Is it ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms’? Does it Still Matter?


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.

38 Comments

Filed under Feminism, Herstory

38 responses to “Is it ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms’? Does it Still Matter?

  1. Shannon Cannings

    I always use Ms. I was Shannon before I was married. I am Shannon now. I don’t think my marital status has anything to do with my profession. I don’t like that men use Mr., married or not, but women are supposed to use change theirs. It is information that I want to be able to tell people, when it is appropriate. Not on the front of my name as a title.

    I did change my last name, as did my husband. We wanted a simpler version of his name, and we wanted to have the same name as our children.

  2. As a married woman who kept my last name, I’m a Ms., not a Miss and definitely not a Mrs.!

  3. Ken Yee

    My default is to use Ms., but I’ll use Miss or Mrs. (or first name or other title) depending on the relationship between me and the person and how she chooses to identifies herself

  4. Kala

    I am Ms. up until the day I am Dr. :)

  5. Roberta

    I’m 40 and have been using Ms. for as long as I can remember. And I’m from Texas (and not the “good” part).

  6. I decided early in life that I’d be a Ms. always. I love receiving wedding invitations from high school and college friends who once rolled their eyes at me for my adamant feminism, now addressing me as Ms. without question or irony. That’s something, right?

  7. I am a Ms. who did not change her name when she married. I expect to be addressed as Ms., because anyone doing otherwise would, as you put it to beautifully, be “endorsing the sexism and homophobia underlying a forced choice between ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs.’”

  8. Jillian Rubino

    I’m always a Ms. Don’t forget, ladies, that Mrs. was first Mr’s (identifying her as his property… ugh).

    But I have a question to pose… I often find myself getting “ma’am”d, especially in the retail industry. As a 22 year old feminist, “Miss” is unacceptable to me, but I have a hard time wrapping my head around getting “ma’am”d… which is probably terribly ageist of me.

    Do any of you have any suggestions for some sort of in between title? With which neither age nor marital status is implied?

    I could just start using m’lady… hehe.

    • Corey

      I work in retail and often get dirty looks because I was taught to refer to everyone, regardless of age, as “sir” or “ma’am.” I flat out refuse to call anyone “miss.” I would love a non-gendered term, but also a non-age-implying way of politely acknowledging a stranger in my space.

      But alas, I’m thus far stuck with “ma’am” and a friendly smile.

    • I “sir” and “ma’am” everyone, but that’s my martial arts training coming out. :D

  9. Corey

    I work in a law firm where we write everything up as Ms. in all of our filings, pleadings, cover letters – everything. My boss says it just saves time and hassle of trying to find out if a woman is married or not, but everytime I type it up , I like to imagine a tiny feminist getting his or her or hir wings!

  10. Casey

    I’m pretty sure his name is Dennis Baron, not “Brown.”

    • Ah, there are ever so very many reasons not to blog at 4am! Thanks for catching that – I cited him correctly in the text and put a correction notice at the bottom of the post.

  11. Grace

    It depends. Mrs. or Ms. is fine. My husband and I shared our last names with each other and joined them with a hypen. I’m okay with the Mrs. in front of our last name because of that. However, formally I prefer Ms.

  12. Ms. all the way. I was a Ms. before I was married, I’m a Ms. now that I am married (kept my own name).

    I’m a Ms. technically because I don’t think my marital status should have anything to do with anything out in the world, but I also like that some people just make the (correct) assumption I’m a feminist when they read it.

  13. I know at least one etiquette book says that “Miss” is for young women under age 16, while “Ms.” is for those over 16. It’s difficult to sound professional in many jobs that use a title if you’re a “Miss.”

    • Barbara

      I agree with this. It is difficult to find references that attempt to clarify which prefix to use by age, but I’ve seen Ms. used for women who are beyond their teenage years. At 41 years of age, I don’t mind Miss or Ms., but I do prefer either of those to Ma’am (whih makes me feel old!)

