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<   No. 4652   2021-11-23   >

Comic #4652

1 Prof. Jones: So, Miss Dearheart, how long have you been a pilot?
2 Emily: That’s Ms Dearheart. Long enough to know that crossing the sea is a different kettle of fish to flying over land.
3 Emily: We’ll need to stop in Alexandria to refuel.
4 Prof. Jones: Mmm, refuelling sounds good. A kettle of fish would make a nice dinner.

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The title "Ms" has an interesting history. In a similar way to how the male title "Mr" has its origins as an abbreviation for the word "master", the abbreviation "Ms" was used in the 17th and 18th centuries as an abbreviation for "mistress". This usage of "Ms" is recorded for example in tax lists from the English town of Shrewsbury in 1698.

"Ms" however, did not become adopted into general English usage in the same way as "Mr". Instead the abbreviation for "mistress" drifted between multiple choices, and eventually crystallised to the pair of either "Mrs" or "Miss", with "Ms" being largely forgotten. Both these forms remained in common use, initially without any distinction. Over time, however, people began using the two female titles to signify different things.

A research paper on the topic (Erickson, 2014)[1] suggests that this was a gradual evolution, beginning with the idea that "Mrs" indicated a woman of social standing, irrespective of marital status:

Mrs was the exact equivalent of Mr. Either term described a person who governed servants or apprentices, in [Samuel] Johnson's terms – we might say a person with capital. Once we adopt Johnson's understanding of the term (which was how it was used in the 18th century), it becomes clear that ‘Mrs’ was more likely to indicate a businesswoman than a married woman. So the women who took membership of the London Companies in the 18th century, all of whom were single and many of whom were involved in luxury trades, were invariably known as ‘Mrs’, as the men were ‘Mr’. Literally, they were masters and mistresses of their trades.

The author goes on to describe a parish listing for the town of Bocking in Essex dating from 1793, in which the heads of 25 of the town's households were identified by "Mrs":

Female household heads were by definition either single or widowed and, if Bocking was typical of other communities, around half of them would have been widows, and the other half single. But two thirds of these women in Bocking were specified as farmers or business proprietors. So Mrs is more reliably being used to identify women with capital, than to identify marital status. Only one woman was Miss: the schoolmistress.[2]

Through gradual evolution, things came to be somewhat reversed. "Mrs" came to be associated with businesswomen, in other words working women. Young ladies of the upper classes (who would naturally never have to deign to work for a living) began to use the title "Miss" to distinguish themselves and declare their higher social standing. Further down the track with the upper class social emphasis on marital status for women around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, this led eventually to the recognition that "Miss" referred specifically to an available, i.e. unmarried, woman. And hence by extension, "Mrs" came to refer to a married woman.

This pretty much immediately began causing problems, because which did one use if one did not know the marital status of a woman being addressed?

A proposed solution appeared in The Sunday Republican, published in Springfield, Massachusetts, on 10 November, 1901:

There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill. Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts. [...] Now, clearly, what is needed is a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation, and what could be simpler or more logical than the retention of the what the two doubtful terms have in common. 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.

As convincing and persuasive as this is, it seems to have languished completely forgotten until dug up relatively recently by researchers looking at the modern rise of "Ms". Rather than appealing simply to practicality and avoidance of confusion, it took the rise to prominence of a different issue to write the next chapter in the story. In 1949, the linguist Mario Pei wrote in his book The Story of Language[3]:

feminists, who object to the distinction between Mrs. and Miss and its concomitant revelatory features, have often proposed that the two present-day titles be merged into a single one, ‘Miss’ (to be written ‘Ms.’).

This cause, that women should not be defined by their roles in relation to men, seems to have risen somewhat unrecorded in the years between 1901 (when it seems ot have been unknown) and 1949 (by when Pei could comments that it was "often proposed").

Again the idea languished, until it was taken up by the feminist activist Sheila Michaels in 1961. She suggested and began promoting "Ms" as a title for women regardless of marital status, to put them on equal footing with men and their marital-agnostic "Mr". At first this didn't gain much traction. Some years later in 1969 Michaels was still pushing upstream for its adoption when Gloria Steinem was seeking a title for her new feminist magazine, soon to be launched. A friend of Steinem's happened to hear Michaels speaking during an interview, in which she mentioned her championing of the term "Ms". This friend suggested it to Steinem and in December 1971 the first issue of Ms. magazine appeared as a supplement in New York magazine, followed next month by stand-alone publication. This finally got the title the widespread awareness that it had never been able to achieve and the rest, as they say, is history.

Referring back to this comic, one may regard Emily Dearheart as perhaps one of those early adopters described by Mario Pei in 1949 as "often proposing" use of the term.

[1] Amy Louise Erickson, Mistresses and Marriage: or, a Short History of the Mrs, History Workshop Journal, Volume 78, Issue 1, Autumn 2014, Pages 39–57, https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbt002

[2] Interestingly, a custom continued today with the common practice of schoolchildren calling female teachers by "Miss", regardless of their marital status.

[3] Mario Pei, The Story of Language, Lippincott Company, 1949. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=JvlJAAAAMAAJ.

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