Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ms Pilgrim

Not long ago, whilst traveling, I read The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. I didn't read it for any particular seasonal reason, but by coincidence I read it close to the US Thanksgiving holiday (today).

Towards the end of the book, after telling numerous stories of the relentless and often violent struggles among many different people of many different origins and faiths, Vowell visits a historical site in Rhode Island and contemplates a plaque that contains the names of men who signed a pledge related to the founding of the little proto-state. One of the names on the plaque is that of the husband of Anne Hutchinson, who was herself left off the plaque despite her having been pivotal in the founding of Rhode Island.

Vowell disapproves of this omission, as she similarly disapproves of Boston Puritan hero-person John Winthrop's distaste for having to argue with a mere female, just before he exiles Hutchinson and her family to Rhode Island. Vowell contemplates the unfairness of Hutchinson's gender having kept her from "pursuing her calling".

She does this contemplating in part in a "women's healing garden" near the park/plaque commemorating the men who signed the pledge. She admits that the words "women's healing garden" give her a feeling of "feminist dread". I kind of agree with her general point about women's healing gardens, if not her choice of words, but then Vowell continues with this:

A potential male magazine subscriber is given the choice of one title, "Mr.", but a female magazine subscriber is given three choices, thereby requiring a woman to inform perfect strangers in the mailroom at Newsweek or Conde Naste exactly what kind of woman she is. She is either male property (Mrs.), wannabee male property (Miss), or man-hating harpy (Ms.).

Well, I don't really like the Miss/Mrs/Ms thing either, and I am of course aware of the association of Ms with feminism, but do many women really equate Ms with "man-hating harpy" in the same way that they equate feminism with man-hatred (as has been much discussed lately, here and elsewhere)? As in, they'd even rather use Miss than Ms because of what they think (or fear) Ms might imply?

And how much does our choice of title indicate "exactly what kind of woman" we are? Perhaps quite a lot, though we may disagree about the connotations of "Ms".

There was an interesting piece in The New York Times a month or so ago detailing the history of Ms and tracing its origin back over 100 years ago to a need for a respectful way to address women of unknown marital status. That's all it is and that's all it needs to be.

So what's the problem? Do we need to start all over with a 4th mode of address for people who fear the meaning of Ms? I think (hope) not.

Ms is clever: it is short, it is convenient, and it refers in a simple way to someone who is female. It is very useful for women like me who are married but who aren't Mrs Husbandname.

When I fill out a form, I leave those Miss/Mrs/Ms check boxes blank whenever possible. I don't really see the point of selecting a preferred mode of address in most of the circumstances in which the information is requested. Do I need mail to be addressed to me by anything other than my name? Sometimes this means I am assigned Mr by default, but in many cases it just means that I get things addressed to me as firstname lastname.

I select Dr (if available) in cases in which I may have to interact with a real person. I discovered the utility of the Dr title years ago in the specific context of interacting with airline and medical personnel. I have found that it increases the chances that I will be treated in a polite and respectful way, although I think that it is unfortunate that the title makes as much difference as it does.

But: If I have to choose among Miss/Mrs/Ms, I definitely choose Ms, even if doing so implies that I am a mythological creature who snatches food from men being punished by Zeus. In this particular case, I am willing to take that risk.

Happy Thanksgiving.

38 comments:

Notorious Ph.D. said...

It may vary by region, but I've gotten used to thinking that "Ms." was pretty standard by now for someone who is female and over, say, 14. I like to think that people don't think I'm a harpy for wanting to be addressed as "Ms." (or "Professor", as the case may be). I'd like to think they think I'm a harpy for other reasons.

Hope said...

I think Vowell was being facetious when she equated Ms with “man-hating harpy” – she needed something to go along with “male property” and “wannabee male property.” For me it doesn’t have that connotation at all. Then again, when Zuska asked (in the post you referred to): Who can claim feminist identity?, I’m pretty sure that the answer is C: Pretty much anyone. What they mean by "feminist" is another question. Now *that*, and its ramifications for the future of feminism, would make for an interesting post. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

Anonymous said...

The part where you mention that people have a tendency to treat you with more respect if they know you have a Ph. D. has left me astonished.
Mummy taught me that you must treat everybody with respect, so it would have never crossed my mind to treat anybody less respectfully if they DIDN'T have a Ph.D.
I guess it's one of those unexplicable things about humans, like treating someone with more respect at work if they're wearing a tailored suit instead of shorts and sneakers.
I've known Doctors who lost my respect for them due to their behaviour. One of them was even knicknamed 'Epsilon' because he was tiny and negligible (actually, the word we used in my tongue means negligible as well as despicable).
I've also had bosses who were flawlessly dressed every day, but were also serious psychopaths.
It always gets to me when people think they know how to treat you just by looking at your name in a tag or the way you dress.

