Listen Here, Missy!

by d

Which is which? Statue depicting three generations of women in China. via Flickr user cmphotofocus.

As a writer, I pride myself on my knowledge and use of the English language. I appreciate its subtleties, and have learned how to play these notes like a good instrument. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across a blog post inferring that the term “Ms.” is some kind of freak aberration invented by feminists to confuse us and undermine the social order!

The Thinking Housewife, and her screened commentators, lament the loss of the binary Miss/Mrs., and the advent of Ms. It began when a man wrote in about a NYT article where a woman was referred to first as “Joseph and Sabina Prusan” and then “Ms. Prusan.”

[Michael S.]Apparently Joseph and Sabina Prusan are a married couple. Married to each other, that is, which makes them husband and wife. (Otherwise the common last name, and the practice of referring to them as “Joseph and Sabina Prusan,” rather than “Joseph Prusan and Sabina Prusan,” is rather a challenge to explain.) And this married couple are waiting for their granddaughters.

[TTH] So why does the writer refer to the grandmother as “Ms. Prusan”? Is there any genuine doubt at all that Joseph and Sabina are married to each other?

That’s actually quite a good question. I’m not sure why the Times decided to do that. The rules are pretty clear, if you know the marital status of a woman. Perhaps there is something not mentioned in the article, or perhaps they just decided to play it safe.

This spawned four more commenters, all yearning for the good old days.

Mrs. N.:

I grew up in a small midwestern town that in my mind’s eye was not unlike the fictional town of Mayberry. Unmarried women carried the title Miss. A married woman was addressed by her husband’s first and last name, i.e. Mrs. John Smith. If a woman was widowed, she was addressed by her own first and last name, i.e. Mrs. Jane Smith. Letters were addressed as such and many women signed their checks and other binding documents in this same manner.

This formality in address was welcomed by nearly everyone as it allowed others to ascertain marital status without having to ask questions that might result in someone’s discomforture.

This traditional form of address was, in my view, instrumental in preserving polite society. Firstly, it provided a means of protection for the woman. An unmarried woman enjoyed the protection of her father’s name and reputation until such time as she chose to place herself under the authority of another man. After marriage, a woman would enjoy the protection her husband’s name provided. Even the widow would continue to enjoy the privileges of the reputation of her husband’s name. The importance of knowing the value of a good name/ character could not be underestimated.

The argument that the titles allow everyone to know where everyone else stands without asking ‘discomforting’ questions is only applicable in environments similar to the one Mrs. N grew up in. Doubtless, everyone already knew each other, and could surmise a title without needing to be told. How ever did they learn what to call a stranger? How ever did they manage in a place larger than Mayberry, where you haven’t the faintest idea where someone comes from? The power of a good name is diluted when there are fifteen Smith households in spitting distance.

And, Mrs. N, don’t you realize that you have committed a capital sin!? “…until such time as she chose to place herself under the authority of another man.” A young woman with the right, nay, the authority to select her own husband!? You cannot see it, but I am fanning myself most furiously. Surely Mrs. N meant to add that the young lady only marries where her own good father has first given his blessing. Father does know best, after all. He hasn’t spent decades cultivating that good reputation for nothing, you know!

Mrs. N goes on to say that such a name provides security to women. What she means is that the title provided structure, allowing a woman to fit neatly into her slot in society. The rules were laid out for her, and she had only to follow them. Mrs. N believes these titles and roles enabled community to grow, which I think is pushing it.

Thirdly, it provided power. When a woman felt protected and secure, she was free to consider the many ways she could improve her position. Through creative industry she could help and advance her father’s or husband’s name thereby benefitting herself. Conversely, through indolence and laziness she could hurt her name.

Really, Mrs. N? Really? We need to encourage people to play ladder-climbing games? I have to wonder, what century and nation is this woman wishing for? It sounds more like Regency England than 1950s America to me.

Commenter Laura responds:

That’s a great explanation of the importance of these forms of address. I especially like Mrs. N’s point that these provided women with power, contrary to the feminist notion that they are tokens of humiliating subservience. Of course, a feminist would also say that there’s no reason why a woman’s marital status should be known, while a man’s remains ambiguous.

It is curious, that men have just the one term–Mister or Mr.–while women are separated into groups. My first instinct is that this is to make it easier for all to know who’s still on the marriage market. Then I think, “No, a married woman is automatically granted more respect because she has the power of a husband behind her.” Meanwhile, men are granted the same respect (and authority) regardless of marital status. There is no good reason for this to be so.

