Mxing it

At a conference not long ago, I found myself talking to a woman whose name-badge identified her as ‘Ms Kate Brown’. Mine just said ‘Deborah Cameron’. We concluded that there was no logical explanation for this disparity: maybe the administrator whose job was to make the badges had just got more and more pissed off with having to check each female delegate’s title–‘Ms Brown, Mrs Green, Dr White, Miss Pink’–until finally she thought, ‘fuck this shit, I’ll just use people’s names!’

And why not? I wish I had a pound for every minute of my life that’s been wasted on dealing with the question ‘is that Miss or Mrs?’ In the past, when I was young and stroppy, I used to respond by giving an obviously untruthful and absurd answer like ‘Rear Admiral’ or ‘Wing Commander’. Since my interlocutors were human, I could count on them to work out that what I actually meant was, ‘mind your own business: for the purpose of making a dental appointment, my marital status is irrelevant’.

But in the age of the drop-down menu resistance has become futile. The system demands that a box must be ticked, and the system is a literal-minded fool. Once, while transacting some business online, I was pleased to see that the title menu had a ‘none’ option. I selected it, and subsequently received several emails that started ‘Dear None Cameron’.

‘Ms’ was supposed to solve the ‘is that Miss or Mrs?’ problem by replacing both options and becoming simply a female analogue of ‘Mr’. But English-speakers in their collective wisdom constructed a more complicated three-way system: ‘Miss’ for young unmarried women, ‘Mrs’ for married ones, and ‘Ms’ for all the anomalous women left over—older unmarried women, divorced women, lesbians, and of course, those pesky Wimmin’s Libbers who had supposedly come up with ‘Ms’ in the first place (though in fact it was originally proposed in 1901 as a way to avoid the awkwardness of having to address a woman whose marital status you didn’t know).

The upshot was that instead of contracting, the menu of options expanded. And that process has continued with the addition of ‘Mx’, a title which has now been recognized by various institutions, including banks, government departments and the Royal Mail, acknowledging the preference of some trans and non-binary people for a title that leaves gender unspecified.

Just as ‘Ms’ could have replaced ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’, ‘Mx’ could in theory replace the whole menu. I’m betting it won’t, though. More likely it will prompt English-speakers to construct a revised taxonomy with a new slot for people who don’t identify as male or female. This is in line with our general approach to linguistic change. We’re like homeowners who would rather keep on adding extensions than demolish the house and start again. But also, we’re used to the idea that titles should mark social distinctions. If we’re going to use the same title for everyone, why bother using titles at all?

The answer is that marking social distinctions (e.g. of age, rank and sex) is only one function of titles. They are also used to mark differences in social relationships: the use or non-use of a title says something about whether a relationship between two people is close or distant, equal or unequal, formal or informal. I call the elderly woman who lives next door ‘Mrs Jacobs’ as a mark of respect, because she’s a generation older than me. I call my colleagues by their first names in casual conversation, but in a formal meeting I might refer to the same people as ‘Dr This’ and ‘Professor That’. I also use titles when I write to people I’ve never met, to avoid seeming over-familiar. So even if we only had one title for everybody, using it (as opposed to not using it) would still be a meaningful act.

The use of titles is revealing, not only about a society’s most significant social distinctions, but also about its implicit status hierarchies. Consider, for instance, the ordering of titles on printed forms and online drop-down menus: how many of these have ‘Mr’ as the first option, followed by ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Ms’, in that order? In my experience, most of them do. And what this pattern tells us is that the categories aren’t just ‘different but equal’: if they were, the order would vary. I don’t think the menu designers are engaging in conscious and deliberate sexism; they’re just using the order that seems ‘natural’. But every time they do it they’re recycling and reinforcing the common-sense assumption that men take precedence over women.

There’s also an order of precedence among the female titles, and not just on drop-down menus. I noticed long ago that when organizations send me unsolicited mail, they most commonly address me as ‘Mrs’. Since they don’t know whether I’m married, you might wonder why they don’t choose ‘Ms’, the one female title that doesn’t specify marital status. But their preference for ‘Mrs’ reflects the assumption that there’s a hierarchy, in which ‘Mrs’ outranks ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms’. They’re worried that if I do happen to be married, and they don’t address me as ‘Mrs’, I’ll be offended by the downgrading of my status. If I’m not married, on the other hand, I’m unlikely to feel slighted by an upgrade from ‘Miss’ to ‘Mrs’.

To a feminist, of course, this logic is offensive, a hangover from the centuries when the most important thing to know about a woman was which man currently owned her. That’s why, back in the day, using ‘Ms’ rather than ‘Mrs/Miss’ was presented as a radical break with an age-old patriarchal custom. But some interesting recent research suggests that in fact there is nothing ancient about encoding marital status in female titles.

According to the researcher Amy Erickson, who has studied the history of the titles ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, Englishwomen’s titles only began to reflect their marital status in the late 18th century. Until then, what they reflected was occupational and social status. In the higher ranks of society, a woman who did not have an aristocratic title became ‘Mrs’ when she reached adulthood or when her mother died, whichever happened first. In the middle-to-lower ranks, ‘Mrs’ was the title accorded to women who were either in business (for instance as drapers, grocers and milliners) or else were senior domestic servants (like housekeepers and cooks). This had nothing to do with their marital status. It was an acknowledgment of their standing in the community or the household, and the authority they wielded over apprentices or junior servants.

