Six months ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated to tick the ‘Miss’ box when asked for my title on an official form. In fact, I quite liked its young, fresh formality. It seemed like small fry, in any case. Studying for an English Language A Level and considering the importance of language in social movements has made me drastically reconsider.
The two letters’ difference between ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ seems innocuous, and could hardly be said to cause offence. Keeping this distinction, it would seem, can be useful. The adoption of the awkward, in-between coverall, ‘Ms’, is supposedly more trouble than it’s worth. With narratives about ‘feminazis’ and ‘PC gone mad’ running amock, it can even be interpreted as petty, man-hating, and deliberately obfuscatory. Many women like the tradition of changing their title upon marriage, as its defenders are keen to point out, and are proud to flaunt the linguistic equivalent of a wedding ring.
But the problem lies in the unstomachable origins of this distinction of terms, which stems from fundamental inequality between men and women. Why do men reserve the right to keep their marital status under wraps? ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ is often defended as a useful tool for conveying information, but the fact is that a woman’s relationship situation is very rarely an essential piece of information, if relevant at all. In fact, that a man can get away with never having to reveal it (and come up against no barriers), shows that in an equal world it is never relevant. If having this distinction were as helpful as its defenders propose, we would have it for men too.
As feminist linguist Dale Spender convincingly argues, ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ arose as markers of women’s sexual availability in a patriarchal order which saw this as their most important, defining quality. Originally, and still, working in conjunction with the patriarchal signature that is a surname, they mark out the young misses who are fair game, the old maids who aren’t worth having, and the wives who are another man’s property, to be attempted only if you dare.
Men’s ability to keep their sexual availability to themselves is a privilege, and women’s easy categorisation by our linguistic system is of further benefit to them. ‘Ms’ affords a woman the same privacy as ‘Mr’, and denies the men around her the advantage of classification conferred by our language. It too has its problems, but these aren’t caused by the fact that its pronunciation isn’t clear from its spelling (as one critic hilariously argued – note that the same goes for ‘Mr’). Such flimsy objections only serve to reveal the deeply embedded and probably largely unconscious male fear of losing the benefits of linguistic inequality which they’ve enjoyed for centuries.
The associations of ‘Ms’ with ‘feminazi’ pedantry, but also with shame and secrecy, are not inherent problems with the term. They’re the graffiti of an angry societal response to women’s attempted denial of the preservation of categories which degrade them. Let’s set this straight – I’m quite certain that at any given point in my career of filling out forms I’ll be proud of the marital status I’m recording. It is not that I want to hush up my romantic successes or failings, or think that the men (and women) around me ought not to know about them. The reason I’ll be choosing ‘Ms’ is that, just like the men around me, it shouldn’t be the default that I reveal these things, except by my own choice at my own time to those people who I think need to know.
The same logic applies to taking a future husband’s surname, though here the waters seem to get even deeper and ever more treacle-y. The difference is that, apparently, my choice doesn’t operate in isolation, and seems to make a statement about my relationship with and commitment to another person.
For me and many other feminists, the problems don’t lie in the apparently insignificant aspects of changing one’s name upon marriage. The hassle of having to edit one’s profile on social media accounts, inform colleagues and clients at work, or apply for a new passport are little impracticalities which women have to go through that their male counterparts don’t experience, and shouldn’t be dismissed.
But the core issue is twofold. Firstly, there’s the drastic alteration of identity which a name change constitutes. As Chimamanda Adichie (author of We Should All Be Feminists) so eloquently argues in her beautiful manifesto for modern feminism, Dear Ijeawele, a woman’s name is the one she has grown up with, and forms a massive part of who she is. It’s the name she’s used to being greeted with, told off with, signing important documents with. My name is the name I applied to Cambridge with. It’s the name I hope to have most of my adult success with. It is literally the term which we use to label our entire picture of ourselves, our achievements, our sense of who we are. For a man this name never changes. Just imagine for a moment, male readers, that this were reversed, and your (marker of) identity were subsumed in marriage without a second thought.
Secondly, it’s the invisibility of women and erasure of the female line which this linguistic convention actively furthers. It says pretty clearly that the male signature is the only impression which need be left. A married woman does not pass on the accumulation of achievements and personal qualities which are contained for her in, and signalled to others by, her full name. With the necessity of marriage for childbearing removed, this problem is perhaps becoming less pronounced – though most children still take their father’s name.
So that momentary pause and giggle of forgetfulness which a newly married woman hearing her name called in doctor’s surgery stands for so much. I can hear critics – those who are wary of ‘the PC brigade’ and tired of ‘snowflake students’ – point out that with marriage one defines oneself anew, and a reconsideration of identity can be a positive thing. If I marry, I’m definitely up for redefining some aspects of myself as a result of that choice. But in a truly equal marriage I would expect my husband to do so too. I don’t believe that a change of name is necessary to publicly signal what is actually a very private process, but, even if it were, a double-barrel or entirely new name for us both would do the job.
The reason I’ll be keeping my own name, or, quite possibly, adopting a new one alongside my partner, is not because I’m an unruly or selfish feminazi. The passive acceptance of a problematic tradition, instead of the active choice to reject convention in celebration of an equal marriage, is not an affront, not a challenge to masculinity, but rather a proud assertion of the existence of femininity, and its refusal to be hidden any longer.
For a better rendering of the arguments I’ve outlined here, and a more in-depth analysis, see Dale Spender’s seminal book, Man Made Language (especially the chapter entitled To Believe or Not to Believe), and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions’ Dear Ijeawele (especially suggestion number seven).