Anyway, it's heartwarming to learn that people in the US actually have respect for well-educated people. In my home country, unfortunately, a Ph.D. has no value outside the academic world. Corporations value much more a Masters degree, as they look for practicality. And apart from the fact that airlines don't care at all what your academical background is, so they won't ask, I would be very surprised if that knowledge changed their attitude to a Doctor passenger.

We don't celebrate Thanksgiving here, but today I wish I could join you in the celebration and stuff myself with turkey and pumpkin pie. Have a nice day!

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with the sentiments in this post. I too always choose Ms when possible, and I don't understand why I should specify my marital status while a man does not need to. I had no idea this marks me as a feminist (not a big deal) or even a man-hater (really??).

I have noticed recently though, a lot of airlines give a choice of Ms and Mr, and that's it. Hopefully this is a sign things are moving this way! Sometimes Dr is also an option, but then it is Dr Ms and Dr Mr, since a lot of countries seem to require passengers to specify gender (I think the US does?).

I have found one particular airline form difficult however. In the native language there are words for Mrs and Miss, but no equivalent to Ms. I am married but don't use my husband's name, and I have no idea whether I supposed to choose Mrs or Miss in that case. Usually pick at random, but it would be nice not to have to think about this. My husband doesn't.

Kris said...

I object to having to make the Miss/Ms/Mrs selection also. However, I find that a correction to Dr (on the phone) often (here) gets a pretty angry response implying that I am an arrogant female who thinks titles are important and wants to demonstrate her ('unfounded') superiority.
I do think titles are important, but only in the context that it's the _correct_ title, especially if someone asks.

I think this comes down also to the "so called expert"-culture here. This means that people who are _actual_ experts tend to be treated with derision, rather than respect.

(As far as I am aware, men here often get the option of Dr on the phone automatically.)

juglark said...

I'm from New Zealand, so cultural mores vary here.

I opted to go for Ms when I turned 20, and left the little-girl title behind. I decided it was time I was a grown up.

We don't call boys Master Smith beyond the age of about 10 or 12, and Miss Smith conjures up a sweet sixteen year old. It's fine up until you want to be taken seriously.

In Germany they have the answer. Fraulein is only used for little girls, and from the age of about 16 all women, married or not, are Frau Schmidt. Simple!

muddled grad student said...

Interesting I had never associated Ms with feminism (and/or?) man-hatred. I can't remember how I came to this conclusion but since I was quite young I assumed Mrs = married, Miss = young girl and Ms = you can't really be called a young girl anymore but aren't married or is a convenient way of not disclosing your marital status.
I use Ms now and I don't think I'm about to change it because of what it maybe perceived as.

Anonymous said...

Happy thanksgiving! I would like to use Dr too, when dealing with medical personnel. Interestingly, when I did write Dr in my health registration form, it was ignored and replaced by a Miss (technically speaking, I am a Mrs).

-postdoc

Anonymous said...

Hats off to you FSP for working hard at your job even on Turkey day.

:)

Rebecca said...

I have always used Ms, even when single, because I always felt it conveyed more gravity than Miss. I continue to use it.

Drs got it easy!

NJA said...

I'm in the UK, where:
Miss = common for the very young but increasingly rare as the default or women over the age of 20-25.
Mrs = the default for married women, regardless of age, if their marital status is known.
Ms = used when marital status is unknown and is increasingly the default for women over 20-25

Since I'm at a loss to understand why a women's identity should be determined by marriage, I used Ms as soon as I became aware of its existence (age 12 or 13) and have used Dr from the moment I received my PhD.

I got married since becoming a Dr and I continue to use only Dr as a title (never Mrs - if there is no Dr title on a form, I revert to Ms). So, it's impossible to tell from "Dr A Person" my gender, marital status or age. I like that.

Greg said...

I so agree with your post. I will always address correspondence to a woman as either Dr. or Ms. I feel Ms. is the equivalent to Mr. It simply implies gender and respect. Now that brings up an interesting point. Is there a reason we need to indicate gender? Maybe we need a genderless title? Maybe we just need to address everyone as M. ??

EliRabett said...

Ms. is elidable, which is where is probably came from. Back when the wrong Miss or Mrs got you a fight, you just sort of slurred it over. If you were writing, you still had problems. However, this fight is done with, Ms. has won.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there's a political statement involved any more in using Ms., but I wonder how much of the quickness with which it has become the standard usage results from the rarity with which we use titles nowadays. This may be regional and workplace-dependent (I live in the West and work at a national lab), but I can't think of the last time I was addressed with a title or addressed someone using a title.