The use of ‘Miss’ as a title for unmarried adult women appears to have originated among the gentry around the mid-18th century. Erickson speculates that like many fashions of the time, this one was imported from France, as an anglicised version of the distinction between ‘madame’ and ‘mademoiselle’. Jane Austen was among the writers who used ‘Miss’ in the new way: in her first novel Sense and Sensibility, the two Dashwood sisters, women of marriageable age, are ‘Miss Dashwood’ (the elder sister, Elinor) and ‘Miss Marianne’. Outside fiction, Erickson has found cases where the same unmarried woman was referred to as ‘Mrs X’ by acquaintances of an older generation, but as ‘Miss X’ by her own contemporaries. This illustrates that the shift in usage was gradual: ‘Mrs’ did not become a fully reliable indicator that a woman was married until around 1900 (and the custom of calling upper servants ‘Mrs’, whether or not they were married, persisted for even longer).

It seems, then, that for most of our history, we English-speakers managed without titles that categorized women by marital status. The system which 1970s feminists denounced as an archaic piece of sexism had only been in place for less than a century. But we’ve kept it for longer than some of our European neighbours. The German title equivalent to ‘Miss’, ‘Fräulein’, was removed from government documents in West Germany in 1972, leaving ‘Frau’ as the recommended title for all women. In 2012 the French government followed suit, announcing that it would no longer use ‘Mademoiselle’.

These governmental edicts encountered some resistance, especially from right-wingers who regarded the abandonment of the two-term system as a threat to traditional values. In France, one such opponent mounted an (unsuccessful) legal challenge, arguing that

The end of the use of the term “Mademoiselle” – which is normally used up to marriage – is a further indirect and heavy blow to the institution of marriage, abolishing a fundamental social distinction, and stranding it on the shores of the socialist dream that the move embodies.

Of course, just as many English-speaking women still use ‘Miss’, some French and German-speaking women have gone on using ‘Mademoiselle’ and ‘Fräulein’. The fact that a title is no longer used in government documents does not prevent people from using it in other contexts. But it does make a symbolic statement about changing norms and attitudes. Marital status titles persist, but they are no longer taken for granted as the ‘natural’ choice.

By contrast, there has been far less questioning of the idea that it is natural and necessary to use different titles for men and women–though in a language like modern English, which does not, in general, mark gender very extensively, it isn’t obvious that we need sex-specific titles. Arguably they’re redundant, since the great majority of English personal names are already clearly marked as either female or male.

This was the line of thought which originally inspired the creation of the gender-neutral title ‘Mx’. Just as ‘Ms’ wasn’t invented by the second-wave feminists who are now most closely associated with it in the popular imagination, ‘Mx’ wasn’t invented by the current generation of trans and genderqueer activists. The earliest use of it that lexicographers have uncovered was in 1977, in a magazine called Single Parent, where it was suggested as a non-sexist alternative to existing titles. Another early citation, from an online newsgroup discussion in the 1980s, argued that the feminist attempt to introduce a single female title, ‘Ms’, did not go far enough. ‘The issue’, it asserted, ‘should be that gender is unimportant’.

Three decades on, ‘Mx’ has begun to move from the margins into the mainstream, but not with the function originally envisaged for it. Rather than being used to make the whole category of gender irrelevant (which would require it to replace the other, gender-marked titles), it’s become a way for a subset of individuals–those whose self-defined gender identities do not fit into the established binary system–to mark their difference from the majority. The mainstream institutions which have officially accepted this usage are not endorsing the view that ‘gender is unimportant’, but simply applying the principle of respecting individual choice.

Should feminists regret the fact that we don’t have a universal, non-sex-specific title? In the 1970s I was in favour of the reduction of the ‘Mrs/Miss’ distinction to a single term: ‘Ms’ is the title I use for myself in non-professional contexts, and I find it frustrating that it didn’t supplant the alternatives. But my feelings about ‘Mx’ are more ambivalent.

Why? Because although I’m critical of gender distinctions as they currently exist, my problem isn’t with the existence of men and women, it’s with the systemic inequality between them. And one symptom of that inequality is a tendency for supposedly gender-neutral terms to be interpreted through the common-sense assumptions about status which I mentioned earlier. In my working life I’ve actually got a gender-neutral title—‘professor’—and it frequently prompts people who don’t know me to imagine that ‘Professor Cameron’ must be a man. Is that just because ‘professor’ denotes an occupational status in which men are known to outnumber women? Or would ‘Mx Cameron’ also be assumed to be male until proven otherwise?

There’s a bigger question lurking in the background here. Do feminists give too much weight to language as both a cause of and a remedy for oppression? As a linguist, I’m obviously not going to argue that language doesn’t matter, but I do worry that it’s sometimes treated like a magic wand–as if erasing the linguistic marks of gender would somehow erase it from our minds.

At the end of her paper on the history of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’, Amy Erickson points out that the story she has just presented contradicts the one most commonly told by feminists of the second wave—but what they were wrong about wasn’t women’s subordinate status, it was the role played by language in maintaining it. As she drily remarks,

It turns out that patriarchal control of women’s sexuality had no need of honorifics to flourish.

To me, this underlines the limitations of a politics that focuses too much on the symbolic. Gendered language can undoubtedly have the effect of reinforcing and recycling commonplace assumptions about the nature and status of men and women. But I don’t believe those assumptions depend on the use of certain terms, or that changing the terms will necessarily change the assumptions.

As a feminist who writes about language, I’m often asked (usually by someone who has no time for feminism at all), ‘why are you making such a fuss about words when you could be campaigning for something important, like equal pay?’ My answer has always been that it’s not a case of either/or, it’s both/and. But what I say to my anti-feminist critics, I would also say to other feminists: language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Changing terminology is a pointless activity if you don’t go behind the words to the beliefs which shape their use, and the material realities which produce those beliefs. If it’s going to make a difference, it has to be both/and.


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