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Discuss: Title & Deed

courtesy of Ms. MagazineBecause I have a gender neutral first name (Belle is a pseudonym, remember), I try to use Miss whenever possible to avoid the occasional embarrassing “Mr.” malfunction.  Utilizing the prefix just makes doing business easier when many of my meetings are with people whom I’ve never met before.  I’ve become very comfortable thinking of myself as a Miss, so when a piece of mail arrived earlier this week bearing Ms. instead, I was a it taken aback.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with difference between the two terms, the Miss vs. Ms. debate is actually quite fascinating.  

During the middle part of the 20th Century, while fighting for professional and personal equality, many women decided that they no longer wanted their titles determined by their marital status.  After all, why did women need two prefixes (Miss and Mrs.) when men only needed one (Mr.)?  And wasn’t dividing women into two classes–the Misses and the Mrs.–just reinforcing the notion that marriage was the defining action of a woman’s life?  

So, they came up with the prefix Ms. to describe all women regardless of marital status.  They hoped, I presume, that someday, there would be no more Mrs. or Miss just the status neutral Ms., but that certainly hasn’t come to pass.

But while I understand the historical context and the cultural implications, all I could think about when I saw “Ms.” on my letter, instead of Miss, was, “Oh my God, am I a Ms.?  Am I…old?”  

My foresisters spent decades fighting for gender equality, and all I think when I look at one of the fruits of their legacy is whether being switched from a Miss to a Ms. means that I’ve tumbled head first down the slippery slope to the nursing home.  It appears that in my mind, a Miss is a young, fun, vibrant person who does as she pleases, while a Ms. is a woman whose better, younger days are behind her.  I wonder what Gloria Steinem would have to say about that?  

Maybe it’s a minor feminist success that I don’t see being called “Miss” as a commentary on my marital status, so much as I do a statement about my advancing years.  Or maybe I feel this way because while I worry very little about being unmarried, I am deeply insecure about growing old.  Not aging, in terms of physical attractiveness, but instead, the persistent fear that I haven’t accomplished enough in my twenties and that I’ll look up one day and be on the verge of retirement with fewer accomplishments than I would like.  

I suppose, I should see the prefix on my utility bill for the unimportant paperwork change that it is, but I don’t.  For me, being referred to as Ms. is like the first time someone calls you Ma’am.  You still think of yourself as being a young, vibrant Miss, but clearly the world sees you somewhat differently.  

So how do you feel about the Miss/Mrs./Ms. debate?  Do you think there’s a chronological component to the prefix choice or is it still all about marital status for you?  And does it say something more profound about gender equity if the marital stigma can be removed from Ms. and replaced by another emotion, even if that emotion is fear of aging?  I’m interested to hear your thoughts.  

Also, how do you single ladies like to be referred to, do you prefer Miss or Ms.?  And why?  Or does it even matter?

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    46 comments

  1. katherine says:

    I refer to myself as “Miss.” and only use “Ms.” when I am unsure of the martial status of a woman I am addressing.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  2. MominHeels says:

    Hmmm, I think you may be reading your own issues in to the larger Ms. v. Miss debate. You seem to read the Ms. as a benchmark you are not ready to hit yet rather than its original intent which was to eradicate the distinction of married versus single. Remember that Miss applied to spinsters/unmarried ladies regardless of age so at the very least Miss does not always connote youth and carefree. Regarding the larger debate whether as women do we still feel the prefix distinction Ms. v. Miss is all that significant. I would be surprised if women give it as much thought as the dreaded “Ma'am” from the bag boy. But as a women's college alum I can say I have studied and discussed this issue ad nauseum and ended up with the Ms. because frankly Miss seemed lightweight. Now I am married and not only do I use my husband's last name but I go by Mrs. At the end of the day I am still me. The prefix is no more a descriptor of who I am as a person than the photo id and stats on my drivers license. To me it is merely a nicety of form and implies nothing about me of significance.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  3. Victoria says:

    I've never thought of “Ms.” as something for older women. I use “Ms.” exclusively, always have, always will. To me, it reads as professional, adult (so maybe “older” in that sense; I definitely used it deliberately when I was beginning my career to frame myself as someone with depth and experience). It doesn't surprise me that “Ms.” might carry that kind of elderly connotation, though. It's thoroughly associated with the feminist movement, which has been deliberately discredited as old and out of touch.

