We’re living through some odd times when it comes to women’s rights. From the dystopian yet disturbingly plausible future portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale to an abnormal present where a reality TV personality can boast of groping women (“grab ’em by their pussies”) yet still become president of the United States… Meanwhile once-lauded movie producer Harvey Weinstein is only now being held to account for multiple allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against women over a thirty-year span, while many turned a blind eye. These stories go to show just how tenuous and ever-shifting is society’s respect for women. ‘Twas ever thus…and yet, was it, or do we sometimes misread the past through a modern fog?
The present is always a time we’ve been led to believe is far more socially advanced than the past. Some social commentators, such as Steven Pinker, might suggest that despite evidence to the contrary we’re living in an enlightened age of peace, where human violence is at a low ebb compared to other eras. Without the benefit of firsthand experience of the past, and if we consider physical aggression as the only kind of violence worth talking about, then perhaps it’s true that never before has the world been as prosperous and as progressive as we find in our modern lives.
Psychological and emotional violence, however, are made far too easy by the power imbalances inherent in more complex societies, and are aided and abetted by a growing culture of fearful complicity and carelessly, widely disseminated social media. The knock-on social effects of these less tangible forms of violence have yet to be determined. For many living in this otherwise comfortable age, gender inequality is very real and sometimes doesn’t necessarily feel very safe, even if it doesn’t always come with the threat of physical violence. The threat of public shame, a historically more female concern, can be powerful enough.
These inequalities are reflected as a symptom in the way we use language, in the past and present. Though we often think of language as simply a communication vehicle for sharing content, it’s also about negotiating social status and power dynamics through our language choices. So it’s also interesting to see how language has changed in ways we aren’t even aware of, informing us about the shifting status of women in society. That, in fact, it’s often been unexpectedly regressive.
Nowhere better to see this effect than in the muddled up ways polite language, the terms of address, or honorifics, are used to refer to a woman’s social status: Mrs., Miss, and Ms.
Speaking of presidents, here’s a seemingly trivial puzzle that demonstrates how linguistic inequality flaunts itself under our very noses. Why is a male president respectfully addressed as “Mr. President,” yet the linguistically appropriate feminine counterpart, “Mrs. President” seems slightly off or downgraded in status somehow—the preferred, more elevated terminology is “Madame President.” Similarly while we might address a male chairperson as “Mr. Chairman”, it’s never “Mrs. Chairman” but “Madame Chair(person).” (Of course in other circles a madame is also something else entirely, and that’s part of the problem).
So in the Anglophone world, we can neutrally address a president (Mr. President), a doctor (surgeons in the UK are often respectfully entitled Mr. rather than Dr.) and a regular old guy from the neighborhood (such as Mr. Rogers) with the exact same title, even with their varying degrees of social status, all without batting an eyelid (or knowing or caring much about their marital status). When it comes to the much maligned “Mrs.” however, it gets more mixed up. “Mrs.” is a title that just doesn’t get all that much respect anymore, unless you’re of a certain, old-fashioned age. After the “Mrs. Man” pattern of addressing a married woman by her husband’s name, such as “Mrs. John Dashwood” or “Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” it can be hard to tell if “Mrs. President” is referring to the wife of a male president…or to a president who is a wife. The point is, “Mrs.” defines her as a wife first and foremost, in relation to someone else entirely. A Mrs. seems to be no longer her own person.
It turns out this is an incredible fall from grace for an honorific that once reflected a certain degree of social respect and capital, regardless of marital status, just like its male counterpart.
Linguists like Robin Lakoff have long understood that language can be skewed along gender lines, and not just through the speech patterns women are pressured to use from an early age, and then routinely criticized and mocked for using. Lakoff shows how even language about women can go through changes as the concerns of women are marginalized or trivialized in some way. “When a word acquires a bad connotation by association with something unpleasant or embarrassing, people may search for substitutes that do not have the uncomfortable effect—that is, euphemisms.” A coy Victorian might speak of unmentionables or Americans might politely refer to a toilet as a restroom. This happens a lot with “women’s language.”
If the word “woman” develops certain negative connotations, becoming too sexualized or low status, it might be replaced by “lady”… which may in turn acquire associated negative nuances (“lady doctor,” “cleaning lady”) and so forth. Maybe a humble housewife would be elevated to a higher status in the eyes of wider society if she was referred to as a “household engineer” since engineers are professionals who are widely respected in a way housewives are not.
In an interesting gender reversal, it was not so long ago that male nurses in Commonwealth countries might well have been addressed as “sister,” a formal title given to senior nurses in charge of a ward. Sister (and likewise matron for a chief nurse) are perhaps one of the rare ranks that are historically female, and even had a formal military equivalence within the British army, with lieutenants and majors respectively. As more men entered the nursing profession these historical titles have been criticized as too gendered and uncomfortable, even though traditionally male professions and their titles are automatically assumed to be neutral.