Ms.PhD said...

Interesting post and comments, since this came up over at my blog, too.

Suffice it to say, plenty of people still do not think of women as having or deserving equal rights. This is just one minor example.

Anonymous said...

Ms. needs to become the most used title, ASAP. Thankfully it is already becoming so in the professional world, but it really isn't in many other spheres (teachers are still referred to as miss or Mrs). I'm hoping to avoid the issue by going by Dr. whenever I can (well presuming I ever manage to graduate!)

Kevin said...

I always assumed that the Miss/Mrs./Ms. choice was provided for elderly women who cared about old-fashioned ideas of status based on marriage. I thought that the default now was Ms. for any female under the age of 80.

I've never cared much for the forced title either. Technically, men are not supposed to use "Mr." once they have a doctorate, but I am uncomfortable using the the title "Dr." as it has become overly associated with the M.D. degree (though the Ph.D. predates the M.D. by a lot). I will use Prof. in professional contexts, but it is inappropriate at other times.

Personally, I see no need for the title, and leave it blank whenever I can. (I hate webforms that insist on my filling in blanks that are irrelevant or impossible to fill out correctly.)

Anonymous said...

She is either male property (Mrs.), wannabee male property (Miss), or man-hating harpy (Ms.).

I can hardly believe this. I am fuming! The magazine ACTUALLY WROTE words like "wannabee male property" and "man-hating harpy" on their website with the corresponding title of Miss or Ms. in paranthesis!!! Oh my God...how deeply offensive!

I mean, otherwise, why would a rational person, a SCIENCE PROFESSOR no less, claim to know the mind of some random web designer she has never met and claim to see right through his/her mind?

Or, why would a rational person, a SCIENCE PROFESSOR no less, ASSUME that the person who designed the website WAS DEFINITELY A WOMAN HATING MALE or a woman who somehow wants to insult women?

Anonymous said...

Weird comment, Anon 2:33. I don't think Sarah Vowell is a SCIENCE PROFESSOR, not that it matters. Did you read every other paragraph of the post or do you have trouble in general with reading comprehension?

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. In my language/country we don't use titles at all, so this is mostly only an issue when travelling to foreign countries (filling out airline forms).

Personally I don't really understand the purpose of titles, since I am so used to calling everyone by their actual names. I realize there was a time when we needed to know someone's status (in a more class-based society) or perhaps marital status in the case of women. But really, does this have any value in modern society? Don't we treat everyone equally, in theory at least?

butterflywings said...

Meh, I don't think Ms implies you are a man-eating harpy! Only in the eyes of sexist morons, anyway.

I suspect using Dr might solve the issue.

Except I heard some airlines couldn't )or wouldn't) record women passengers as Dr.

butterflywings said...

I think Vowell was just being snarky, though, rather than serious.

It underlines how women are still addressed in relation to men.

Most women I know who are under say, 40, use Ms. Although one of my friends was Miss and changed her name on marriage. (Oh, but that's another debate...)

drbexl said...

Having "Dr" does not always solve the issue... it's quite often "not on the system", so they say "Do you want to be Mrs, Miss, Ms", and (with the danger of sounding narky) say, "well, my title is Dr, but if you don't have that I guess it has to be Ms"! People always sound surprised when I say that... and medical Drs always look worried - until I tell them I'm a history PhD!

Picked this conversation up via @shirleyearley on Twitter...

Anonymous said...

As for some of the comments regarding the declining use of titles I still use it (I'm a first year post-grad by the way). It is partly for respect and partly for my own purposes as when I get absorbed into a project I often forget who I am talking to. Keeping that title helps me to remember that they have experience over me and I should address them appropiately...maybe I'll change that habit once I've got my PhD.

As for the Miss/Ms/Mrs debacle I tend to choose to use the Miss. I am Oriental in origin and back there Miss meant unmarried, Mrs, married and Ms divorced. You'll be surprised how differently you are treated in all three situations. If you are a Miss, the guy go chauvinistic on you, Mrs, and you are treated nicely and sometimes flattering too if your husband's quite senior...Ms and no-body ever bothers with you, unless you are attractive or rich, then it's not too bad. So yeah, as a woman your title do warrant different attitudes! I'm glad that I have been anglicised!

Anonymous said...

I always thought that "Ms" was the new standard and not associated with feminism.

I don't think "Dr" is appropriate to use in social settings. It is a professional - more specifically, an academic - title. so if you're in an academic setting that requires formality then it's appropriate, for anythig else it's not. 'Ms.' is just fine for me. No "Mrs", no "Dr." (even though I'm technically both) just plain old "Ms."

