Ever since I was a teenager, I was irked by the usage ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’. It annoyed me to no end that marital status had to be a primary part of a woman’s identity to the extent that it prefixed her name, whereas a man’s marital status didn’t matter to the world. When I came to know about the prefix ‘Ms’, I was pretty relieved.
I had been using it ever since I had started filling forms which had that option. Many times in my growing years and sometimes even now, when the option of Ms is not available, I would have to grudgingly tick ‘Miss’.
But my worst ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ moment is when I go to hospitals. Now that I am 40, the hospital staff sometimes automatically assume I am married and type out a ‘Mrs’ before my name without even asking. It comes as a shocker to me when I receive the file. But I leave it uncorrected because it is too much effort to get it changed and I wouldn’t want to hang around in a hospital more than necessary.
From then on I am made to put up with this uneasy situation where anyone who runs through my file from the doctor to nurse to lab technician addresses me as ‘Mrs’ and I am forced to interrupt and correct my marital status every time. Every time I correct them, they say a ‘sorry’, and that’s not the ‘sorry’ a married woman would have received if her prefix was misspelt. It is the ‘sorry’ an older single woman receives about her marital status itself.
marital status had to be a primary part of a woman’s identity to the extent that it prefixed her name.
After all, it doesn’t matter how happy or sad a woman is, but it’s her marital status that decides how happy or sorry her state of affairs is in the eyes of the society. In another situation, a doctor who glanced at my single status from the hospital sheet, started probing into the reason as to why I did not want a marriage and if I had any medical issues which stopped me from marrying. I had a hard time convincing him that it was a personal choice.
We all know that ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ have its origins in patriarchy, where a woman’s primary source of identity came from a man; where a woman was considered the property of a man and naturally her name was also a part of his. While patriarchal practices and traditions cannot be uprooted overnight, why should state-run and other formal organisations participate in furthering such meaningless traditions? What is the relevance of an archaic honorific title revealing a woman’s marital status in any form to be filled whether by government institutions, banks, hospitals or drop-down menus in various online portals?
One of the ridiculous arguments I have heard in support of the ‘Miss’/’Mrs’ prefixing is that it is necessary for hospitals, where the doctor might have to know whether the woman patient is sexually active. Do they mean to say that unmarried women can’t be sexually active or married women are necessarily sexually active? If doctors start assuming the sexual history of patients based on their marital status without further probing, it can, in fact, lead to a faulty diagnosis.
Only one set of women escape this marital categorization, who are doctors. So if women who are doctors can live their lives without their names having to scream their personal life choices, why shouldn’t every woman be given that luxury? The luxury of being addressed without a prefix that has nothing to do with the person that they are.
Feminists have been raising the issue of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ for decades and it especially picked momentum during the second wave of feminism. Feminist Sheila Michaels re-popularized the word ‘Ms’ in the 1960s as a neutral alternative to ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’. Though the prefix ‘Ms’ was around since 1901, it was used as simply a shorthand for ‘Mistress’.
In 1969, Michaels appeared on the New York City radio station, where she introduced the term ‘Ms’ which caught the attention of Gloria Steinem, who named her feminist magazine Ms in 1972. In February 1972, the US Government Printing Office approved using ‘Ms’ in official government documents.
But unfortunately ‘Ms’ along with ‘Miss’/’Mrs’ doesn’t provide much reprieve. While ‘Ms’ may be believed to be a good alternative for women who do not fall under either the ‘Miss’ category of unmarried young women or the ‘Mrs’ category of married women, which includes older single women, divorced women, queer women etc., it is still a category by itself.
If doctors start assuming the sexual history of patients based on marital status, it can lead to faulty diagnosis.
This is a category that doesn’t fall under mainstream life chances or choices. My question is what is the need for this categorization? Why should a woman give away a bit of her life to random strangers through a gender-based prefix attached to her name, when men are not required to do that?
‘Ms’ can be retained in our vocabulary as a female equivalent of ‘Mr’ but it is high time we got rid of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ in official documentation and forms. French feminists have scored in this aspect by getting ‘Mademoiselle’, the Gallic equivalent of ‘Miss’, banned in 2012 from official French forms, while this step is long awaited in other countries including India.
While the substitution of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ with just ‘Ms’ in forms and documents would bring in gender parity among men and women with respect to non-disclosure of marital status, one problem would still remain unaddressed – which is that of the non-binary or gender-neutral people. A gender-neutral honorific of ‘Mx’ is a newer term that doesn’t indicate the gender of the person being addressed and provides a valid option for those whose gender identity doesn’t fit in the gender binary.
In future, if the forms need to carry honorifics at all, let them be ‘Mx’, ‘Ms’ and ‘Mr’.
Featured Image Credit: UX Booth