// 12 March 2012

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miss240x240.jpgOne of our readers, Rosie, emailed to raise awareness of an online petition to drop the title miss from all official documents. The petition can be found at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/30205 and it’s generated an interesting discussion between some of the bloggers at TFW.

There seems to be an obvious parallel with France’s recent decision to stop using mademoiselle in official documents because it denotes a woman’s marital status in a way that men are not subjected to (madame is traditionally used to refer to married women; mademoiselle to unmarried women), and while there’s broad (but not unanimous) support amongst TFW bloggers for the removal of miss, our discussion made it clear that it isn’t as simple a matter as one might think.

My own position – and I’m not claiming to speak for anyone but myself – is that, even though I’m binary-identified, I’d nevertheless be more than happy to see an end to the enforcement of all cultural stereotypes of what is meant by mrs/ms/miss/mr (and woman/female as well as man/male) against those who, for whatever reason, don’t fit neatly into the simplistic binary checkboxes that are currently all there is on offer. My viewpoint is underpinned by my seeing the matter through at least two intersecting lenses arising from being a woman who is also transsexual. From my own reading on the matter for many TS/TG people there is, in many countries, a clear link between one’s legal and social titles and one’s medical and surgical status. My recent post about the Swedish government’s proposal to retain a 1972 gender recognition law under which TS/TG and gender variant people who want to change their legal gender are required to be sterilised touched on this, but one only has to look at the research by TGEU’s TVT Project to see that the situation in Sweden is only the tip of an iceberg. However, I also recognise that other privileges from which I benefit may be hindering me from seeing other intersections, such as class, age, race and so on.

For example, some feminist women may actively like miss, especially when they live in communities where they’re expected to marry young. In these circumstances, miss may be seen as a title of emancipation to be worn with pride.

Then, in a country such as Germany where Anglophone conventions don’t hold sway, all women are simply frau and it’s often assumed that the equivalent in translation is mrs – so an unmarried woman may find herself referred to as mrs, whether or not she’s married and regardless of her own preferences. And, as one of my co-bloggers, points out, many Sikh first names can be either female or male as the name Singh or Kaur after it indicates gender. For anyone unfamiliar with this convention, the risk of misgendering someone can be reduced by the use of gendered titles like ms or miss.

Another point of view emerging from our discussion is that the use of gendered titles can be superfluous and essentialist while simultaneously having its uses. For example, if you have a form which asks for a title then you can use that information to personalise your response to someone – in a sense, you’re saying, “this is my gender, please use the pronouns associated with it when you address me”. It can also be useful if you’re researching the gender balance of groups or organisations although, again, we’re still stuck with what are fundamentally binarist naming conventions.

There is also the matter of personal choice: even if I may not like these titles, lots of other people clearly do and why should I remove their ability to identify themselves how they like? Although there’s also a problem when society at large ignores an individual’s stated preferences because it’s decided to enforce its own preconceptions and prejudices. From my perspective as a woman who is also transsexual, this intersects with a long-standing discussion between some TS/TG people about ‘passing’ (or, more accurately in my opinion, ‘being passed’). To illustrate my point, over recent years I’ve developed a distinct aversion to speaking on the phone to people in positions of authority because, even if they have all my details on their computer screen in front of them, it’s my experience that they will still invariably decide that I have “a man’s voice” (whatever that means) and address me according to that perception, that snap value judgement that they’ve made about me.

Our discussion also raised the question of the way in which these titles are used: do they denote marital status, or social status, or something else entirely? If we followed the example of countries where your form of address was linked to your job title (eg. Teacher Jane Doe), would that be preferable? My feeling is no, it wouldn’t because of the risk that people without a job may be further marginalised and stigmatised and thus marked out as lower status.

But whichever way we feel about the matter, I can’t overstate that this is, in my opinion, about freedom to choose, and to have our choices respected. I think that any prescriptive solution would be unacceptable and perhaps unfeminist: people should be free not to use miss, there should be the option to use ms or anything else we choose, or no title at all but above all this is not about nonconsensually “banning” anything.

So while it would be good to get rid of gender identifiers altogether – and there should definitely be gender neutral options as well as the option not to use any – it seems we’re a long way from reaching that particular compromise.

I think it’s fair to say that several of us found the whole conversation really useful and where we initially thought there was an obvious ‘correct’ feminist position on the matter, it’s clear that there are many nuances to be considered and I for one would be interested to hear what other TFW readers think!


The image miss was made by Helen and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. If reusing the image elsewhere, please link back to this blog post: /blog/2012/03/miss

Comments From You

Jessica // Posted 12 March 2012 at 12:42 pm

I’ve managed to get titles taken off many things, such as debit and credit cards. I’ve instructed my mortgage and other such companies to address me by my full name — and surprisingly many of them are able to do this. But when I do use a title, I prefer “Ms”. As far as I’m concerned, I stopped being “Miss” on my 18th birthday. I don’t like “Mrs” much, and don’t see why titles are really neccessary.

JessLeeds // Posted 12 March 2012 at 1:06 pm

I don’t know why, but being called ‘Ms’ really really bugs me. I’m a ‘Miss’, I’m not married, and I’m proud of not being married. I also work in education and it would be a massive cultural shift to call teachers anything but Miss/Mrs/Ms so-and-so and Mr so-and-so. What would you call them instead?

