I have always wondered who thought it was a good idea to address women by reference to their marital status. Recently, I’ve been doing some reading on the history of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’, and I found some interesting things. While both are short forms of the original ‘Mistress’, ‘Miss’ was initially reserved for young girls, while ‘Mrs’ was for adult women, even if they were unmarried – much like ‘Master’ came to be used for young boys and ‘Mister’ for adult men.
But this changed in the mid-eighteenth century, when gradually ‘Miss’ started to be used for unmarried adult women as well as young girls. This eventually led to what we have today, where the titles of ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’ are used to differentiate married women from unmarried ones. (But I wonder why ‘Master’ was never used for unmarried adult men so that we would have something to differentiate married men from unmarried ones too.)
With the way these titles are used today, it is almost as if society is saying that women must strive hard to attain ‘Mrs’ status through marriage, before they are respected. And if you think I am just being dramatic, check out this quote from a newspaper, The Republican, on November 10, 1901:
To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss (emphasis added).
The idea that being an unmarried woman is something to be ashamed about is simply ridiculous. What on earth makes an unmarried woman “inferior” to a married one? I simply cannot understand it. To quote one of my favourite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,
Marriage can be a good thing, a source of joy, love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage, yet we don’t teach boys to do the same?
I think this is related to a trend I have noticed in some countries (for example, Nigeria and Sri Lanka), where the title of ‘Mrs’ is added to whatever title a married woman has. So a male doctor is just ‘Dr John Doe’, but a female doctor is ‘Dr (Mrs) Jane Doe’. Sometimes, this even goes up to three titles. The most common one I’ve seen is referring to a woman who is both a Pastor and a Doctor as ‘Pst (Dr) (Mrs) Jane Doe’. Surely, I can’t be the only one who finds this ridiculous! I would not have a problem with the ‘Dr (Mrs)’ title if we were also saying ‘Dr (Mr)’, but clearly that’s not the case. As Dr Kaushila Thilakasiri put it aptly, “Female physicians are expected to express both their marital status and gender when listing their professional title in Sri Lanka”.
Of course, these are just titles, but they have larger effects on the way we are conditioned. An easy example is a woman, potentially even a Doctor, feeling unsatisfied because she has not attained ‘Mrs’ status. A simple change in title will not change our attitudes toward marriage completely, but it might help to reduce the pressure on women to get married by a certain age just because they want to be addressed as ‘Mrs’.
For this reason, I much prefer the title ‘Ms’, which can be used to refer to a woman whether married or unmarried. Unfortunately, some people still use ‘Ms’ as a short form of ‘Miss’, to refer to an unmarried lady, so we just keep adding to this very confusing list. My only hope is that the neutral meaning of ‘Ms’ becomes more widely accepted so that even if we don’t know how a woman addresses herself, we can simply use the neutral form ‘Ms’, instead of prying and guessing whether she is a ‘Miss’ or a ‘Mrs’!
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