Some of second-wave feminists’ greatest lasting victories were linguistic: They made it more acceptable for women to keep their birth names after marriage, for instance, and popularized the use of “Ms.” But if their efforts were so successful, why is Time’s Nancy Gibbs stumped when a form asks her to circle one title: “Ms.,” ”Mrs.” or “Miss”? Her revelation, after exploring the history of all three terms and pointing out some bizarre examples of the New York Times’ failure to adequately mediate between them, is that she can’t decide not because her title means so much, but because it barely means anything. She concludes that “it’s become O.K. not to care” how we’re addressed:
Whether my children’s friends call me Ms. Gibbs or Mrs. May or any combination of the two, I view it as a sign of respect and don’t worry about the particulars. My husband never remotely suggested that he was bothered by my not taking his name; in fact, he’s accustomed to occasionally answering to Mr. Gibbs. My late father, a fine writer, thrilled to see that name in the pages of this magazine. All these identities are me: Ms. when I’m out slaying dragons, Mrs. when I’m in the company of those I love most, Miss when I want to stay home under the covers and daydream. Feminists a generation ago fought for the title and dreamed of Freedom and Choice and Opportunity; maybe the surest sign that they’ve won is not which title we pick, but that we can have them all at once.
Gibbs’ is a charismatic argument for “having it all,” and she does get at what’s singularly attractive about each title. When someone calls her “Mrs. May,” they’re uniting her with her husband and children; Miss Nancy is childlike and free; and Ms. Gibbs is everything our ’70s foremothers dreamed she would be: smart, efficient, high achieving.
But Gibbs doesn’t delve into what’s particularly bothersome about each term. As a (potentially permanently) unmarried woman, I’m not a good candidate for “Mrs.” And even if I were, the title’s connotations — that I was someone’s counterpart, that I had taken my husband’s name — would get to me. The problems with “Miss” are the same as its advantages: Just as it conveys youth and freedom, it also suggests inexperience. On a very basic level, it feels diminutive. It’s hard to answer to “Miss” without feeling like you’re being condescended to.
So how about “Ms.”? Isn’t it, according to Ms. magazine’s editors (as quoted by Gibbs), “a standard form of address by women who want to be recognized as individuals, rather than being identified by their relationship with a man”? Didn’t it solve all of our title-related problems? As it turns out, not entirely. “Ms.” was supposed to be our equivalent of “Mr.” But I imagine the “Ms.” staff didn’t anticipate those other forms of address sticking around once their term made it into common usage. It didn’t occur to them that, in 2009, Nancy Gibbs would be puzzling over whether to circle ”Mrs.,” ”Ms.” or “Mrs.” on a government form. By then, they must have assumed, she would automatically be “Ms.” Those other little circles just wouldn’t exist.
As long as we still have “Mrs.” and “Miss,” then “Ms.”will never be the same as “Mr.” Instead, we’ll have to keep defining it in opposition to those other terms: ”Ms.” is the married woman who has kept her name, or the single 20-something who wants to be taken seriously. She is, at least to some extent, a feminist. For those of us who just want our name to be our name, and not an automatic indicator of our social or political agenda, this can be frustrating.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for “Ms.” And when faced with the kind of form Gibbs describes, I’ll circle it every time. But mostly, I just feel lucky that I’ve spent most of my life in informal settings, where titles aren’t necessary. At home, at school and in the workplace, I’ve always just been “Judy” — and that’s also all I’ve ever wanted to be.