    I don't use “Miss” at all. It feels associated with childhood to me, inappropriate for use on an adult.

    I bet a lot of this is regional. I'm from Minnesota, which has sensibilities that are pretty different from the central Midwest (and the South, where I'm guessing “Miss” is a lot more common).

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  4. Em says:

    Hey Belle,

    So glad you posted this. I am an ardent supporter of the Ms.! Why do I need to announce my marital status to the world by using either a Miss. or a Mrs.? Women before us fought very hard to eradicate a title that reinforced the cultural assumption that a wife was a commodity, and it should be known to the world that she was “taken.” Men only ever have to deal with one “Title” and therefore women should too. Not to mention the fact that in some states and according to the federal government, it is not even legal for some men and women to get married, making it even more necessary for women to just have one title that does not pronounce their marital status.

    In addition, to address your concern about “Ms.” feeling old, I personally believe that Ms. does not denote old and single, but powerful and independent at any age. “Miss,” on the other hand, does not represent young and vibrant to me, but desperately waiting to become a Mrs. I know to you marriage is not a priority (yet anyway) so embrace the Ms.!

    All that being said, the Ms. is my own personal choice, as currently the Miss. is yours. The women's rights movement was all about having a choice- so whatever you choose (Miss/Ms/Mrs) more power to you! Thanks for posting and I hope this will produce a vibrant discussion reminding us all of the women before us that fought for our rights today.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  5. Emily says:

    I've never seen Miss as very professional. It's always struck me as overwhelmingly juvenile. Even though I'm still in my twenties I prefer Ms.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  6. R says:

    To me, Miss says “girl,” Ms. says “woman,” and Mrs. says “woman and wife/mother.” As a professional, unmarried 20-something, it's hard to know where I fall– a woman is successful, confident, put together, mature… and a girl is giggly, fun, immature… And I'm somewhere in between. It's like Britney Spears says…

    I think (hope) that as I grow older, get more confident, more experienced, I'll figure out where I want to be, and what I want to be called. RIght now, I'm enjoying the extended adolescence and trying to figure out my own path.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  7. Lindsay says:

    I think stopped calling myself “Miss” when I hit 18. “Miss” vs “Ms” does have age connotations to me, but I think of the Misses as girls still in grade school. I don't think my marital status has anything to do with my professional life. I wouldn't want to be called “Mrs” at work either! I am 23 and I am quite happy to be and remain a “Ms” my entire life.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  8. Jenny says:

    I do see Ms. as older than Miss..but I think Miss is inappropriate for anyone over the age of about 12, and highly unprofessional.

    Could this be an East Coast/rural West divide, Belle? As far as I know all of my friends (mid-late 20s, mostly from the East Coast) prefer Ms. and have for years. I think most of us have been using Ms. since entering high school, and definitely since applying for jobs…I would never call a professional woman Miss. I agree with the above commenter who said Miss is a little girl, Ms. is a professional woman, and Mrs. is a professional/married woman/mother.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  9. AshleyinNYC says:

    I am a 29-year-old married professional woman and a new mother. When I married I chose not to change my last name, and as a result, there has been much confusion regarding how I should be titled. I shudder when I receive correspondence with “Mrs.” I am not my father's wife and I do not wish to be addressed as the wife of anyone. Since the approximate age of 17, I have preferred “Ms.” In my mind, “Ms.” connotes an independent, professional woman of no particular age. It is the only title that is truly “ageless.” I also find “Ms.” more respectful than “Miss.” In my experience, when I am called “Miss,” it is often accompanied by a condescending tone. It is particularly annoying to be addressed as “Miss” when I am wearing my wedding and engagement rings. Some may find the use of “Miss” a flattering acknowledgement of a woman's youthful appearance, but I prefer to be called Ma'am or Madam, if anything.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  10. Marie-Christine says:

