The bins! the bins!

Remember SamCam? That’s tabloid-speak for Samantha Cameron, the wife of former Prime Minister David, and one of the stars of the 2015 General Election. Tory strategists deployed her as (in their own words) a ‘secret weapon’. She was seen meeting the voters, both with her husband and on her own. She gave interviews explaining why he was the right man to run the country. She made headlines when she revealed, during a visit to a Welsh brewery, that she’d been known to drink stout while she was pregnant. She wore clothes, which were duly discussed in all the papers.

By the end of the campaign, according to Loughborough University’s media watchers, Samantha Cameron was the 15th most talked-about person in press and TV election coverage. She was also the third most frequently-mentioned woman: the only women ranked above her were SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon (4) and the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett (12). SamCam got more attention than Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, or than the most senior women in the UK’s two main parties. She was more visible than any woman who was actually a candidate in the election.

The women’s pressure group Fawcett criticised this focus on politicians’ wives (SamCam being the most prominent but not the only example) as part of its #viewsnot shoes campaign against sexist election coverage. It was generally agreed that the same trivialising treatment would not be dished out to a male Prime Ministerial consort: the following year, when an actual female PM took office, the Metro underlined the point with a satirical piece headed ‘Theresa May’s husband steals the show in sexy navy suit as he starts new life as First Man’

But it seems we laughed too soon: the campaign strategists are back, and they’ve decided to weaponise Philip May. Last week he joined his wife on the sofa for an interview on the BBC’s early evening One Show. What followed was described by the Guardian as ‘a banal conversation [whose] aim was to present the Mays as a dull but dependable quasi-presidential First Couple’, while another critic called it ‘pure TV Valium’. But it was also a good illustration of the workings of the code I described in my last post.

The basic presupposition of this code is that female authority is unnatural and grotesque, threatening constantly to emasculate any man who comes within range of it. The resentment it generates is then expressed either through insults (‘such a nasty/bloody difficult woman’) or through ‘humorous’ references to archetypes like the nagging wife, the stern nanny, Miss Whiplash, Mummy and Matron. Women can either go along with this–join in with the joke, treat the insult as a compliment–or they can try to counter it by deliberately performing a more conventional and less threatening kind of femininity.

Theresa May has used the first strategy (telling us she planned to be ‘bloody difficult’ in the Brexit negotiations), and her appearance on the One Show with her husband was an example of the second. To see how it worked, let’s try a feminist decoding of some of the key, headline-grabbing moments.

I get to decide when to put the bins out. Not if I take them out.

“Ours is a normal marriage. At home my wife is in charge and she allocates me my chores. But in case I’m sounding henpecked, let me acknowledge that she does let me take the bins out at a time of my own choosing.” 

Philip was a tad off-message here, casting Theresa as an archetypal She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. (The bin-soundbite was odd in another way, too: does anyone really think that putting out the bins features prominently on the Prime Ministerial to-do list? Personally I’ve always assumed that the bins at 10 Downing Street are removed by the secret service and destroyed in a controlled explosion.) But she quickly stepped in to limit the damage:

There’s boy jobs and girls’ jobs, you see.

“Ours is a traditional marriage, in which we play traditional roles. Putting out the nasty dirty bins is no job for a woman, just as cleaning shit-encrusted toilets is no job for a man. Just because I run the country and was once photographed in a ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt, I wouldn’t want the British people to think I have no respect for ancient and illogical stereotypes. I’m a Tory, after all, and if that means I have to talk what I know in my heart is complete bollocks, so be it.”

Good catch by Theresa there: after her husband inadvertently made her sound like a bit of a bully, she immediately reasserted the key point that he is the man of the house. Though not, as he would go on to clarify, in the manner of a Victorian patriarch, or that bloke from UKIP who had to resign after calling women sluts because they didn’t clean behind the fridge:

If you’re the kind of man who expects his tea to be on the table at six o’clock every evening, you could be a disappointed man.

“Ours is a modern marriage: I’m the kind of modern husband who’s totally relaxed about his wife going out to work. Especially as we have staff.

So, we’ve addressed the whole domestic labour question, what other boxes do we need to tick to establish the correct degree of gender conformity? Ah yes…

I like buying nice shoes.

“I am the most powerful woman in Britain, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN I’VE LOST MY FEMININITY”.

I quite like ties.