Rose // Posted 12 March 2012 at 1:08 pm

I’ve been Ms since I was first asked, when I was 13.

As far as I was tell, MIss was a fathers daughter – and I didn’t even know what mine looked like.

Even know I have banks and the such like ‘correct’ my title to Miss when they input my data. Last time, I was then insulted for asking for it to be corrected.

I hate the term, I don’t feel it respects my adulthood. My partner never gets given the title of a child, why should I?

Males titles change when they become men not boys – it’s a mark of respect. Traditionally, womens titles change when they become wives not daughters – it’s a mark of possession.

Laura Woods // Posted 12 March 2012 at 1:57 pm

I always use Ms as well, but don’t think it’s right to remove the option for Miss completely. As you say, some people do prefer the title Miss, so who am I to say they can’t use it!

I’ve actually seen a couple of forms from American organisations that only have Ms or Mrs as options, which makes me wonder if Ms is more commonly accepted in the US?

Jess // Posted 12 March 2012 at 2:59 pm

I think as Helen says, it’s a choice and making the choice to be Ms rather than Miss can be an important step in defining your own identity and beliefs.

I always called myself Miss when I was a teenager, probably because of the girls magazine ”Mizz” and the fact I could do a heart on the i (blurk). But as I grew up I realised the cultural meanings being Miss and Ms and swiftly changed to using Ms – learnings good and it helps you to articulate your reasons behind choices.

JessLeeds // Posted 12 March 2012 at 3:18 pm

I do love how every other feminist in the UK is called Jess or a variation on the name… :)

Cycleboy // Posted 12 March 2012 at 3:27 pm

I recall a fellow student getting very angry when an official letter was addressed to her as ‘Ms’. “I’m a Miss,” she railed. I’ve never understood why it so upset her. OK, I’m fine with her wish to be known as ‘Miss’, but if I write an official letter to a woman, I have no idea as to her married state, so I choose to use the title ‘Ms’. It seems like the simplest option and that least likely to cause offence. Why anyone should get upset by this quite baffles me.

Laurel // Posted 12 March 2012 at 4:41 pm

id consider sir/madam a sign of adultdood (not one i want) rather than MRS. MRS i see as more of a marital status than Miss, because its the default one we are born with, though I always say Ms. I’d feel as someone who is against marriage, a tad undermined if I were forced to use the term MRS for myself.

anywavewilldo // Posted 12 March 2012 at 5:19 pm

I have tended to use Ms since first becoming a feminist but I like to reserve Miss to demonstrate I have never married. If same sex marriage goes ahead in Britain I will be very sad if dykes start to take the title Mrs and I’m expecting they will, and I’m expecting that my non-civilised lifepartnership will be even further marginalised. I think any woman who feels the need to demonstrate she has entered a buisness and inheritance contract with another is an ass.

My first preference is no titles at all (and no family names) – surely two or three personal names would be enough for administration. I also favour non-gender pronouns.

My second preference if we retain gender is to use Mx Ms Mr – I don’t see why children need a different title – after all isn’t that just about be-littleing them. If they do, they should probably be M till they decide their gender when they could have a wee rite of passage about it.

IronFly // Posted 12 March 2012 at 6:44 pm

I’m indifferent.

starofvenus // Posted 13 March 2012 at 12:40 pm

I am confused as to why the petition wants to get rid of Miss but not Mrs.

I would happily sign a petition where the desire was that forms states Mr or Ms. To have Ms and Mrs is just as archaic and ridiculous as to have Miss and Mrs.

One non-relationship-specific identifier for each gender (whether that gender be through birth or decision) please!

Vicky // Posted 13 March 2012 at 4:00 pm

I use both Miss and Ms, and the one I choose to write depends on the situation. If I want to be taken seriously (say in a job application, especially if the job is one that requires a lot of experience) I put ‘Ms’. I do this because people tend to associate ‘Miss’ with youth, and I don’t want to be dismissed as a young thing who is no doubt bright enough but who doesn’t have anywhere near enough professional or life experience. I also use ‘Ms’ when I don’t want people to know my marital status, such as when I’m travelling alone. But ‘Miss’ is actually the title I prefer. I am not married, I have no plans to ever be married, and I’m happy with that. It’s me.

gembot // Posted 14 March 2012 at 1:34 am

I’ve tried to make the change from Miss to Ms but so far it’s always been ‘corrected’ back to Miss for me. In a couple of months time I’ll have my PhD and be able to us ‘Dr’. I can’t wait to see if using a gender-neutral title makes a difference.

diane cawsey // Posted 3 November 2012 at 6:28 pm

I refuse to be classified, men don’t allow themselves to be categorised by their marital status – it’s irrelevant whether I am married or not.

Cycleboy // Posted 4 November 2012 at 4:27 pm

Dianne: “men don’t allow themselves to be categorised”

Actually, I don’t really think it’s a case of allowing or not. We grow up knowing that ‘Mr’ is the title we will have, but I doubt if many men really question it, at least in regard to marital status. Besides, my guess is that a great majority of men honestly believe that the majority of women (note: not all) want to be identified as married. In fact, though I rail against it myself (as friends and family will attest) I think many do. When one of my colleagues, a professional engineer, came back from her honeymoon, she bounced up to her friend and announced, “Hey, I’ve got a new name.” And, I can assure you, she was not being the least ironic.

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