Hit or Ms.
As part of its package on Maria Shriver's A Woman's Nation, which I blogged about last week, Time Magazine's Nancy Gibbs recalls a time when women were identified by their marital status.
It's an object lesson in the systemic sexism that used to exist.
Because words shape our world. Ms. is not some trendy modern social contraption. It was first spotted on the tombstone of Ms. Sarah Spooner in 1767, the handiwork, perhaps, of a frugal stone carver. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, Mrs. and Miss were deployed to signal age, not marital status. Both were derived from Mistress, a word that, before it put on its feather boa and fishnet stockings, was the title for any woman with authority over a household.
As a handy form of address, Ms. found a foothold in the 1952 guidelines of the National Office Management Association: they suggested using it to avoid any confusion over a woman's marital state. Twenty years later, when Ms. magazine was born, the editors explained, "Ms. is being adopted as a standard form of address by women who want to be recognized as individuals, rather than being identified by their relationship with a man." That same year, the U.S. Government Printing Office approved using Ms. in official government documents.
Such developments left the New York Times — which that year ran a story headlined IN SMALL TOWN, U.S.A., WOMEN'S LIBERATION IS EITHER A JOKE OR A BORE — in the awkward position of identifying Gloria Steinem as "Miss Steinem, editor of Ms. magazine." At that point, even the late language guru William Safire called for surrender. The Times refused on the grounds that the title had not passed into common usage. "We reconsider it from time to time," the editors mused, but "to our ear, it still sounds too contrived for news writing." Only in 1986 did the Times relent; the editors at Ms. sent flowers.
It's true that not all that many women passed on the Mrs. form of address once they married -- a move that seems to be making a comeback.
I doubt many Broadsides readers would be surprised to learn that I was one of the earliest Ms. adopters. Despite two marriages, I never played Mrs. Anybody except when dealing with the phone company because the bills were always addressed to the husbands' names -- plus their names were simpler than mine.
Some women went the hyphenated route. This was not an option for me, even if I had chosen it. Too many freaking letters!
The irony, of course, is that Zerbisias was my Dad's name, not my Mom's. Now, in Quebec, women are legally called by their birth names, so, when she is addressed by the name she gave up when she married in 1938, my mother thinks there's been some mistake.
Incidentally, when my Canadian-born mom married my father, who was not yet a naturalized "British subject'' (Canadian), she lost her citizenship because that's what happened to women who married foreigners. But not vice versa.
Just a reminder of the not-so-golden olden days.