“I am married to the most powerful woman in Britain, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN I’VE SUDDENLY DEVELOPED AN UNMANLY INTEREST IN FASHION”.

I don’t think it [the PM’s red box] has ever made an appearance in the bedroom. I’ve never had to shoo it out.

My wife’s job is not more important than our marriage, but if push came to shove I wouldn’t hesitate to tell her and her box what’s what. Also: I’m letting your reference to ‘the bedroom’ (just the one, then?) pass because it shows that ours is a normal marriage. But if you persist with this I will bore you to death.

Press commentators didn’t so much decode these remarks as write some more of the same code on top of them. In the Tory papers, the consensus seemed to be that the interview had helped to soften May’s steely image, making her seem more human (which was usually code for more ‘feminine’). As Quentin Letts put it in the Mail:

Theresa relaxed in [Philip’s] presence. She looked quite different from her normal, taut interview persona. Her eyes seemed rounder, her body language looser and happier than normal.

Reading this reminded me of an old advertisement which became a target for feminist protests in the late 1970s.2015HJ5115_jpg_ds It showed a woman walking down a street at night wearing a trench-coat, which she then unbuttoned to reveal that she was naked apart from her underwear (the product being advertised): the slogan was ‘Underneath they’re all Lovable’. In Mail-world, power does not make women lovable, and therefore it cannot make them happy: instead of trying to do important, stressful jobs, they should just follow their natural instincts, move to Stepford and let men kill them and replace them with robots take care of them.

Meanwhile, left-leaning commentators focused disapprovingly on Theresa May’s reference to ‘boy jobs and girls’ jobs’. Apart from being crassly sexist, wasn’t it a bit rich coming from a woman who’s doing one of the ultimate ‘boy jobs’ in her capacity as the UK’s Prime Minister?  Well, yes—but that was the point. If a right-wing woman has ambitions in the public sphere, it will always be prudent for her to reassure us that in private she’s as conventional as they come. ‘The nation needs me and I’ve dutifully answered the call, but I’m really just an ordinary housewife, cooking my husband’s tea while he puts the bins out. And by the way, shoes!’ There’s more rubbish in this kind of talk than there is in the aforementioned bins, but for as long as it plays well with the media and the public, Conservative women will go on spouting it.

You might be thinking, but is it really any different for the men? In 2015 they too (with the notable exception of Nigel Farage) dragged their families into their campaigns. The two Prime Ministerial contenders, David Cameron and Ed Miliband, both made high-profile appearances in their kitchens, as if to emphasise their credentials as loving husbands and hands-on fathers. As Emily Harmer pointed out at the time, though, the way this works is not the same for men and women. When a male political leader presents himself as a ‘family man’, he may be projecting a ‘modern’ masculinity, but he is also activating a more traditional patriarchal frame in which a father is the head and chief protector of his family. His private role is thus consistent with the public role he seeks (‘what I do for my family I will also do for the nation’). If he gets it right, his performance will appeal to both conservative and more liberal audiences.

For a woman like Theresa May, by contrast, this strategy is not available. What she has to prove to avoid being damned as a virago is that she doesn’t try to usurp her husband’s position at home–she sticks to the ‘girl jobs’ and leaves the ‘boy jobs’ to him. Yet she also has to convince us that she isn’t too feminine (too weak, too indecisive, too emotional) to do the ‘boy job’ of governing the country.

The effect of these contradictory pressures was apparent in the One Show interview, where May shifted awkwardly between her familiar ‘strong and stable’ message and the coyer, girlier mode that made such an impression on Quentin Letts. I’ll admit, I found it excruciating, and it looked as if the Mays did too. But I don’t think we can blame them, or the campaign strategists, for inflicting this spectacle upon us. The sexist attitudes on show in it were an accurate reflection of the sexist attitudes that pervade the wider culture, and especially the popular media. I look forward to a time when these will be consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history, but for the moment they seem to have got stuck in the recycling.

 

 

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The clue’s in the name

The lawyer Miriam González Durántez was unimpressed this week when she was invited to speak at an International Women’s Day event by someone who addressed her as ‘Mrs Clegg’ (she is married to the MP and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg).  The Daily Mail deplored her ‘aggressive feminism’,  while below the line its readers, inevitably, complained about bloody foreigners with no respect for British traditions.

Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, Emily Thornberry MP–who is not a foreigner but rather the Shadow Foreign Secretary–protested to the Speaker after Theresa May called her ‘Lady Nugee’ (Thornberry’s husband, it transpires, is Sir Christopher Nugee).  Whereas ‘Mrs Clegg’ seems to have been a careless mistake, ‘Lady Nugee’ was evidently a deliberate taunt. Even as May apologised, she found it necessary to inform the House that she herself had been known by her husband’s name for the last 36 years.

You might have thought that if there was one thing we could all agree on in the year 2017, it would be the right of every individual to be referred to by the personal name of their own choice. English law affirms that right: as long as you aren’t trying to defraud anyone, you may go by whatever name you like. So why is there still so much controversy about what married women choose to call themselves?

Let’s begin, logically enough, at the beginning. In her informative and readable account of the history of marital name-changing, Sophie Coulombeau explains that hereditary surnames were brought to these shores by the Normans who conquered England in the 11th century. (Or to put it in Mail readers’ terms, by bloody foreigners with no respect for Anglo-Saxon traditions.) The Normans also introduced the doctrine of ‘coverture’, according to which wives were vassals, with no legal existence independent of their husbands. It followed that when a woman married she would ‘lose every surname except “wife of”’.

A few hundred years later, this originally alien custom had come to be considered an English tradition. Writing in 1605, William Camden described surnames as the foundation ‘whereon the glory and credit of men is grounded, and by which the same is conveyed to the knowledge of posterity’. Women from wealthy and powerful families shared this view, and over the next two centuries a number of them would petition the King or Parliament for the right to take action to prevent their names from dying out. (Frances Burney’s 1782 novel Cecilia is a fictional exploration of this theme, featuring an heiress who can only inherit if her husband takes her name.)

These women’s motivations were more dynastic than feminist, but in the 19th century surnames did become a feminist concern. Probably the best known of all campaigners on this issue was the American abolitionist and feminist Lucy Stone. At her wedding in 1855 the minister read a statement announcing that she would keep her own name, and criticising the laws that

refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer on the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal powers which no honorable man would exercise, and which no man should possess.

Soon afterwards she challenged the authorities who refused to register a land purchase in the name ‘Lucy Stone’, and was told by a lawyer that, in the US as in England, the prohibition had no legal basis. Later on, though, a number of US states would enact laws to make married women’s access to official documents like drivers’ licenses, and in some cases even the right to vote, conditional on their using their husband’s surname. It was not until the 1970s that these laws were overturned. At that point, women on both sides of the Atlantic were both legally and socially free to choose whether to keep or change their names. That did not, however, put an end to the argument; it only marked the beginning of a new phase.

As with titles (‘is that Miss, Mrs, Ms or Mx?’), and pronouns, the introduction of choice into a previously rigid system makes all the options politically non-neutral. If you stick with tradition you can no longer say you’re doing it because there’s no alternative: you’ll be indicating that your attitudes to marriage are traditional. Rejecting tradition conveys the opposite message. Whatever your reasons for wanting to be called, say, ‘Miriam González Durántez’ rather than ‘Miriam Clegg’ (you might just hate the name ‘Clegg’, or you might want your name to symbolise your Spanish national origins), your preference will be interpreted as a feminist statement. For many women, who are neither die-hard traditionalists nor militant feminists, this situation creates a dilemma. How have they negotiated it over the past 40 years?

All research on English-speaking women’s marital naming choices since the 1970s shows that the introduction of choice has not produced a wholesale shift away from tradition. Both in the US and the UK, the great majority of married women have continued to take their husbands’ names. The size of the majority has fluctuated over time. The percentage of name-keepers increased sharply in the 1970s, rose to a peak in the 1980s, and then held steady for several years before declining noticeably in the 1990s. By 2010 one US study reported that 94% of native-born married women used their husband’s names. More recently it’s been claimed that ‘maiden names’ (an expression I’d like to ban) are on the rise again. If so, though, they are rising from a pretty low baseline.

Married women who keep their original names are not just a minority, they’re a minority of a minority–they are heavily concentrated in the elite professional class. Name-keeping is strongly correlated with having at least one degree, and you’re most likely to be a keeper if both you and your husband have more than one. Another strong correlation is with the woman’s age at marriage. Women who marry in their early 20s are more likely to change their names than those who marry later (a group that overlaps significantly with the category of highly-educated women). Economists have argued that this need not be because the women concerned are feminists. If a professional woman marries when she’s already established a reputation (aka ‘made a name’ for herself), then—regardless of her political beliefs—it makes sense for her not to change her name.