In fact, as Richard, Lord Braybrooke noted in 1855 in reference to Samuel Pepys’s diary, “It is worthy of remark, that the fair sex may justly complain of almost every word in the English language designating a female, having, at some time or another, been used as a term of reproach; for we find Mother, Madam, Mistress and Miss, all denoting women of bad character; and here Pepys adds the title of my Lady to the number, and completes the ungracious catalogue.”
So sexist language is clearly a longstanding problem, and often people want to solve it by legislating for or against something. If a word like “housewife” isn’t respected, perhaps changing it to something more well regarded, such as “household engineer,” is a quick fix, according to Lakoff. A title like “Mrs.” is problematic, and not just as a source of endless faux pas for using the wrong title. How do you address a professional woman who is married but uses her own name, Mrs. or Miss? Even as far back as 1901 the alternative title “Ms,” with a pronunciation close enough to both of those, was suggested as a patch to this gaping honorific hole. Later that century, as Lakoff reports, a bill was proposed in the United States Congress to actually abolish the discriminatory and invasive Mrs. and Miss entirely in favor of the more inscrutable Ms.
But changing language through euphemisms addresses an inequality on someone else’s terms, by assuming existing titles are less desirable, perhaps too feminine? It still doesn’t make the work of women or women’s language more respected. By leaving “Mrs.” and “Miss” by the wayside, rather than reclaiming what these two titles might mean, we do lose a little something of their past history, yet it’s not the usual drab story that most people would assume. Amy Louise Erickson in “Mistresses and Marriage: or, a short history of the Mrs.” argues that “Mrs.” has had a far richer earlier story than its current decline would suggest.
Many historians, guided by our longstanding modern usage of Mrs. as simply a marker of marital status, may often assume that it’s always been that way. The story goes that “Mrs.” was a desirable title accorded to even older, unmarried spinsters of higher social rank as a courtesy, to give them an air of respectability in a way spinsterhood did not, by putting them on a par with married ladies. What was important in the past, clearly, was for a woman to be married. Housekeepers who managed staff were also called “Mrs.” as a courtesy for the same reason.
But it turns out this attitude actually dates only from the nineteenth century, and marks an abrupt change from an earlier usage of “Mrs.” The trend to apply a husband’s name to a wife is equally as recent, one of the earliest examples being in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility in which Mrs. John Dashwood is so-called to distinguish her from the more senior Mrs. Dashwood. Because this naming myth is now so prevalent, women’s names were often anachronously retrofitted after the fact, such as when the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 1937 changed the portrait of Elizabeth Sheridan to read “Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan,” obscuring her identity completely.
Erickson shows that in fact, throughout the eighteenth century, “Mrs.” was closer to a professional rank for women of capital, businesswomen, and women of higher social status, whether married or unmarried, much like the role the later “Ms.” took on (German uses “frau” regardless of marital status in much the same way). Business proprietors were normally addressed as “Mrs.” as a matter of professional courtesy, but were officially recorded with just their own names, sans title, for example on their business cards.
In fact, while Samuel Johnson’s dictionary presents all the various bipolar meanings eighteenth century society has to offer for “mistress” (the title of which Mrs. was originally an abbreviation, though it’s gone through some pronunciation changes) from a woman who governs, a woman skilled in anything, a teacher, a beloved woman, an insult for a woman or a whore, the one thing he does not define a mistress as is a married woman. It was simply not necessary, especially as, according to Erickson, unmarried women in England at the time had all the same legal rights as men did. Many of them headed their own households, owned property, ran their own businesses and joined professional guilds according to their trades. “Mrs.” was very much the linguistic equal of “Mr,” for adults, just as “Miss” was used for young girls in the same way as the now outdated “Master” was used for boys before adulthood. None of these titles entailed any marital status, but importantly, a Mrs. did seem to be accorded a title of respect regardless of the men in her life. This is now lost to history, as many assume the past was no friend to women’s rights. ‘Twas ever thus.
It’s hard to say how it all changed. It’s possible that as Miss began to be applied to more adult, unmarried women, possibly under influence from French. As titles and women’s terms degraded through pejoration, the new style of address for unmarried women of fashion was to be titled “Miss.” For a time, “Miss” even took over as the default title used in certain industries, such as acting, or for other well-known celebrities such as Miss Amelia Earhart or the often erroneously titled poet Miss Dorothy Parker (who preferred Mrs.)—even if they were married. This pushed the once neutral professional “Mrs.” into the uncharted, old-fashioned, marriage-only territory we see this once noble honorific languishing in today. Now with “Ms.” serving a role that “Mrs.” once held, it may be that this older usage of Miss and Mrs. will forever be missing in action.