    It's not merely marital status that gets erased with the use of Ms, it's age. You may not care about the former, but clearly you're very jumpy about the latter :-). Think about whether it'd be nice to not be pegged as an age or other before people even lay eyes on you. Then whatever your personal preferences, please be sensitive to other women's preferences for one form of address or another, even if it's the one that tells you it's none of your business (whatever you were wondering about).
    I get plenty of people confused about what sex I am (name shouldn't be ambiguous but too foreign for their limited brain capacity, female name but lack of makeup heels and such accoutrements, female voice but more usually male size etc). I don't even mention it, and I coldly ignore their fumbling apologies – it's none of my business if they're confused, I'm not.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  11. Truc says:

    I'm a Ms. Exclusively, and plan to continue as Ms. after I get married.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  12. SC says:

    I prefer being called “Ms.” in professional settings because it just sounds much more professional than Miss or Mrs. Unless marital status is relevant to the job title, being called Miss makes me feel as if they're being condescending and implying that I should get married pronto. Then again, I'm northern-half East Coast born & bred, so it might be a regional thing.

    Like a couple of other posters above, I feel being called Miss makes me feel as if I'm 14, and stopped referring to myself as one around the age of 18. In college, all of my female friends and professors were all referred to as Ms. (unless they were Dr.s), and never Miss or Mrs. Why should a woman define herself by marital status in an academic or professional setting where it actually might hurt her chances of being taken seriously?

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  13. Belle says:

    All interesting responses. And yes, Marie-Christine, I am “jumpy” about getting older. Not cause I care about the number on the page, but because I am a very driven person who had a picture in her mind of where I would be at 30, and I think, for many reasons, I may come up short.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  14. Belle says:

    Also, congratulations to everyone on being able to disagree with me without attacking me. We've come a long way in the comments over the past year, and I'm glad. I like a nice spirited discussion, but the name calling was cause for concern.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  15. RMS says:

    To me, Miss sounds very condescending in a professional context. I prefer Ms. for professional interactions and legal documents (leases, etc.). I do not respond well when a male colleague who is my father's age calls me Miss. It just doesn't seem like a title of respect. When I was in college, I had a female professor who was married but had kept her maiden name, so she gave us a lecture one day after a male student had addressed her as Mrs. instead of as Professor. In the professional context, prefixes that denote marital status have no place.

    I'm 26 years old, and the only people in my life who call me Miss are my relatives who are under the age of 10. They call me Miss Rachel, which I think is very sweet. I remember calling my babysitters and pre-school teachers Miss as a term of endearment, so that is what the title of Miss means to me.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  16. Rory says:

    I was always taught one could use Miss until she was 21/graduated college/debuted. After that, you became a Ms. However, Miss can be used informally in some situations as a sign of respect, such as with older ladies or those with certain jobs. I would just call my mom's friend Jane, but any of my grandma's friends are Miss Rose, Miss Alpha, etc. I'm from the South, so the situations where I use Miss/Ms/Mrs. are probably more antiquated than the rest of the country.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  17. Anne says:

    Personal, even though I've been married for almost nine years, I prefer “Ms.” When I think of “Mrs. Houseman,” I think of my husband's mother.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  18. Ms. B says:

    Everytime someone calls me Mrs. I shudder for mucho reasons. Give me the Ms.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  19. KLo says:

    I go by Ms. [hislastname] because Mrs. just feels wrong to me. And I hated Miss when I was 7 and I still hate it. I apparently never learned to be the good little Southern girl I'm supposed to be.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  20. Serena says:

    I agree with so many of the above posters — I think Ms. is just more professional. I am married and recently crossed the 30 border (aaahhh!), but I used Ms. even when single, beginning in college. At my job, we have our names on placards outside our offices, and they're in the form of title plus last name only (e.g. Mr. Jones or Ms. Smith) — all women's titles are “Ms.” on these placards, regardless of marital status.