But there are other factors which have been shown to influence women’s choices, and which do seem to be related to social and political attitudes. For instance, religious believers are more likely to change their names than non-believers, and so are women who grew up in small towns rather than big cities.

There are also some racial and ethnic differences. African American women, including those with higher degrees, are more likely to be changers than white women; other women of color, by contrast, are more likely than white women to be keepers. (It’s been speculated that the African American pattern may reflect the historical knowledge among Black women that their enslaved ancestors were denied the right to marry—name-changing in this group may be more meaningful as a symbol of (Black) emancipation than of (female) subservience.)

One study conducted in 2011 investigated the connection between attitudes to marital name-changing and attitudes to gender issues more generally. On the naming question its findings were depressing: a large majority of respondents agreed that it is usually better for a woman to take her husband’s name than to keep her birth name, and a significant minority thought it would be a good idea to revive the old state laws requiring this. The responses are also revealing about what’s really behind one of the commonest arguments for name-changing: ‘everyone in a family should have the same name’. Presented with the statement ‘It’s OK for a man to take his wife’s name when he marries’ (a strategy which would be equally compatible with the ‘one family, one name’ principle), over half of the respondents disagreed, and just over 30% disagreed strongly. Coverture may be legally defunct, but its cultural traces evidently linger on (‘a husband and wife are one person, and that person is the husband’).

When respondents were asked to explain why they thought name-changing was or wasn’t preferable to name-keeping, supporters of the traditional practice tended to express what the researchers labelled a ‘collectivist’ rather than ‘individualist’ view of women’s role: they believed it was the responsibility of a wife to put her family first. Not surprisingly, this view was strongly expressed by the most conservative respondents, including some who cited Biblical pronouncements on the authority of husbands over wives. But it was also expressed by some women who considered themselves feminists (though these women did not really explain how it serves the collective good for all family members to share, specifically, the husband’s name).

I found this aspect of the study interesting, because most discussions treat the decision to keep or change one’s name as a purely individual choice, made on the basis of a woman’s personal convictions. Yet when I hear the married women I know discussing their own decisions, I’m always struck by how much of what they say is about other people’s attitudes or feelings. I’ve heard women who kept their names say things like ‘I’m lucky, my husband wasn’t bothered either way’; I’ve heard feminist friends who changed their names say things like ‘I didn’t want to, but it was really important to my parents/in-laws’. Part of what it means to be a woman in our society is that you can’t just disregard others’ feelings—or at least, not without being harshly judged. So in many cases it’s an oversimplification to treat a woman’s choice as a direct reflection of her political beliefs. Her husband’s and both families’ attitudes may be at least as relevant as her own.

As someone who came of age in the mid-1970s, though, I do find it remarkable how controversial this issue has remained. I’d thought I would never blog about this hoary old chestnut of a subject; I’d thought the days were over when even the Daily Mail could make a fuss about a couple of high-profile women not using their husbands’ names. And if I’m honest, despite what I’ve just said about the pressure women feel to consider others, I’m always both surprised and a little disappointed when a student, or a younger colleague, asks me to start calling her by a new, married name.

In my own youth, just keeping the name you’d always had was quite a long way from the cutting edge of ‘aggressive feminism’. I knew several women in the early 1980s who regarded surnames in general as offensively patriarchal, and who had substituted their mother’s given name, or something new-age-y like a colour-term or the name of a tree. I knew one woman who had changed her given name and dropped her surname entirely (though I doubt the resulting nom de guerre will have survived the age of the computer and the tyranny of the drop-down menu). I knew of a commune where all the children had the same last name, ‘Wild’, which belonged to none of their various parents. Does any of this still go on now, or is name-keeping (and its slightly less assertive cousin, hyphenating) as daring as today’s young people get?

When people aren’t invoking the ‘one family, one name’ principle to justify sticking with tradition, they’ll most often be shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘hey, it’s only a name. It doesn’t define me as a person’. But while I understand what they mean, I think they’re overlooking something important. The custom of women taking their husbands’ surnames was historically part of a legal and social system that did define women—as non-persons. And the outcry, even today, when a woman chooses a name that symbolises her independent personhood, suggests that the old assumptions are not yet dead. A woman’s name will be ‘only a name’ when no one cares what it is, or has an opinion on what it should be.

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.

The world and his or her wife

I’m talking to a young woman I’ve just met at an academic event. We stand around for a few minutes chatting, until eventually she glances at her phone and says, ‘I should go, my wife’s waiting’.

My wife. Only a few months earlier, no British woman could have uttered those words and meant ‘the woman to whom I am legally married’. But the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act has changed the language along with the law. Along with the legal and financial benefits that come with being married, lesbians and gay men have acquired the ability to do something heterosexuals do without a second thought: refer casually to their spouses in everyday conversation.

But I’m not the only feminist I know who feels ambivalent about these references. That isn’t because I’m opposed to same-sex marriage (or at least, no more opposed than I am to marriage in general). It’s because for feminists, wife is a word that carries a lot of ideological baggage.

The issue isn’t the basic dictionary definition, ‘a married woman’. Where marriage exists, there will be a need for terms denoting the parties to it. But if you close the dictionary and open a thesaurus, the problem becomes more apparent. In my thesaurus, the entry for wife contains the following list of synonyms:

Mate, helpmeet, spouse, bride, better half, little woman, the missus, old lady, ball and chain, trouble and strife.

By contrast, the entry for husband reads

Mate, spouse, groom, bridegroom, partner, old man, hubby.

Evidently wife is not just a neutral term for a married woman, nor is it exactly parallel to husband. There are more synonyms for wife, and many of them are negative, expressing hostility or condescension. This is what I mean by ‘ideological baggage’. The associations of words are a product of the way they have been used over time. And wife is a word whose use has been shaped by the history of marriage as a patriarchal institution.

For most of that history it was wives who wore the ball and chain. When the Normans conquered England in 1066, one of the things they brought with them was the legal doctrine of ‘coverture’, which decreed that when a woman married she ceased to exist as an independent person. She was subsumed into the person of her husband, which in essence reduced her to his possession. As the jurist William Blackstone explained in 1765:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.

Whereas an unmarried woman (‘feme sole’) could own property, make contracts and keep her own earnings, a wife (‘feme covert’) could do none of those things. Her husband controlled her person, her property, and any wages she earned.

Coverture in its ‘pure’ form ended in the 19th century, when Parliament passed legislation granting property rights to married women. But many of the beliefs and practices associated with it persisted. One common argument against giving women the right to vote was that their husbands already voted on their behalf. In the 1960s married women could not enter into financial agreements without their husband’s permission. And until the 1980s a wife had no legal right to refuse her husband sex.

One obvious linguistic hangover from the days of coverture is the custom of married women taking their husbands’ names. The most extreme form of this practice, in which the woman is known publicly not just as ‘Mrs Smith’ but as ‘Mrs John Smith’, is now largely confined to the aristocracy and the super-rich (you often see it in the lists of wealthy donors that appear on the walls of museums), but it used to be more widely prized as a mark of a woman’s status. I learned this the hard way in 1977, when I was working in a high street bank. Noticing that a customer’s cheque book identified her as ‘Mrs David Graham’ (and assuming the account must have been opened in the dark ages), I asked her if I could change it to ‘Mrs Helen Graham’. I have never forgotten her furious response. ‘Of course not, you stupid girl’, she hissed, ‘there is no such person as Mrs Helen Graham. The wife of Mr David Graham is Mrs David Graham. How could I be married to myself?’

At the time I’d never heard of coverture, and I don’t suppose Mrs Graham had either. But her words distilled its essence. ‘The very being…of the woman is incorporated…into that of the husband’. There is no such person as Mrs Helen Graham.

The idea that a woman’s status is defined by who she marries is implied in many common phrases and sayings. We meet it at an early age: ‘the farmer has a wife’. ‘Mr Bread the baker and Mrs Bread the baker’s wife’. We run into it whenever we hear the phrase ‘the world and his wife’, which implies that ‘the world’ consists of men, while women exist only as men’s appendages. And we encounter it continually in media reports about women. Whatever a woman is in the news for, from climbing Mount Everest to assaulting her next door neighbour, if she’s married that will always be treated as relevant information.

