I’ve been called a lot of insulting things in my life.
When you’ve been writing about politics and religion and other people’s shoes as long as I have, nasty epithets get hurled your way.
It’s just one of those occupational hazards: Instead of losing my arm in a piece of farm machinery, I receive vituperative emails referring to me as a piece of anatomy or a female canine.Mostly, it all rolls down my back. Sticks and stones and all that. But there’s one term that really gets under my skin, a title that I just cannot abide: You can call me anything you like (even late for dinner), but please, do not ever call me “Mrs. Lebos.”
“Just what the hell is wrong with that?” asked my father–in–law when I recounted a berating email I’d received that morning about a recent column. “You are Mrs. Lebos. Aren’t you?” He looked confused. “You’re still married to my son, right?”
“Yes, but the guy who wrote the email didn’t know that,” I explained. “He assumed it.”
“Well, what was he supposed to call you?”
“It’s Ms. Lebos. Always. Anything else is presumptive and sexist.”
“Pah. Southern people don’t know about that women’s lib stuff. He was probably just trying to be polite.”
I can assure you that the email was far from polite, but my father–in–law’s reaction made me wonder: Is it really still socially acceptable around here to define a woman’s marital status on a first acquaintance?
“Of course it’s not,” sighs Dr. Teresa Winterhalter, AASU director of faculty relations and professor of Gender and Women’s Studies. “But few ever stop to give any thought to how the social value placed on a woman’s marital status is such an impediment to women’s worth.”
So let’s stop and give it thought. While the title “Mrs.” is not a possessive form of “Mr.” (as in, those cows and that nice lady are the mister’s), it has been an indication of marital status since the 14th century. It actually comes from the word “mistress,” which did not at the time refer to Dan Draper’s floozies but was the female counterpart of “master,” meaning the “woman of the house.” The pronunciation evolved to drop the “r,” morphing to “missus” somewhere in the 16th century. By the time women won the right to vote (it hasn’t even been a hundred years!), the use of “Mrs.” and “Miss” to delineate between married and unmarried women was ingrained.
Yet even in the bad old days, the outrage at assumption was validated. A 1901 editorial in the Sunday Republican of Springfield, Mass., unearthed by noted linguist Ben Zimmer, frets over the “void in the English language” of a neutral female title for the sake of civility: “To call a maiden ‘Mrs.’ is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title ‘Miss.’ Yet it is not always easy to know the facts.”
The writer puts forth a simple solution: Address all women as “Ms.”
Though it took another 75 years, “Ms.” found its way into mainstream cultural vernacular as Gloria Steinem and the many mothers of the feminist movement fought for equal treatment for women in the workplace, in school and throughout society. While we’ve come a long way in gender equalization since the 1970s, consider that women are still paid 77 cents to every dollar made by a man, and no one is talking shit about the hair of any male Olympians.
Savannah–based writer Lisa Solod, author of the blog MiddleAgedFeminist.com and a contributor to the Huffington Post, confirms that “Ms.” “helps put us on equal footing, at least initially, with men whose marital status is not revealed by their title.”
Yeah. Dudes deal with no such distinction, so why do women?
(Solod, who grew up in eastern Tennessee, also makes the ironic point that in verbal usage, Southern accents usually “render ‘Mrs.’ to ‘Miz’ anyway.” But unintentional default is not the same as active attention.)
In an informal poll that may have been conducted over cocktails at bar food, a group of women posited that the most egregious use of “Mrs.” in modern times isn’t necessarily about husbands, it’s the implication of how old a woman is perceived to be.
“In my experience, it’s age–related. Around here you get ‘Mrs.’ if you’re old enough to drive,” offered Diane Shelley. “Either way, it’s pejorative.”
There you go: Doubly offensive. Dr. Winterhalter agrees: “What annoys me the most about ‘Mrs.’ is how women of a certain age are presumed to be married.”
I guess it’s the presumption of “Mrs.” that pisses me off so. Maybe the emailer didn’t think he was being insulting by addressing me as “Mrs. Lebos” (he did that later, when he called me stupid), but by doing so he revealed preconceptions about my personal life that were irrelevant to the subject. Yes, I am married and of a certain age, but that’s not actually part of the conversation until I say so, ‘k?
I’m sure it’s no shocker that I was raised by a mother who never went by anything other than “Ms.” Of course, no one was more surprised than her when I announced 14 years ago that not only was I getting married, I was taking my husband’s last name. My maiden name is long, and although I have an intimate karmic connection with all forms of punctuation, I felt hyphenation was too complicated. At the end of the day it’s about simplicity.
So here’s some simple advice for those who haven’t gotten it yet: Y’all need to jettison “Mrs.” from the lexicon unless someone has expressed introduced herself as such.
And if you want to write me an email, I’m all good with first names. But you best remember it’s Ms. Lebos if you’re nasty.
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