  14. Don’t be afraid of ma’am, young women. I love it when people call me ma’am. Always have. It doesn’t make me feel old. It makes feel like I’m being addressed with respect. I’d rather be called ma’am than be referred to as a “girl.” Because I am not a child. I am an adult. Even if you’re a young adult, why should you have to be called “miss,” like in the old days when you couldn’t get a title of respect until you were married?

  15. lucy

    I have always been a Ms. as well because I didn’t change my name when I married. (I didn’t “keep” my name because … it’s my name. Nothing to keep as it was mine all along.) I don’t like Miss or Mrs as they don’t have any logic when your last name does match your husband’s. To concur with a previous post, in Italy they call you signorina when you aren’t married but also as a sign of your status. So even when I wasn’t married but was in charge of students, I would be referred to as signora as a sign of respect. The sexism in this, of course, is that they use the married version as the respectful one, but it is interesting to see that there is more than one route to receiving respect.

  16. Karen

    Yes this is an interesting topic and one that I can be confused over. I wish women only had one choice like men mr and ms. that would be my final choice. I do not like that we are making a statement when we are using ms and then it gets people wondering which we were. It just should not matter. I was a miss and then I was married but I do not like using mrs because I did not take his last name. More because of convenience and laziness rather than making yet another statement. I usually pick ms but I do answer to Mrs B**** which would have been my married name if I had changed it. Unless of course it is a telemarketer and then I just say there is no Mrs B*** here.

  17. jjtew

    I am Ms. I correct my soon-to-be 2nd grade son when he refers to women (not girls) as “Miss” (unless it’s a preferred nickname — hey, this is the South.)
    I am not married, therefore I am not Mrs.
    I am over the age of 17, therefore I am not Miss.
    I identify as female, therefore I am not Mr.
    As a stickler for correct language, the only correct choice is Ms. (until, as Kala said, I am Dr.) :)

  18. As soon as I became aware of the distinction, I began using Ms. I think that when I get married I will continue to use it. I am still independent whether or not I am married and my marital status should not affect anything in my day-to-day life.

  19. Joe

    I found that all very interesting. I think that this should probably be taught in schools (perhaps it is in some schools, but not at any of mine in the UK).
    If all teachers were at least given the option as to what suitable prefix they would prefer and the differences explained to pupils, the distinction would become far more widely understood.

  20. B

    This concept has always been a matter of age for me. “Miss” was simply for younger girls – not “of age” – and “Ms.” for unmarried young woman. Granted, I’ve NEVER referred to myself as miss (to my knowledge) because I’ve always seen myself as mature enough to be referred to as Ms., and should be respected as such. I believe that for young women it’s a choice they should make based on what feels comfortable for them. Ms. implies a sense of independence and power that some young women might not want to ascertain, and some may be so ready to accept from day 1. Whatever the young women chooses, her decision should be respected.

  21. I appear to be alone here, but I actually prefer “Miss” for myself–nothing against “Ms.” for those who prefer it. I get a kick out of it when people call me “Miss Emily.” I’m a stage manager with a definite schoolmarm aspect, so I feel it suits me.

  22. I will never give up my maiden name, though.

  23. Nicole Monsibais

    Shelby, some day soon I hope all lesbians can get married! :) I recently moved my maiden into my middle and ultimately, felt completely unsatisfied. Finally, I was honest with myself and my husband (who is absolutely supportive – the pressure was more from my family and elders) and changed it back to my last name. Feels so good to be a Ms. again! I feel liberated!!!!

  24. Megan

    Dennis Baron! I had a class with his wife and fellow professor, Iryce Baron. She’s brilliant and does lots of interesting work with contemporary chick lit.

    I get excited when I see mention made of my alma mater.

    Also, I’m going to be a life-long Ms. :-)

  25. Cori B-W

    Not only am a Ms., but I also carry both my mother’s and father’s last name (my parents are married). To make a long story short, I will always be a Ms. and I will always carry both of my parent’s last names. Nothing more nothing less!!!!!

