How Do You Feel About "Ms."?
Whether you associate it with feminism and plucky Mary Richards or consider it a simple matter of personal taste depends on when you were born.
Recently, some of our editors were brainstorming ideas when somebody mentioned the “Ms. versus Miss" and "Ms. versus Mrs.” question. For young staffers, determining which one to use was just a basic style issue for the magazine and purely a matter of personal choice for individual Southern women. They saw nothing remotely controversial about it.
But those of us who remember when Mary Richards was bravely and politely standing up for herself at WJM also remember “Ms.” differently because we experienced the changing times that brought it into everyday use—specifically, the women’s movement. Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine made it official, but it was the daily struggles of women like Mary, Rhoda, Phyllis, and Sue Ann that made us see the women's movement through the eyes of "Every Women" who made us laugh.
In the conservative South, “Ms.” wasn’t commonly used at first, likely because feminism didn’t find much of a foothold here back in the day. We didn’t want to burn our foundation garments (especially after we’d had them professionally fitted).
Times change, though. And what was once seen as a badge of radical feminism is now just a matter of personal choice. That in itself says something.
According to reporter Ben Zimmer’s 2009 article in The New York Times, a newspaper writer as early as 1901 lobbied for “Ms.” to fill what was deemed “a void in the English language,” that is, a respectful way to address women without knowing their marital status. That argument resurfaced again and again for decades but never took hold until the 1970s. It wasn’t until 1986, Zimmer writes, that the Times officially welcomed the use of “Ms.” along with “Miss” and “Mrs.”
The most interesting habit of Southerners, where honorifics are concered, is the way we use “Miss.” Young women are addressed by “Miss” plus their last name: Miss Miller, Miss Rowe, Miss Dison. But as we get older, younger people who are close to us attach “Miss” to our first names: Miss Robin, Miss Kathy, Miss Beverly, etc. Also, when we say we prefer ‘Ms.,’ we might indeed mean that we prefer the neutrality of it with regard to marital status. Or we could simply be admitting that we pronounce both ‘Mrs.’ and ‘Ms.’ the same way—Miz.
How do Southern women feel about “Ms.” today? We polled our Facebook Brain Trust to find out. Here are some of their comments—please share yours!
“This came up in a conversation with one of my kids last week. ‘Ms.’ is it for me, regardless of any status.”
“I go by ‘Mrs. Lother’ or ‘Miss Rhonda.’”
“I’ve been ‘Mrs.” for 51 years, so it’s hard to remember being called anything else! I think I have more of a problem when I go to an M.D. and they call me ‘Brenda’ but expect me to call them ‘Dr.’ even though I’m about 25 years older! Respect goes both ways.”
“I like ‘Miss’ with a first name for older ladies to show love and respect; ‘Ms.’ for unmarried women; and ‘Mrs.’ for married women.”
“I’m good with ‘Ms.’ because I’m neither a ‘Mrs.’ nor a ‘Miss.’”
“I use ‘Ms.’ for myself because I feel like ‘Miss’ is too young”
“I actually like ‘Ms.’ I think there is an age beyond which ‘Miss’ is inappropriate. It seems juvenile to me.”
“Not opposed to ‘Ms.’ Sometimes it just makes things easier.”
“It has been in use for so long that it’s normal to me and a relief if you aren’t a ‘Miss’ or a ‘Mrs.’”
“I like using the first name with ‘Mr.’ or ‘Miss’ in casual conversation with an older person who is close. It’s a Southern thing.”
“I still prefer ‘Mrs.’ since I am married and it is respectful.
“I’m good with ‘Ms.,’ even though I am married. I want to be called ‘Dr.’ in about two years.”
“It certainly solves the problem of addressing someone when you don’t know if she’s married or single. I also think ‘Ms.’ sounds more professional than ‘Miss.’”
“I’ve preferred ‘Ms.’ since it came into being, and actually ‘Miss’ makes me feel older—like Miss Daisy.”
“‘Ms.’ all the way.”
“I use the pronunciation ‘Ms.’ no matter what! However, if I’m writing invites or thank-you notes, then it’s ‘Ms.’ if they have moved out of their parents’ house at any point or are older than 25ish and ‘Miss’ if they have never left home and are younger.”
“I prefer Miz! It just fits!”
“I like to use ‘Mrs.’ if they are married, ‘Miss’ for a young girl, and ‘Ms.’ if I don’t know of if they are single [and are older].”
“Whenever someone calls me ‘Mrs. Watkins,’ usually in cold calls, I tell them there is no one by that name at this number. I prefer ‘Ms.’ rather than either ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ because an honorific should not vary with my marital status, just as men’s do not. But I do refer to all the ladies for whom I have affection as ‘Miss (first name).’”
“Just call me Stephanie.”
WATCH: Chonda Pierce On Starting Over
Southern women find all kinds of creative ways to declare our independence . . . well, not from Mama but from everybody else.