1. a title used before the surname or full name of any woman regardless of her marital status (a neutral alternative to Mrs or Miss)
I’ve overheard a few conversations at the entrance to my classroom, upon the door of which sits proud a sign that says ‘Ms Foster’, in which my students try to decipher the meaning behind my title (“No it means she isn’t married – or that she is – or maybe that she was… oh I don’t know”). I’ve also addressed one or two direct questions about why I’m a Ms and not a Miss or a Mrs. My answer to my students is simple: I don’t want to be defined by whether I’m married or not. The truth, of course, is rather more complex.
2016 has been a game changer for me. As my title changed from Mrs to Ms a lot of other things changed too: I moved, two days before Christmas, out of London and back to Wiltshire to be near family; I gave up my post as a Lead Practitioner in December to start a new job, this January, as a full-time English teacher at a school near my new home; I’ve been adjusting to looking after two small children on my own, when I have them, and filling my time when I don’t. In short, my life bears no resemblance to what it was like this time last year. So it goes.
Of course I could have retained my married title and avoided a lot of questions but that didn’t feel right to me and neither did opting for Miss nor reverting to my maiden name (which I hate just a little bit more than I hate Ms). So, although we may be awkward bed fellows, I’m stuck with being a Ms for the time being and it’s thrown up a few things these past few weeks that got me thinking…
Firstly, it got me thinking how difficult it is to say Ms. Go on, try it now – it doesn’t feel natural or easy. There’s something about the formation of the ‘M’ sound that means you have to purse your lips together like you’re about to spit out venom. By contrast, both Miss and Mrs seem to fall happily out of the mouth. I’ve read a couple of things that refer to Ms as an ‘ugly title’ or ‘ugly-sounding’ and I couldn’t agree more. Its difficult pronunciation merely serves to draw attention to itself which made me wonder if whoever came up with the term was trying to punish those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t fall neatly into the married or unmarried camp. That this singularly difficult title was like a siren blaring out that we don’t fit the mould (we’re slippery fish, us Mses).
But, as it turns out, Ms wasn’t dreamt up by some title sadist. It was first used in the 17th Century alongside Miss and Mrs. All three were derived from the formal ‘mistress’ (which, like mister, did not originally indicate marital status). Ms then fell out of favour until the 20th century when it was revived. This extract from The Republican of Springlfied, Massachusetts (1901) touches on why there was a need for it:
‘There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill. Everyone has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some women. To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss.’
The very idea that a married woman might be ‘insulted’ by the use of the ‘inferior’ title Miss might make some of us feminists spit out our tea in indignation but there’s still some truth in it, isn’t there? Although I liked being a Miss (and oftentimes students use that term in lessons unless they forget themselves and call me Mum…) there is something a bit girly about it. If I were to rank them, I’d say Mrs means you’ve made it in the title stakes, Miss means you might one day make it and Ms means that you’ve come last (or stuck your fingers up at the race and didn’t take part). It’s a bronze medal and a pat on the back for getting very close to the finishing line and then falling flat on your face.
My characterisation of these feminine titles may all seem unfair. Who’s to say that being a married woman is better than being unmarried? Who’s to say that being a Ms is all that bad (apart from me)? Who indeed. But this is what it feels like to me. Ms has always been a title I’ve associated with divorced women or staunch feminists – neither of whom get a particularly good press. Now, reluctantly, I am one and it’s not sitting easy.
Maybe if I wasn’t a teacher this wouldn’t even be an issue. I might experience the odd awkward greeting where I politely smile and say, ‘Oh no, sorry, you’re mistaken – I’m a Ms’ because, after all, how often do normal people get addressed in such a formal way except in correspondence or perhaps in court? But I am a teacher and I am addressed in this way every day. My name is emblazoned across 300 or more exercise books (or it should be – in their confusion or inattention some students have labelled me as either Miss or Mrs) and is used by fellow teachers, students and parents on a daily basis.
But the thing I dislike the most about my new title? Correcting others. I feel like I’m nit-picking when I ask students to change the name on their exercise books. I felt like I was being precious when I asked for my door sign to be changed from Mrs to Ms. I feel like I have to explain why I’m a Ms when I correct one of my new colleagues. I feel like I’m making an issue out of something that shouldn’t even be an issue and that I’m giving myself a bad name (excuse the pun) in the process.
If only I were a man I could have kept the neutral Mr and nobody would be any the wiser.