    Besides being more professional, I also think the use of Ms. is also about keeping your private life private — it generally is irrelevant whether you're married or not. However, I do use Mrs. in strictly social settings.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  21. H says:

    I'm in my early 20's, from the South, but would certainly NOT appreciate being called Miss. It strikes me as so condescending. The exception, as some other posters stated, are when young children call me Miss H. That's just cute.

    And Belle, this may not reassure you, but if I were your age (I'm just a few years from it!) and had a successful Hill career and fabulous, popular blog, I would consider myself very successful! From where I'm sitting, you have accomplished quite a lot!

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  22. Ms. Anna says:

    For the longest time, I associated Ms. with being a spinster. One day, I found myself at an etiquette lunch discussing the proper way to address correspondence. I learned that under 18 = Miss, over 18 = Ms. So now, even when my friends and I send thank you notes or cards to each other, we use Ms.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  23. Mikaiya says:

    An interesting debate. I agree that to me, Ms. doesn't signal advancing age at all- it's simply a non-marital-signifier. And as a woman with maiden aunts who frequently correct others- “It's Miss, thank you very much” – Miss actually reads as much older than a hip non-specific “Ms.”

    I went by Ms. when I was teaching college (and single), but wasn't upset if I was addressed as a Miss. I objected to Mrs., but only because I was single. Now that I'm married I have fully embraced the Mrs. I see no reason to hide my marital status, and I changed my name to his for a reason. Even feminists have a right to choose what they are called (and whether to take another person's name), and what title is most appropriate. As always I would not be offended by being called Ms. New-Last-Name, and am called that often in work contexts, but I prefer the accuracy of being called a happily married Mrs.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  24. A says:

    I've always thought of “Miss” as a title that was “supposed” to be temporary. I use “Ms.” to indicate that I'm not waiting around for anything or anyone to live my life, or be treated as a full adult.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  25. Katherine says:

    Your perspective is interesting and one I've never heard before. To me, “Miss” is for children. I can't imagine using it for anyone over 18, maybe 16.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  26. k-t says:

    My two cents:
    Young males are addressed formally as Master John Smith; adult males are addressed as Mister John Smith. The female equivalent (to me) is Miss Jane Brown for a girl, Ms. Jane Brown as an adult. If she marries John Smith, she has some choices as to how she wishes to be addressed, and it might vary with the situation. She might choose to remain Ms. Jane Brown in her professional circles, but have formal invitations sent to Mrs. John Smith, and personal notes sent to Jane Smith. Note that as long as she is neither widowed nor divorced, she is NOT Mrs. Jane Smith. At least according to Miss Manners and Emily Post. ­čÖé

    Intellectually, I think it'd be nice if all women, that is adult females, were known as Ms. Lastname when honorifics are appropriate. It signifies that the person is an adult female, nothing more, nothing less. In practice, I am known as Mrs. Smith to my child's friends. I find that little kids have an easier time with the two syllables in Missus and Mister than they do with Miz and Miss. And I am married and changed my last name, so it is accurate. Holiday cards and invitations are addressed to Mr. and Mrs. John Smith. Almost no one else uses honorifics these days. Donations are listed either as “Jane Brown Smith” (to my alma mater) or “John and Jane Smith” (to our church or other joint donation).

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  27. Claire says:

    Maybe it's because I am from the south, but I am thinking back to the dozen or so wedding invitations I've received over the past year (all from southern friends) and I've been addressed as Miss on every one of them. Should I be insulted? Hah. I actually had not given much thought to the issue, because rarely do I have to introduce myself with a prefix, until several days ago when I was completing a Bar application and was asked for my prefix. I always address correspondence to friends and colleagues with Ms., but I've found that thank yous, letters and invitations comes to me with Miss and business emails, letters, etc. come to me with Ms. Interesting, albeit confusing, topic…

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  28. Karen says:

    I'm almost 28 and grew up in Northern Virginia (and currently work here as a government contractor), but I've never liked “Ms”, perhaps because the distinction annoyed my mother and she passed the feeling down to me. I also feel like the addition of “Ms” has only increased the number of titles for women instead of reducing them, since some women will never go by anything other than “Mrs” after marriage. And I remember thinking as a child that “Miss” was for unmarried women, “Mrs” was for married women, and “Ms” was for divorced women. I don't know if that's just something I thought or if I was told that, but it stuck with me for a long time.