The last two commenters fondly reminisce about the days when a woman went by Mrs. Husband’s Name. From The “Lady of the House”:

I’m barely into my thirties but still vividly remember the day when my aunt was very upset because the bank informed her that she would have to stop signing her checks with Mrs. Her Husband’s Name. She didn’t like that one bit. Whenever I get the chance, I always sign my name Mrs. My Husband’s Name. I’m so particular about this that I don’t even use the stick on address labels from charities because of the Ms. issue.

This is where the usage of language comes back into play. To sign your checks “Mrs. My Husband” could be confusing for the bank. They don’t know if you’re Mrs. #1 or Mrs. #2. (WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE BANKERS?!) The whole reason we have multiple names is to differentiate us for tax purposes. You can’t ensure you’re taxing the right so & so if they insist on calling themselves by someone else’s name. I don’t really care about the titles, but this practice does, to me, indicate the devaluation of women. What, I’m not important enough to even get my own given name, now?

And, really, do I look like a Johnathan to you?

*

Etymology time!

All three forms – Mrs., Miss, and Ms. — are abbreviation of the all-purpose term Mistress, which was the equivalent of Master. It indicates ‘mistress of the house.’ As you can tell, the term’s fallen out of favor, as it’s now linked with ‘the other woman.’

The short forms began to be used around the 17th century. Miss Manners points out that, ” Other abbreviations for “Mistress” were “Miss” and “Ms.” (the latter not having been invented during 20th century feminism, as many now think, but merely revived).”

I can’t find any reason for Ms. falling out of fashion, but it did. Wikipedia gives a nice history of the terms, which several people and entities attempted to bring back well before the Womens Movement, including The Republican of Springfield, Massachusetts on November 10, 1901:

There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill. Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts…

Now, clearly, what is needed is a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation, and what could be simpler or more logical than the retention of what the two doubtful terms have in common. The abbreviation “Ms” is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances. For oral use it might be rendered as “Mizz,” which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs alike.

Gosh darn it, they’re advocating Ms. for all the reasons TTH and her ilk hate it! Included that ugly pronunciation!

Nevertheless, it was feminists who brought the term back to prominence. A friend of Gloria Steinem heard a radio show mention it, and Steinem used it as the title for Ms. Magazine. After that, it slowly worked its way throughout the culture, and the last holdouts gave in during Geraldine Ferraro’s run for vice president in 1984. Ferraro is married, but uses her maiden name publicly. It was contradictory to refer to her as Miss (she’s married!) or Mrs. (that’s not her husband’s name!), so Ms. was adopted. The rest is history.

Ms. was brought back to make life easier for everyone. Don’t know? Don’t have to ask! Ms. is polite, it’s deferential. It says, “I don’t know what you want to be called, so I’m going to err on the side of safety. Please correct me if you wish.” Marriage is such a loaded subject in our society, it’s insulting to infer the wrong thing either way! A young woman may think you’re calling her old; a mature woman who has never married may feel self-conscious having to explain herself. Or she’s a feminist who will take your head off for assuming all women have to marry.

The definition of a political conservative is someone who wants to maintain the status quo. A reactionary wants to return to the past. TTH and those like her long for days past–but they’re hardly looking to the oldest, most traditional of ways. They really ought to be campaigning for all women to be Mistress. Or, go back even further, goodwife!

How art thee, Goody F? Didst thou attend the witch burning yestereve? How dost thou find thy new lambskin condom?

C’mon, those were the good old days!

For someone.

*

There is a wealth of material on TTH to make you gag, laugh, and cry. Troll This Blog has picked out some of the most delirious offerings.

3 Comments to “Listen Here, Missy!”

  1. The real issue is that these women don’t really understand what they’re talking about. :p They know what they’re told and the majority probably get the rest of their information from old 1950’s sitcoms. Because, everyone knows that back then ALL women cleaned the house and cooked in pearls and high heels and kept their outfits pristine in the process. Just like June Clever. Oh, whoops! I mean, Mrs. Ward Clever. My bad. I honestly wonder if these women really long for the days they say they do, or if they’re just uniting in order to stick it to feminism and liberals in general, no matter how ridiculous their conversation is.

    • I like to think that if they got their wish and found themselves back in that time they would come to regret it. But maybe they really would enjoy it. All of it. …that makes me shudder.

      • They would regret it, because then it would not be their choice anymore, it would be their obligation. Its easy to take a right for granted when you still have that right. Its a totally different story if your right is taken away and you are forced into such a life whether you like it or not. Even if you would, it doesn’t mean you should be forced into it. That’s the difference. That’s what those women don’t understand. No one is telling them that they can’t live their lives like that if that’s what they want to do. That’s part of the point of feminism. They get to choose if they want to live that way, or if they want to go for something else. Whatever fulfills you. And, as women are just as much individuals as men are, that will be different for everyone. And that’s okay.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: