The meaning of Ms

When I was 14 and still had the emotional capacity to become prostrate with rage at injustices, both real and imagined, I swore I would always be a Ms. I made my sister swear, too. The logic of the feminist argument was unassailable: all men were Mr, regardless of their marital status — why should women not be accorded the same privacy? To mark them out in this way was a hangover from a time when a woman was owned by her husband, when her marital status was more important than anything else about her.

But we didn’t know then what a freighted monosyllable Ms would become.
Its widespread adoption by American and (as ever, to a slightly lesser extent) British feminists in the 1970s and early 1980s meant it quickly became inextricably linked to bra-burning, hairy-legged extremism. It was ridiculed and reviled from the start, by men (which was expected) but also by too many “ordinary’’ (non-activist) women for it ever really to become part of common parlance and lose its stigma.

Now, although I wrestle briefly with my conscience every time I am confronted with a form that deems my marital status an issue of supreme importance, I tick the “Miss’’ box. I have a friend who does so because she dislikes what she refers to darkly as the “lesbian undertones’’ of Ms. But I do it, well, because ticking Ms seems like making more of a statement about an issue that no longer rouses my ire than is necessary or desirable. Or perhaps I just don’t want to be reminded of my idealistic 14-year-old self, who would doubtless have made a bold stroke with an Amnesty International pen and theatrical flourish before heading off to do her stint at the nearest women’s refuge.

Ah well. There are some still more pragmatic than I. Anna, a 28-year-old systems analyst in Manchester, says: “To be honest, I use Miss because I’m looking for a boyfriend and I want to advertise the fact that I am single.’‘

My sister says she uses Miss because it sounds younger and she is already being kept awake at night by the sound of time’s winged chariot thundering up behind her.

But what happens when you get married? Miss is no longer really an option if you have even a passing interest in factual accuracy, so you must choose between Ms and Mrs.

I personally can’t imagine referring to myself as Mrs with a straight face, but that may be because the idea of being ready to settle down for a lifetime with one person still causes something deep within me to revolt and start battening down the hatches of my psyche to prevent internal meltdown. But anecdotal evidence from the eight million friends who have gaily tripped down the aisle over the past couple of years and gladly relinquished not just their Miss titles but their surnames too suggests that I am in the minority.

Perhaps I should have realised this the day Madonna proclaimed via the woefully underused medium of the diamanté-studded suit that she was now Mrs Guy Ritchie.

The easiest way to avoid detonating this particularly heavily mined area of political correctness, however, is to refuse to use anything. I have only tried this once — last week, when I was buying a new oven and could not envisage a situation in which knowing my marital status could be of vital importance to the local purveyor of white goods. I had to divulge the information in the end because the computer screen would not accept an unfilled field, but I intend to stick to my guns next time.

Until then, my sister and I will continue under the single soubriquet. It will at least serve us well in later years when we retire to live out our spinsterhoods in tweed and a crumbling farmhouse, to become known far and wide as the Two Mad Miss Mangans. — Guardian Newspapers 2005

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