  26. Juby

    I never considered myself as a ranging anti-feminist but I am Mrs B, now, and I love it.
    I love that people see my name and instantly know that I am not available to be leered at, or looked at.
    I would not like people to assume I am unmarried because that would attract unwanted attention from would be prospective boyfriends who no longer bother trying to impress me because it’s immediately apparent that I’m not interested. I guess I find a kind of sexual safety in being addressed as ‘Mrs B’ – does that sound weird?

  27. Gabrielle

    @Juby – The sad thing is we all have a right to sexual safety without having to rely on a title for it.

    @chavisory – You’re not alone actually! Something about the harsh sound of Ms. (“mizzzzzz”) has always bothered me. I do hate Mrs. though, especially in conjunction with the husband’s name. Like “Mrs. John Smith”– it’s like not only does the woman lose her own title and last name, but her ENTIRE time. It’s infuriating.

    I think it’s possible I could change my mind after giving it more research. I had never read before, for example, that “Miss” was only for people under 17? I’ve been using it forever, but I’ve been over 17 a while. I had sort of equated it with a lack of shame in not being married. Not that users of Ms. have any shame in not being married, but I just wanted it to be definitely known that I wasn’t married and didn’t mind if people knew. I suppose it’s a bit difficult to explain.

    I too live in the South but I definitely HATE being “ma’am”-ed. It does NOT feel like a term of respect because it’s simply recited by rote. No one really feels like they are addressing you respectively, just blathering some word society has pushed them into. And it makes me feel ancient!

    If I ever marry, I plan to have both myself and my partner to change our last names to something new for both of us, or both keep our existing names. And also add me to the list that will use “Dr.” once applicable. :)

  28. Mark

    Contrary to common misconception, there *is* a male near equivalent to Miss: Master. Check out novels from, say, the 1930s, and you’ll find it was in common usage. Thing is, it was reserved for boy children, and was never to my knowledge applied to unmarried male adults.

    IMO the use of the terms Miss or Mrs of a woman who has not asked to be thus titled is disrespectful in the extreme.

  29. Ann

    I am a Ph.D. and I prefer Mrs. Regardless of what you feel about marriage, I urge anyone to find ligament complaints about a healthy, supportive, mutual marriage. For an individual who has happiness and an wonderful family through a committed marriage, I gladly wear the tile of Mrs. as a tribute to what I feel is the most satisfying aspect of my life, family. I have never felt my title, makes me a subordinate to my husband nor disrespected as a independent person. Then again, I believe your actions speak a lot louder than a two or three letter name prefix. If your worried that someone will judge you based on your prefix….then maybe there are other issues that should be addressed.

  30. MsThang

    Super late to the party, but let me just say to the younger women. Own your adult status. There seems to be this self-infantilizing of women under thirty thinking of themselves as girls and not the equals of women 30, 40, 50 and therefore not deserving of the honorific ma’am. Secondly the mere fact that women are being sorted and categorized into Mrs., Miss, is sexist as men have one term alone with no other connotation than actual respect. Sir does not imply age nor marital status because men are just men. Women instead are moms or babes or hags. I call women ms./ma’am all women, no discrimination by age whatsoever. I’m also disappointed on the ageism I’m hearing here. That’s a huge issue for feminist as women make up most of the aged and also suffer disproportionately through ageism. That’s why so many of us grate at ma’am. It’s well known that a woman’s social worth plummets with age and this happens sooner than it does for men. Additionally ageism hurts women in seeking healthcare and jobs. Just something else to think about. Finally, to answer the overall blog question absolutely Miss or Ms matters. The language we use influences the way we think. Knowing that is why the 1st feminist wave insisted on Ms. in the first place. Sorry for the long comment, I’ll step off my box now.

    • Gabrielle

      I’m happy to mention that over 2 1/2 years after my first comment above, I *have* changed my mind, and now have no problem with Ms. Ms. Thang, you did a fantastic job of explaining all the reasons why. The ageism is a really important point. Thank you.

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