In December 2014, the Church of England announced that it had chosen the Reverend Libby Lane to be its first female bishop—a historic decision which was reported by the Daily Mail under the headline ‘Saxophone playing vicar’s wife is C of E’s first woman bishop’. This reference to Rev. Lane’273s marital status was particularly confusing, because she herself was also a vicar. If she had not been ordained a priest, she would not have been eligible to become a bishop. By referring to her as a ‘vicar’s wife’, the Mail implied that the role from which she had been elevated was confined to such ancillary functions as teaching Sunday school and pouring tea.

Is it possible to use the word wife without implying that its referent is an appendage, an encumbrance, a servant, a possession? As always, context matters: there is a difference between the stand-up comedian who opens his routine with ‘take my wife—please!’ and the young woman who makes her excuses by saying ‘I should go, my wife’s waiting’. But while the specifics of context make every utterance unique, the words that compose an utterance cannot be freshly minted each time they are used. When I hear a woman say ‘my wife’s waiting’, I cannot help hearing an echo, however faint, of the misogyny of the ‘take my wife’ joke, and the casual sexism of ‘the world and his wife’. I feel the ghostly presence of a gallery of stereotypes: the nagging wife, the wife who ‘doesn’t understand me’, the wife whose selfless dedication to her husband’s career is acknowledged in books and at award ceremonies.

But many lesbians—not, by and large, great apologists for male supremacy—have embraced the word wife with pride. I don’t remember terminology being an issue during the campaign for equal marriage: it seemed to be taken for granted that same-sex spouses would be referred to as ‘wives’ and ‘husbands’. And there is logic in that. If, as a minority, what you want is not just legal but also social recognition—having the legitimacy and value of your relationships affirmed by society at large—then there are good reasons to prefer the words that are already used by and about the majority group. Symbolically those words say, ‘we are just like you; our relationships are no different from yours’.

I said earlier that displaying your married status via casual references to your spouse (like ‘I should go, my wife’s waiting’) is something heterosexuals do all the time. According to the conversation analyst Celia Kitzinger, who has studied this phenomenon, when heterosexuals say ‘my wife’ or ‘my husband’ (which it turns out they do very frequently, most often in contexts where their marital status has no bearing on the matter at hand), the message it conveys is one of ordinariness. Letting people know you’re married, without making a song and dance about it, is a way of presenting yourself as a normal, unremarkable, responsible adult.

In the past, non-heterosexuals couldn’t do that. Unlike ‘my wife/my husband’, formulas like ‘my partner’ or ‘my girl/boyfriend’ didn’t say unambiguously, ‘I’m in a grown-up, stable, committed relationship’. Though those who have it may not notice it, being treated as unremarkable is a form of privilege. From that perspective, it’s not surprising if campaigners saw being able to use the traditional spousal terms as one aspect of the equality they were fighting for.

But the traditional terms have different implications for lesbians and gay men. For lesbians, wife has costs as well as benefits: it allows them to claim greater social legitimacy for their relationships, but it also has uses which are demeaning to their sex. There’s a trade-off, in other words, between two kinds of social status. Gay men who adopt the label husband do not face that dilemma. Husband is not demeaning to men: marriage has never reduced men to non-persons, or required them to submit to the authority of a spouse.

Of course it’s true that the meanings of words change, and this happens because they start to be used in new contexts. Perhaps the extension of wife to lesbians, whose marriages are (at least in gender terms) reciprocal arrangements between equals, will help to shift the old view of married women as subordinates. Perhaps in future wife will mean no more than ‘a female person who is married to some other person’.

Or perhaps—since most marriages will continue to be heterosexual—the old ways of using wife will simply be carried over into the new context of lesbian marriage. Women married to women will be talked about in the same ways as women married to men; perhaps we’ll hear lesbians making jocular allusions to ‘the wife’ and her ‘wifely duties’.

Some queer theorists might see this as subversive, a challenge to heteronormative assumptions about marriage. For feminists, however, the problem is that it does not challenge patriarchal assumptions about women. The phrase ‘wifely duties’, whoever uses it, still suggests that a wife exists to serve. An ‘inclusive’ version of an old cliché like ‘the world and his or her wife’ still implies that a wife is an appendage.

For as long as these expressions remain in common use, it will be hard to argue that wife has shed the baggage of its patriarchal history. But with language, you’re never starting from scratch. What Marx said about history is also true about meaning: we make it ourselves, but ‘under circumstances existing already , given and transmitted from the past’.