Language and Communication

The terms Miss (sometimes spelled Mis), Mrs. and Ms. were used interchangeably, without regard to marital status, as early as the seventeenth century. The first “marriage-neutral proposal for Ms.” seems to have appeared in The Springfield Republican, a Massachusetts newspaper, in 1901 (Baron, 2010; OED). The author wrote: “What is needed is a more comprehensive term which does homage to [women] without expressing any views as to their domestic situation.”

The article’s writer suggested the term, “Ms.”:

The abbreviation ‘Ms.’ is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances. For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz,’ which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike. (Baron, OED)

Feminists soon took up the cause for a gender-neutral title for women. Mario Pei, in The Story of Language published in 1949, noted: “Feminists, who object to the distinction between Mrs. and Miss . . . have often proposed that the two present-day titles be merged into a single one, ‘Miss,’ (to be written ‘Ms.’) (Baron; Steinem, 1998). But the term didn’t really catch on until the late 1960’s, when feminists rediscovered it in secretarial handbooks dating from the 1930’s – 1950’s (Steinem), which suggested that Ms. was a convenient alternative when writing to women whose marital status was unknown (Baron).

When Ms. magazine began publishing in 1971, the term was introduced to a broader public (Steinem). In 1972, Congresswoman Bella Abzug sponsored the “Ms. Bill,” “which forbade the federal government from using prefixes indicating marital status in any official document or publication of the U.S. Government Printing Office” (Steinem, para. 3). Although the bill did not pass, that same year the Government Printing Office approved the use of Ms. in government documents. Also in 1972, feminists asked The New York Times “to officially adopt ‘Ms.’ for identifying women” in the newspaper (Chapman & Ciment, 2014, p. 438). The editors’ answer was no, launching 12 years of on-and-off picketing of The Times by feminists. Finally, in 1986, the newspaper acquiesced, in part because of the 1984 vice presidential run of Geraldine Ferraro. Ferraro, who used her maiden name rather than her husband’s name (Zaccaro), presented a conundrum for the paper. William Safire, a columnist and language expert at The Times, noted that she could not correctly be called Miss Ferraro or Mrs. Ferraro. The alternative, Ms. Ferraro, was the only one that made sense (Chapman & Ciment). Still it was two more years before The New York Times changed its policy on “Ms.,” noting at the time that it had “become a part of the language” (qtd. in Chapman & Ciment, p. 438).

In Man Made Language, Dale Spender asserted that resistance to the term Ms. grew from the fact that Ms. does not assist in maintaining patriarchal order (Steinem). Today Ms. is widely used in some circles, but research over the years has indicated that stereotypes of women who use Ms. as more masculine, divorced or nontraditional persist (Chapman & Ciment).

References

Baron, D. (2010, July 27). Is it "Miss" or "Ms"? A newly-discovered 1885 cite suggests it’s Miss. The Web of Language. Retrieved from https://illinois.edu/blog/view/25/30864

Chapman, R., & Ciment, J. (2014). Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints and Voices. New York, NY: Routledge.

Steinem, G. (1998). Ms. In W. Mankiller (Ed.), The reader's companion to U.S. women's history.

Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. Retrieved from

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