Yesterday I received a tweet from the Oxford University Press account inquiring as to my feelings about the use of ‘Miss’ versus ‘Ms.’ in relation to myself and modern feminism. The question was accompanied by a link to this article by University of Illinois Professor Dennis Baron, which traces the term ‘Ms.’ to all the way back to 1767 and chronicles its’ various political meanings or lack thereof henceforward. He notes an instance as early as 1913 of feminist attempts to institute a title for women, like Mr. for men, that was free of reference to age or marital status, a goal that didn’t meet with much success until the Second Wave of feminism and the release of Ms. Magazine in 1971.
Like being able to sit unaccompanied in a bar or get credit in my name without a husband of male relative as a co-signer, the pretty much universal understanding that women as well as men should and do have a title that doesn’t convey marital status is one of those wins of the feminist movement for which my generation often seems ungrateful because it’s been a matter of fact our whole lives. Actually, the New York Times — about sixteen years late to the party as per usual – finally declared Ms. “fit to print” in 1986, the year I was born. Long before I consciously identified as a feminist, and even while I was calling myself a good Southern Baptist girl, I preferred the term ‘Ms.’ to ‘Miss’ simply because I didn’t want any part of anything that encompassed both Miss America and Little Miss Muffet.
It wasn’t, however, until I began to strongly identify as a feminist in college that I used ‘Ms.’ as a political statement, though not the straightforward one against the, to my millennial eyes, blatant sexism of the titles that Professor Brown and the Oxford University Press would probably expect. I read Gloria Steinem’s quip, “I refuse to be referred to as Miss Steinem of Ms. Magazine,” as both an example of the humor members of an oppressed group must possess while fighting that oppression and a reminder of the battle feminists before fought for me to be able to take for granted that women should have an equivalent to ‘Mr.’ Since I was deprived of this important piece of feminist activism in even my college classes, I began using the title ‘Ms.’ as a gentle point of re-education on women’s history as I traveled across the country speaking at universities.
That’s the political significance that influenced, in part, my choice to use ‘Ms.’ in the title of my blog. It serves as a short but meaningful signifier to my readers that everything in my life, and therefore the blog’s content, is shaped by my feminism. It’s also a reference to the humorous and common mistitling of the film made on my high school activism as ‘The Miseducation of Shelby Knox,” as if my journey from conservative Republican to feminist activist was an ill-fated comedy of errors. Most importantly, however, ‘Ms.’ in my blog title is a conscious homage to the Second Wave women who continue to be invaluable in my evolution as a young adult feminist activist.
I know there are women who choose to use ‘Miss’ for a variety of reasons, including as a rejection of the feminism that’s inextricably, at least in modern times, implied in choosing ‘Ms.’ instead. This is an exercise of the self-determination that’s inherent to feminism and I don’t take issue with these women or their decisions. I am less tolerant of companies, like Vista Print, that refuse to offer ‘Ms.’ as an option in the dropdown menu of possible titles when ordering a product online. Which feminine title is a lesbian woman who is prohibited by law from marrying her life partner supposed to choose? What possible relationship could one’s marital status have to a desire to order cheap business cards? As Professor Brown notes, ‘Ms.’ is now a commonly accepted manner in which to refer to half the population and modern companies should get with the times, if only to indicate to consumers like me that they’re not endorsing the sexism and homophobia underlying a forced choice between ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs.’ (For the record, Vista Print, me and several friends have taken our business elsewhere because of this issue.)
Am I going to spend much of my time lobbying companies to provide all three title options for women or monitoring media outlets to make sure they use ‘Ms.’ to refer to female newsmakers without regard to their marital status? No, mostly because that work was done by feminists of previous generations. Instead I’ll fight the sexism endemic in a society that still correlates a woman’s worth with a ring on her finger by getting rid of gendered pay disparities and establishing more social services for single mothers. And I’ll be Ms. Scary Feminist as I do it, thank you very much!
***Question to readers: Do you use the term ‘Ms.’? Why or why not? If you speak another language, what are the feminine titles that traditionally differentiate between a married and unmarried woman and is there an alternative similar to Ms.?
CORRECTION: Post updated at 2pm EST on 8.17.10 to correctly cite Professor Dennis Baron, the author of the Oxford University Press blog post, who was misnamed in the original post.