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.
7 years ago