Two major European banks — National Westminster and HSBC — recently announced branch staff could choose the pronouns on their name badges. While this might seem the smallest of changes, it did not occur in a vacuum.
Late last year, some native speakers had choice words for popular dictionary “Petit Robert” when it published the first gender-neutral pronoun in the French-speaking world. “Woke-ism,” (or “wokisme”), critics complained, though “iel” (pronounced “yell”), a mashup of “il” and “elle,” appeared only in the wordbook’s online edition.
Change comes hard. And slowly. It’s not always linear. My gripe about this comes not from the current culture war over gender politics, but from what now seems like the ancient era of 1970s feminism.
Perhaps 10 years ago, my insurance company reps began calling me “Mrs. Lowe.” True, I’m married — but not to Mr. Lowe. After a few years of telling myself it didn’t matter, I couldn’t keep denying the annoyance I felt.
Thereafter, the policy peddlers started asking for “Miss Lowe.” I chalked it up to the Texas-based callers’ southern manners or the similarity between “Miss” and “Ms.”
Then a new doctor called me “Mrs. Lowe.”
“OK if I call you ‘Chelsea’?”
All of a sudden, it seemed, every customer-service provider addressed me as “Miss.” Most of their voices sounded young.
What happened, I wondered, to the hard-fought, hard-won battles I remembered from my childhood, when female teachers in plaid pants suits started scribbling “Ms.” on the blackboard before their surnames? It seemed to take only an instant for decades of progress to go the way of, well, pantsuits.
I began asking every whipper snap who called me “Miss” to tell me why. While setting up our new cable account, Spectrum rep Joanie said she’s in a damned-either-way situation. Most right-thinking women oppose “Ma’am,” for instance, and few single gals want strangers to assume they’re “Mrs.” (Indeed, in a discussion on social, an unmarried colleague complained indignantly about this.)
After presenting homeowner’s coverage options, Matt N., 25, explained the older honorific as a “force of habit. I never really thought about it,” he said. “To give you a perfectly honest answer, I think it’s a generational thing.”
On Australia’s ABC News website, radio host James Valentine wrote that younger women associate “Ms.” with aggressive secrecy (as in, “none of your business”), divorcées (horrors!) and lesbians (my smelling salts, please).
Needless to say, any acquaintance who must know a woman’s marital status can ask. It’s irritating to be called “Miss” or “Mrs.” when you’re not, and whether you are shouldn’t make a difference to begin with. And in case you forgot, the world’s “Mr.”s never have to worry about being misidentified.
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Oddly perhaps, I’m a bit charmed by the southern “Miss Chelsea” in the same way I’m fine with “hun,” spoken by a woman, cis or otherwise. However, accusations of disrespect (and in the case of “Miss” with a first name, racism) abound.
“Ms.,” “Miss,” and “Mrs.” all trace their origins to “Mistress,” once a title for any woman regardless of marital status. The Springfield, Massachusetts Republican recommended “Ms.” in 1901, but the term gained little traction until the women’s movement of the late 60s and early 70s. Ms. magazine launched in December 1971.
“Mx.,” proposed in a 1977 issue of Single Parent magazine, moved comparatively faster. Merriam-Webster added the gender-neutral title to its dictionary in 2017. Not heard often — yet — it’s the ultimate equalizer, offering the respect of an honorific without extraneous or erroneous information. Though it does have the baggage of that “x” without a vowel, which might make it hard to pronounce, at least at first.
Anyway, it seems odd to hear “Mrs.” and “Miss” this often in an age when pains are taken to include every person’s preferred pronoun or ethnic and ability descriptor. “Ms.” includes all women. “Mx.,” even better, includes everyone. If “Mx.” isn’t perfect for our mxed-up times, what is?
Lowe is an editor and writer.