    So, I prefer “Miss” for myself. I'm not married and I've never felt that going by “Miss” has hurt me personally or professionally. And I think that it sounds prettier (the word itself, not whomever's name might be attached to it).

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  29. Paige says:

    I've always though Miss is for little girls. I refer to myself and my friends of similar age as Ms. I also refer to woman whom I don't know their marital status as Ms.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  30. DCGal says:

    I have always been, and will always be, Ms. DCGal. Personally I think Miss sounds archaic and somewhat unfeminist (Mrs., too, actually). And I'm 27, fun, and fabulous. : )

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  31. JL says:

    I have always used Ms. exclusively on correspondence and forms. I think it sounds professional – not spinsterly. I always just thought Miss sounded very childish or old fashioned like something out of an Austin novel. Although, when being referred to verbally I do prefer Miss because nothing is worse than Ma'am – which I get every time I shop at Safeway from every employee regardless of the fact i'm 25 – but that's another story.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  32. Belle says:

    I think it's fascinating that even though Ms. is supposed to be marital-status neutral, most of you seem to equate with older single women or “spinsters.”

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  33. Capitol Hill Barbie says:

    I agree with an earlier poster that I make the distinction based on the setting – social versus professional. In social situations, I go by Mrs. [husband's last name] and was fine with Miss [maiden name] beforehand. For professional settings, I always preferred Ms., both before and after I was married. It's just simpler and avoids any emphasis on my marital status in the workplace.

    When you think about it, it might be easier to get a medical degree or a doctorate and avoid the whole mess.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  34. VA says:

    I like Ms. better than Miss for anything professional, where I'm from a “miss” is girl, not a young woman. But I am completely on board with hating “ma'am.”

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  35. ES says:

    I've come to see “Miss” as a title reserved only for young girls – like girls who are under 18 or obviously too young to be married. In my mind at least, “Ms.” seems to be the more appropriate title for a working woman. I think it conveys only that a woman has reached an age and maturity level suitable for entering the workforce and pursuing a career, not that she has reached “old maid” status. “Miss” would make me feel young, but too much so.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  36. AGinDC says:

    I am exactly there with you. I used to be a teacher and went by “Miss” which caused a lot of flack with some of my friends, but I just saw it as being a symbol of the fact that I was only 21 and didn't want to be a spinster quite yet. I also have the same exact insecurities about not having made my first million at 23 and living the rest of my life as an utter and complete failure because I wasn't featured on Perez Hilton by the time I hit 30. As such, the “Ms” moniker scares me to death. I'm sticking with Miss until I'm 90. Or married. Whichever comes first.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  37. Amy says:

    At the risk of sounding obnoxious (and in response to Cap Hill Barbie), this is why I'm looking forward to being Dr. ____. No more awkwardness professionally. I don't care if people call me Miss, Ms., Ma'am, or Mrs. by accident with my current guy around. Maybe this was because I was raised by one Southerner and one Yankee parent, everything got mixed together.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  38. Lauren says:

    I've always used “Ms.” and I'm only 22 years old. It's funny that you mention feeling like “Ms.” feels older than you want to think of yourself as – I've always felt the opposite, like when I saw “Miss” before my name when I was younger I hated that it felt so young. If I get referred to as “Miss” by someone in the 50s and up age range I try not to be offended though, even if it's in the work place, because usually they're just doing what they think is correct. For me though, I intend to always use “Ms.,” even if I'm married considering I'm likely not going to change my last name and I don't feel a need to be a “Mrs.”

