What is the appropriate honorific for a woman? Mrs? Miss? Ms? Mx? None at all?
The debate is not a late twentieth century phenomenon. It has been going on since the end of the nineteenth century at least. According to the academic, Amy Erickson, ‘Ms’ was suggested as a suitable equivalent to ‘Mr’ in 1901, but never caught on.
Samuel Johnson, when compiling his dictionary in the mid-eighteenth century, was untroubled by the relationship between the married status of a woman and her title, be it Mrs or Mistress/Miss (a bit like the French madame / mademoiselle, where the latter tends to denote youth rather than the married state). However, in the Victorian and Edwardian era, ‘Miss’ started to be a term of preference for unmarried, but upper class and socially ambitious, women. As the twentieth century progressed though, attitudes to the title became more ambivalent.
The feminist, Sheila Michaels, who died in June this year, started to champion the use of ‘Ms’ for all women, during the 1960s. But it wasn’t until she was heard on a New York radio programme on feminism and talked about the use of ‘Ms,’ that she attracted the
attention of the better known feminist, Gloria Steinem. Ms Steinem went on to create the feminist magazine ‘Ms’ and the rest, as they say, is history (or, as she didn’t say, Mstory).
It wasn’t too long before Government departments and banks, were accepting ‘Ms’ on their forms instead of Miss or Mrs, though the New York Times style guide didn’t acknowledge the term until 1986. Now the debate has moved on to the acceptance, or otherwise, of the gender neutral term ‘Mx’ for all.
Writers beware! We should be careful not to transfer twenty-first century sensitivities to characters set in the past. Most Victorian or Edwardian schoolmistresses felt no stigma when given the title ‘Miss,’ and cooks of the same era, whether married or not, were usually referred to as ‘Mrs.’
(Incidentally, Sheila Michaels is also credited with promoting the terms ‘feminism’ to replace ‘women’s liberationist,’ and ‘sexist’ instead of ‘male chauvinist pig.’)
If you have enjoyed reading this blog, and would like to read more of my work, please follow one of the links below to my Amazon author page. There are plenty of strong female characters in many of the stories. And at least one is always available as a free download.
Or go to Solstice Publishing: