Monday, September 5, 2011

Excuse me, Ms.

Women are, and always have been, identified in relation to the men around them. In addition to taking their father's names at birth, women then traditionally take their husband's - it seems women's identities are simply swapped out as they change male custodians. Unlike men, who are afforded their own autonomous identities free and clear of their relationship to anyone but themselves (except perhaps their fathers, whose names they bear), women's names are prefixed by a seemingly innocent identifier: Miss, Mrs, or Ms. These titles serve to signal to others the marital status of the woman named, but rarely do we ask why it is that women are forced to be defined by their marital status while men are not. So why is it that women all over the world accept that, unlike their male counterparts, they are expected to announce their marital status (or perhaps availability) to the public?

The legal theory of coverture, the notion that once married, a woman's identity is absorbed into that of her husband, makes clear that historically women's identities have been legally subsumed by their husband's. As the infamous Sir William Blackstone put it in his 1765 work Commentaries on the Laws of England,

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…


Women in the United States today are free to own property, enter into contracts, and enjoy their own legal identities. It is, after all, 2011 (not 1765!) yet the vestiges of coverture are still prevalent as women must select Miss/Mrs/Ms from the pull-down menu as they purchase an airline ticket or subscribe to a magazine.

Most curious of these titles is "Ms”. Gaining attention in the 1970s (mainly due to the debut of Gloria Steinam's "Ms. Magazine"), "Ms" was taken up as a political symbol by feminists who did not wish to be "owned" by a man. Today, it seems that "Ms" is the most "PC" way to address a woman in a professional setting, but Mrs. and Miss commonly appear and are often used in all other contexts. Indeed, “Ms” is perceived as more of an accommodation to feminism than anything else, or perhaps a “polite” way of skirting the issue of marital status with an older women for whom “Miss” would likely be inappropriate. Nonetheless, “Ms” was met with ridicule and mockery before being accepted even as an option.

Perhaps women have grown too comfortable with the idea that their identities are implicitly those of their husband's or father's - chalking up to tradition and convenience the fact they don't wish to be addressed any other way. Maybe we believe that women have already achieved equality, so we need no longer worry about such details. I believe that we are too complacent in the roles in which society has ever so subtly placed us, and I truly wonder why we so casually forfeit our autonomous identities.

It is estimated that about 90% of women change their names after marriage, and that 70% of Americans (albeit in a small study) agreed or strongly agreed that a woman should
take her husband's name (for some comic relief on this matter, watch "Joann from Bensonhurst" on the subject of maiden names). While I do not outright disagree with a woman taking her husband's name, I do take issue with the loss of identity that a woman is expected to undergo as a certain right of passage in her life. Perhaps the most egregious of examples is when married women are addressed simply as the wife of their husband, as in "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith." Would men be comfortable if their identities were to casually disappear after marriage, as in "Mr. and Mrs. Mary Smith?"

My aim is not to dissuade women from taking their husband's names, nor it is to judge or lecture those who do. My purpose in this brief blog is to draw attention to the seemingly automatic acceptance of the vestiges of coverture, a legal notion that, when read today, seems outlandish and unjust. I hope to inspire women to take another look at the seemingly innocuous titles we elect or accept and to challenge the systems at work that still require us to find our identities in relation to men.

6 comments:

Caitlin said...

You left out my own personal favorite, "ma'am," which is beginning to replace "miss" as the term many in the customer service field use to refer to me when they ring me up or ask me if I need help.

Why is it that men are always called "sir," regardless of age, while women are forced to feel the stinging blow of age as they move from "miss" while they are young, to "ma'am" as they grow older? Why are there so many different terms for women, and only one, "Mr." and "sir," respectively, for men?

On another note, I truly appreciate your post. I have thought, from a very young age, that I would never change my last name, even after marriage, because I felt it was inappropriate that I would have to change my identity for anyone. After awhile, I also decided that I wasn't terribly thrilled with being forced to take my father's name at birth, and toyed with the idea of changing it to my mother's (although that is the name of her father, so really its just taking one man's over another man's).

Recently, my mom discovered a family tree from her mother's side that dated back to the early 1700s. I found the oldest woman's maiden name on my matrilineal side, and decided I would toy with the idea of changing my own last name to hers. When I told my father's parents (who have my current last name) about my possible desire to change to this other name, they were actually fairly upset--which surprised me, given that at 91 and 89, they are staunch liberals who voted for Obama in the 2008 election. This idea of patrilineal naming is so ingrained into normality in American society!

tomindavis said...

I liked this post. I found especially pleasing your discussion of the term "Ms." and its arrival on the scene in the 70s/80s. As one raised in that time, I definitely remember when that suffix hybrid took flight. It was meant to move away from age-old demonstrations of a woman's marital status, but it always had an odd ring to it, and then began to fall out of favor.
Caitlyn, in re: "ma'am," a good friend of mine (male) just the other day, and in a different context, said he felt "ma'am" was appropriate for addressing women. My other friend and I were astonished. It is one thing, I said, to address a much older woman that way, or for, say, a bellhop taught thoroughly in the ways of obsequiousness. But "ma'am?" Really?

AMS said...

I really enjoyed considering the issues that you addressed in this post. I, like Caitlin, often consider whether or not I will change my name in the future. I was surprised to see the real statistics as well. For some reason I was under the impression that far more ladies kept their names (whether on their own or hyphenated). Yet, it's likely that, once again, I'm biased by my acquaintances with strong, professional, progressive women. Women who keep their own names.

My mother readily--and joyously--accepted my father's last name. But, my mom HATED her last name. A very Jewish name, her maiden name functioned as label--a label often applied in a discriminatory fashion where she grew up. Thus, based on her experience, she couldn't wait to take my father's last name.

On that note, my father's last name was actually changed just after WWII. The original long, very Polish name, was abbreviated to a shorter name (that happens to be a traditionally Irish name). Yet, since the patriarch of the family chose to change the name, so everyone accepted it without a challenge.

I love the name I inherited. I don't believe I'll ever change it.

So, say I get married. That's where the dilemma arises. Do I hyphenate? Do I keep my name, as is? My first thought is, in fact, whether I would feel comfortable with a name that does not associate me with my partner by marriage. I might be ok with that.

I would be honored if my partner wanted to take my name as well. Yet, I know that I would never expect this of my partner. Maybe I should? Or maybe I just like the idea of keeping my name for myself?

Do opinions change if there are children involved? My mother actually gave me her opinion on this very subject...and I don't know if I'll ever get it out of my head. It made a lot of sense.

She explained that it's often easier for kids when their parents have the same name. Other people--whether school officials or medical record keepers--don't get confused when names clearly indicate parentage. Furthermore, people ask fewer questions about the relationship of Mom and Dad and their respective relationships with the children.

I'd like to think that I will choose my name based on my own self-identity. Yet, as addressed, names communicate relationships (even if it's in an outdated manner), and societal impressions often matter--a lot.

I have a feeling that my future children will have long, hyphenated names to bubble into those scantrons...

AMS said...

One more note on this topic.

Different cultures use different terms like "ma'am" to address women. For example, staff at the Miami airport this summer kept referring to me as "Mami."

At the time, although I recognized that it may have been a term of endearment, it bothered me to have a new "title." I never invited anyone to call me anything.

I remembered the reference and kept my ears peeled. Since that experience, I've heard the term used to reference young kids, including toddlers.

Based on some google-ing, the term appears to apply to women generally. Thus, maybe we must build on the issues presented in this post to add a layer about culture. Why does our culture not prefer to reference women by a single term?

Ringo1985 said...

I'm glad that you have addressed this issue. My mom never changed her maiden name- rather, I took my mom's maiden as my "middle" name. However, as a child, and to this day, I always resented the fact that I had to explain my mom's choice in many situations where my "different" last name posed a problem.

This difference was magnified by the fact that my mom has a severe hearing disability, so when I would speak or act for my mother over the phone, I never had authority to make any types of account changes because we had a different last name.

Where I grew up in Boston, I had never known of a woman who changed her last name to accommodate her changed marital status. When I moved to California, I was shocked to find out how many of my friends' parents were "Mr. and Mrs"-always with the same last name. This forced me to recognize at a younger age gender biases that I think some of my peers were not yet aware of.

Just last weekend, I had a conversation with my father about my mom's decision to keep her last name. He told me that many family members subtly resisted, through innocent acts such as always addressing invitations or letters to "Mr. and Mrs. Hettwer"- when all of these relatives knew that my mom had not changed her last name.

Personally, I find it the most offensive when I receive wedding invitations which refer to the parents as "Dr. and Mrs. James Smith" (as an anonymous example). The first time I saw this I was absolutely aghast, but as more friends and companions marry, the more I see this antiquated language used in modern day wedding invitations. I had thought that this custom had changed, but apparently we still have a long way to go! I know that this is not necessarily indicative of a person's individual politics when it comes to feminism, but I am still shocked that so many women who have grown up in my generation still choose to identify themselves by their husbands!

Megan said...

It is interesting that last names are used to indicate family origin—belonging. In my family, I took on my father’s last name, which is Lin. But it has not always been “Lin.” During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, many Taiwanese changed their last names in order to assume a more Japanese identity. This is an example of how a last name can be modified to signify inclusion in a certain group. Similarly, many Chinese names were Hispanicized in the Philippines, where my mom is from.