essential) goal for most women that it was long ago. We can well imagine that Charlotte Lucas, in Pride and Prejudice, signed herself as “Mrs. Collins” with relief (and perhaps a resigned sigh) because in securing that title, she was demonstrating that she had secured her own future. Very few young western women are in that boat today, and so demonstrating one’s marital status feels unnecessary, especially since men have no married/unmarried title equivalents and never have (though I recall reading one disgruntled letter to a magazine, long ago, written by a man who suggested that men should be “Mr.” for Mister if they’re unmarried, and “Stp.” for Stupid if they are. It was signed Stp. someone-or-other). The distinction seems like an old, double-standard tradition that we could stand to lose.
But actually, it was not always thus. Mrs and Miss (and, secondarily, Ms) all stem from the once-perfectly-respectable title of “Mistress.” The two didn’t begin to split apart until three centuries ago; before then, “Mistress” was for non-noble women of any marital status: as Miss Manners puts it in her Guide To Excruciatingly Correct Behavior “Mistress Nell Quickly married, and became Mistress Nell Pistol”. I’m no linguistic historian, and have no idea why the split occurred (if anyone does, please – let us know!) but I do think it was very unfortunate. One lovely, catchall title was split into several less-than-satisfactory ones, while the full title itself became relegated to the underworld of unrespectability. The only benefit was that it picked up an air of glamour that it probably didn’t have before; the titles of Mistress Anne Boleyn and Mistress Nell Gwynn would have sounded perfectly ordinary to their hearers at the time, but nowadays, if biography and novel titles are anything to go by, they sound positively lush. Of course, they’d probably be taken aback by the SCA and S&M associations as well.
So, is there any hope for the revival of Mistress? More euphonious than Ms, more substantial than Miss, more glamourous than Mrs? I doubt it, though I’d be highly amused (and very happy, of course) to see it happen. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first derogatory word to be reclaimed by a group, so it could always happen. What do you think?