Mrs., Miss., or Ms.?: How Honorifics Can Reveal Marital Status Even When Women Don’t Want Them To

A simple honorific is often overlooked; many women would not second-guess checking a box that says Ms., Miss., or Mrs. when filling out a form or an application. [1] From forms at the doctor’s office, to credit card applications, and even library cards, the little box asking a woman what title to call her is everywhere. While it may not be a dilemma for all women, some may feel uncomfortable with checking a box that reveals their marital status. This is a dilemma that men do not face, since the male equivalent Mr. does not reveal the marital status of the man.

Unsurprisingly, female honorifics have a storied past revealing a power imbalance baked into our language. [2] Mrs., Ms., and Miss were all originally derived from abbreviations used for mistresses, but the word “mistress” could mean different things beyond the sexual connotation, like a woman in charge of a worker or a house.[3] Later Miss was used as a term for an unmarried woman, and Ms. was created in the early 20th century to denote unknown marital status, or became an option for women who did not want a term that defined their marital status. [4]

Ms. was championed by second wave feminists as a liberatory title equal to Mr. There was even a bill introduced to the United States Congress to eliminate the use of Mrs. and Miss., citing grounds of discrimination; the bill instead favored the use of Ms. [5] Since then Ms. has been watered down as a different honorific. Many people are taught to use Ms. as an honorific for a woman if they do not know if they are a Miss or a Mrs., and will adjust when they learn their marital status. [6] Having to choose between Miss, Ms. and Mrs. causes women to need to disclose their marital status, which is something men do not have to do.

The disclosure of marital status on official forms could open the door for discrimination and differential treatment of women. A 2012 study on the impact of marital status in the workplace revealed that after marriage, women received poorer performance reviews.[7] Women may also face other forms of discrimination by marital status, including disparate acccess to infertility care, health care coverage, and even differences in pay.[8]

Marital status discrimination could be curbed in part by women choosing not to reveal their marital status, but there is more to the problem. The process of declaring honorifics may also present other challenges, such as the exclusion of non-gender conforming individuals. Because of this, it might be time to reconsider honorifics and their place in our society. Several gender-neutral honorifics are now coming into fashion that work to solve this problem, while still conferring respect on the person being addressed. One term that is now being used is ‘RP‘ or ‘Respected Person’, pronounced like the letters ‘R P’ or said in its entirety; the advantage of this is that it honors the individual without spotlighting their gender or inadvertently revealing their marital status.[9] Another popular gender-neutral honorific is ‘Mx.’, pronounced as ‘mix’, that plays on the commonly used terms Mr. or Mrs., but does not reveal the gender of the person.[10] Honorifics are a part of the English language created to confer honor and respect, but if these terms are working against people or no longer providing that respect, then maybe it is time to rethink honorifics or even retire them.

-R.Z.


[1] Atkins-Sayre, W. (2005). Naming Women: The Emergence of “Ms.” as a Liberatory Title. Women and Language, 28, 8–16. https://doi.org/10.13140/2.1.4767.2966

[2] Luu, C. (2017, November 8). From the Mixed-Up History of Mrs., Miss, and Ms. JSTOR Daily. https://daily.jstor.org/from-the-mixed-up-history-of-mrs-miss-and-ms/

[3] Amy Louise Erickson. 2014. “Mistresses and Marriage: Or, a Short History of the Mrs.” History Workshop Journal, no. 78 (October): 39–57. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.43299025&site=eds-live.T

[4]  Amy Louise Erickson. 2014. “Mistresses and Marriage: Or, a Short History of the Mrs.” History Workshop Journal, no. 78 (October): 39–57. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.43299025&site=eds-live.T

[5] Lakoff, R. (1973). Language and Woman’s Place. Language in Society, 2(1), 45-80. Retrieved December 3, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4166707

[6] Names and titles. (n.d.). The Telegraph. Retrieved December 2, 2020, from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/style-book/names-and-titles/

[7] Jordan, A., & Zitek, E. (2012, September 1). Marital Status Bias in Perceptions of Employees. Basic and Applied Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1080/01973533.2012.711687

[8] Robert K. Toutkoushian. (1998). Racial and Marital Status Differences in Faculty Pay. The Journal of Higher Education, 69(5), 513–541. https://doi.org/10.2307/2649108

[9] Ladenheim, A., & Wormser, G. P. (2019). A New Gender-Neutral Honorific: “RP.” The American Journal of Medicine, 132(8), 902–904. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amjmed.2019.01.029

[10] Ladenheim, A., & Wormser, G. P. (2019). A New Gender-Neutral Honorific: “RP.” The American Journal of Medicine, 132(8), 902–904. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amjmed.2019.01.029

Image Sources

Black and White Title Checkboxes: https://docplayer.net/7331094-Title-mr-mrs-miss-ms-dr-other-family-name-given-names-previous-name-if-applicable.html

Ms., Miss., Mrs. graphic created by author

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