A BRIEF HISTORY OF HONORIFIC TITLES
Prior to the rise of the second wave feminist movement in the US during the 1970s, women were essentially without an honorific title equivalent to “Mr” for men. Neither Miss nor Mrs was really equal to Mr. The problem was, no matter which title a woman chose, she found herself categorised as either single or married. In fact, she didn’t really have a choice. All young, unmarried women were referred to as Miss. All married women automatically became Mrs and took their husband’s surname.
A man is always a Mr, but this title does not have anything to do with his marital status. A Mr could be an 18-year-old single man or a 50-year-old married man. The late Sheila Michaels was a feminist and civil rights activist that recognised this issue, demanding a title that gave her gender an equal footing with the male Mr. Although she didn’t invent the title “Ms”, she certainly was the woman that popularised it. Her 1969 appearance on New York radio station WBAI was the transmission that put Ms on the map.
In 1971, Ms. Magazine first featured as an insert in New York Magazine. A year later in July 1972, Ms. Magazine’s first regular standalone issue became available. As founding editor, Letty Cottin Pogrebin likes to succinctly put it, “Ms. translated a movement into a magazine”. By 20th June 1986, the already widely popular Ms honorific title made it into the vocabulary of the New York Times.
MISS, MRS, AND MS IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Miss is still used when referring to young women, especially as a term of endearment to young girls. It is also used in beauty contests like Miss America or Miss Universe. These contests popped up during the 1920s and reflect the values and expectations of times gone by. Outside of a beauty pageant scenario, Miss really is reserved for birthday cards to your young female relatives. Little miss sunshine sounds harmless, but unless she is your daughter or niece, don’t risk it.
Mrs is still quite common. Mrs is always a married woman. She may be currently married, divorced, or a widow, but a Mrs has been married at least once. Technically, Mrs—often pronounced “Missus”—can be the appropriate honorific title, but only if the woman prefers it. Both Sarah Palin and Meghan Kelly are married women, however, they do not use Mrs. In contrast, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama are definitively in the Mrs camp.
MS: THE MODERN WOMAN’S TITLE
Ms is hard to pronounce. The trick is to refer to women by name or as “Mizz” to cover every situation. Unless you 100% know for sure a woman wants to be referred to as Mrs, you can safely use this honorific title regardless of the woman’s age or marital status. “Choose Miss and you are condemned to childish immaturity. Choose Mrs and be condemned as some guy’s chattel. Choose Ms and you become an adult woman in charge of your whole life.” —Eve Kay, The Guardian, 2007.