Melissa said...

well, Dr is my name. I worked hard for it. Its part of my name. People should use that. Previously, I used Ms.

If people wouldnt let me use Ms, just miss or missus, I said they could call me Mr.

And even now, if a form wont let me put in Dr or Ms, I go for Mr. There are very few cases in life where knowing what gender I am on a form will actually make a difference to any real world outcome. And I like messing with their heads.

rocketscientista said...

I've always thought of Ms. as a new standard- maybe that's just because I tend to be friends with people who don't think "feminism" is a dirty thing. Or maybe it's because I'm also married, but not Mrs. Hislastname. Or, maybe it's because I lived in Germany, where post-little-girl-dom, you become a Frau, plain and simple.


I, too, avoid that box. I find it supremely unnecessary anyway. Oh, and back when I was indeed unmarried, I would have found being 25 and "Miss" somewhat annoying- it sounds like one is referring to a little girl in her mom's heels.

Sarah said...

I am 31, unmarried, and have a PhD. I just got a corporate credit card for work...and don't recall filling out a form to get it (I think I gave the bank person the info over the phone). When I got the credit card, my name on the front read "Miss FirstName LastName." I couldn't believe it. I don't think I would put "Dr" on any of my personal cards (they don't have any sort of title), but my corporate card is the ONE card that I would probably have addressed as Dr. If nothing else, I would have it say "Ms" rather than "Miss". I can't believe they defaulted to "Miss".

Anonymous said...

I think we should use one title for everyone regardless of gender. Either everyone gets to be a Mr or everyone gets to be a Ms.

I also don't see the point in using "Dr" as a title to be addressed by - I have a PhD too, but I've never used the title cos it's for work purposes to let people know that you have the credentials to be doing what you are doing professionally. So if it's outside of work, the title isn't needed. Even in my work we rarely use the title since everyone is a "Dr" anyway, we just use our first and last names.

Eve said...

I was always given the impression that Ms was used if a woman was embarrassed that she hadn't gotten married yet. I find it most annoying but I use it anyway because I don't feel as though I should be forced to divulge that when my male friends don't, and I like that there are some orgs that offer only Mr or Ms as options.

As soon as I get my PhD, I'm going with Dr at all times. I can't wait.

scicurious said...

I actually didn't know that "Ms" was a feminist thing. I thought of it as "none of your business whether I am married or single".

LadyScientist said...

I hear putting Dr. on your credit card gets you some perks (e.g. better service when you use it to start you bar tab). Can't wait to find out if that's true when I eventually graduate!

On the other hand, my hubby (who has his Ph.D.) never wants to put Dr. on anything for fear that someone will think he's a doctor with medical expertise. He's especially fearful of this situation on airplanes.

Anonymous said...

I too never use my "Dr" on anything for fear that people will expect me to start saving lives during a medical emergency. And in my experience very few working scientists I know actually use their "Dr" titles anyway except on very rare occasions - unlike in the movies.

Anonymous said...

I just use Dr.

Anonymous said...

I'm married and I still use Ms because my identity didn't change just from marrying someone so I see no reason why my name should change overnight and permanently. as for the "Dr" thing - I don't use that either even though I could. To me it's just a job title, not polite form of address (the way Ms or Mr is). I don't want to be reminded of work when I'm not working!

Anonymous said...

"I actually didn't know that "Ms" was a feminist thing. I thought of it as 'none of your business whether I am married or single'."

The fact that your marital status is nobody's business if you don't want it to be is one of the successes of feminism.

thm said...

I think it's a mistake to take Vowell's rhetoric seriously--her writing has always had a touch of snarkiness.

I avoid using Dr. in part because "Doctor" has replaced "physician" in common usage, and in part because nobody in the academic environments I've been a part of used "Dr." except in very special cases, such as right after a successful dissertation defense. To insist on titles was a sort of bluffing and sign of weakness, that you couldn't stand on your achievements. At least amongst other academic scientists. There was a general sense that the more one insisted on being addressed with a title, the less they had achieved to earn that title--or maybe that was just me projecting my experience with otherwise underwhelming Ed.D.s and education Ph.D.s

Anonymous said...

As a near-Ph.D. graduate, I can't claim Dr. lastname yet, nor do I think I want to. I am married and when I recieve my Ph.D. I would prefer to be titled as Mrs. firstname hislastname, Ph.D. in work situations and drop the Ph.D. in non work situations. I was recently told by an advisor that when submitting papers to journals I should use Ms. and not Mrs. I am angered that this bias in science would continue in the 21st century and is suggestive that married women are not as worthy of respect as those who choose to leave their marriage/single status as anonymous. I have decided that any journal that chooses to use these biases is not worth publishing in.