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  39. DC Atty says:

    As a professional who was in the process of establishing a career when I married (some 20 years ago in DC), I did not believe I could afford to lose the benefit of the “brand” I had worked hard to establish with my existing name. And, yes, since graduating from high school (in the South), I have used Ms. To add more potential confusion, my husband was divorced with children and an ex-wife who was not going to change her name back to her maiden one (because of said children), so we already had a Mrs. X. Having two of them would have been a nightmare. It does amaze me, however, in this day and age that when I answer my home telephone, the caller seems to be programmed to say, Mrs. X?

    All of that is to say that the name and title you use are a matter of personal choice. It would be nice if more people took note of those choices instead of imposing upon you what they think is proper.

    March 4, 2011/Reply
  40. an says:

    I switched from Miss to Ms. when I graduated from college. I really didn't put much thought into it — Miss just sounded very juvenile to me as I entered law school. I was grateful to be consistently using Ms. coming out of law school. I do not know very many people in my profession that choose to use Miss.

    March 5, 2011/Reply
  41. JL says:

    I use Ms. and I'm 23. Personally it's never given me the conotation of old, but I can see how it can for some. Ms. still is not perfect. I feel I can't use Ms. without someone seeing my ideology behind it. Yet, Miss and Mrs., then gives away my marital status. C'est la vie!

    March 5, 2011/Reply
  42. K says:

    I'm from Northern California and rarely heard Miss used at all. I associate it with something only little girls call each other at tea parties. It just sounds very old fashioned to me. I tend to just use my first and last names and avoid titles compeltely unless it's an earned title like professor, judge, or doctor.

    March 5, 2011/Reply
  43. Katie says:

    I'm a 25 year-old who happily uses “Miss” when given the option for a title. I'm one of the youngest employees in my company and I work in a male-dominated industry, and I happen to prefer Miss over Ms. Just my preference — and much to my mother's dismay — but I just feel that I am a Miss, not a Ms.

    March 5, 2011/Reply
  44. Nomie says:

    I prefer Ms. for myself, because Miss sounds embarrassingly juvenile and I'm not married.

    I send a lot of correspondence for work, and when I can't find the person's gender for a gender-neutral first name I use Dr. when I have to use a salutation. Better to overshoot the title than misgender and make someone mad!

    March 6, 2011/Reply
  45. kate says:

    Belle, I have insisted on being a Ms. my whole life. I'm twenty-five right now and unmarried, and I don't ever plan to be a Mrs., just as I never was a Miss. In fact, I've gone out of my way to correct anyone who calls me Miss. I think the Miss/Mrs dichotomy is actually quite outdated. I think young, hip, feminist women are always best suited as a Ms. Being called Miss makes me think of being a thirty- or forty-something dowager who never found a man and society has decided to pity her for being undesirable, as opposed to those Mrs.'s who have the profound honor and privilege of being married to A Man. At twelve, at twenty-five, at thirty, at forty, at seventy- married or not, I will always be a Ms. It's something I'm proud the movement accomplished and I'm never letting it go! That all said, everyone has to decide what they are comfortable with. But Miss seems appropriate to me only with very little girls; once you're a young lady– I say own your “Ms.” And please, don't ever be a Mrs. That's when you're really an old bird. Mr. and Ms. just sounds so much more enlightened.

    March 6, 2011/Reply
  46. Miss K says:

    A definite conundrum. I am unmarried, I turn thirty this year, and come from the great plains. I am pretty ambivalent about my title. I spent the first years of my career as a middle school teacher and there is no way you're going to get your students to call you Ms. More often than not, I was a Mrs. without being married, and I eventually I stopped trying to correct students (mainly young boys) who got it wrong. They were trying to be respectful of my position, and i appreciated that effort. And that's what it comes down to, I think. Intent.

    Currently, I'm working for our state legislature after a time with the feds. It is like stepping back in time 40 years. I was asked for my typing and keyboarding speed on my job application and there is a member of my caucus who calls me kid. I know this member means well, and so I don't let it bother me too much. There is a member of the opposing caucus who deliberately calls the women in my office all miss. Sometimes without our last names. As in, we are young and female and thus deserve this form of address rather than the more formal address the other members and staff. Even the 50 year old administrative assistant. That drives me nuts.

    I think its the intent.

    March 9, 2011/Reply