Many people believe that Ms. is a title for unmarried women.
While men in America are called Mr. their entire lives, women are traditionally referred to as Miss before being married and Mrs. after matrimony. For women who do not wish to be defined by their marital status, there is an alternative label: Ms. As the only marriage neutral honorific for women, Ms. has become the female equivalent of Mr., but many people don’t know this. Instead, they believe Ms. is simply a title for adult women who are not married, using the term without understanding its feminist roots.
Ms. has been used as a title to describe women since as early as the 1760s, when it originated as an abbreviation for “Mistress”. The earliest printed Ms. found thus far is on the tombstone of Sarah Spooner, who died in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1767; an abbreviation of Mistress by a stonecutter seeking to save space.
The first reference to Ms. as a marriage neutral term for women can be found in an uncredited item from an issue of The Sunday Republican of Springfield from November 10, 1901. Its’ author was attempting to find a solution for a social dilemma— they did not want “to call a maiden Mrs.” or “insult a matron with the inferior title Miss.” So they proposed the term Ms. (pronounced “Mizz”) as “a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation”.
Decades later, in 1961, Shelia Michaels came across the term Ms. on an envelope addressed to one of her roommates and initially thought it was a typo. However, when she realized Ms. was actually a title identifying women independent of their marital status, Michaels adopted the term for herself, and launched a one-woman campaign to bring Ms. to the mainstream.
“I didn’t belong to my father and I didn’t want to belong to my husband,” said Michaels, who passed away in 2017. “Ms. is me!”
For Michaels and other women in the 1960s, the fight for female agency was more than an issue of titles or semantics. As Abigail Pogrebin writes in New York Magazine in 2011,“American women prior to second-wave feminism “had trouble getting a credit card without a man’s signature, had few legal rights when it came to divorce or reproduction, and were expected to aspire solely to marriage and motherhood.” Furthermore, “job listings were segregated (“Help wanted, male”). There was no Title IX (banning sex discrimination in federally funded athletic programs); no battered-women’s shelters, rape-crisis centers, and no terms such as sexual harassment and domestic violence.”
Although whether a woman is referred to as Miss or Mrs. or Miss may seem like a trivial issue today, Michael’s attempts to popularize Ms. was representative of women’s struggle to attain control over their own destinies and bodies, free of male guidance or interference. A woman’s decision to be addressed as Ms. signaled that she was an independent and autonomous being, not the property of first her father and then her husband.
When Michaels was interviewed by the progressive New York radio station WBAI in 1969 she brought up the term Ms. on-air, catching the attention of feminist activist Gloria Steinem. Steinem was looking for a title for a feminist magazine that she was launching, and eventually settled on Ms. When the first issue of Ms. Magazine was published in 1972, it finally achieved Michael’s goal of bringing Ms. to the mainstream.
Ms. was sold on newsstands alongside other magazines geared towards women, but while those magazines tended to focus on cooking and housework, Ms. brought feminist ideas about politics, gender, sexuality, and relationships to a broader female population, many of whom didn’t have any prior understanding of or experience with feminism.
The first issue of Ms. a letter entitled “We Have Had Abortions”, that was signed by 53 women, including Steinem herself and celebrities such as Billie Jean King and Susan Sontag. The letter included a card which encouraged women to write in their own names and send it to the magazine. In 1972, a year before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was still illegal throughout much of America, this was a courageous, ground-breaking admission. From that first issue onwards, Ms. was a powerful voice in American feminism, one which helped to launch the careers of many successful female journalists and introduced women throughout the country to new messages about gender equality.
An important focus of second-wave feminism was the intersection between the personal and the political. In addition to expanding women’s legal and civic rights and protections, feminists also sought to change the balance of power between men and women as it pertained to individual relationships. Choosing to be addressed as Ms. was both a personal and a political choice for women, one which signaled their belief in the equality of the sexes at every level of society, in both public and private spheres.
For many women who came of age in the latter half of the 20th century, choosing to identify as Ms. was a small yet radical act of agency. “After school and university, I opened a new bank account and stuck Ms. proudly on the application,” Eve Kay wrote in 2007 op-ed for The Guardian “I was my own person with my own identity and Ms. summed that up better than any other title. It was a small symbolic step — I knew it didn’t mean that women were equal, but it was important to at least announce to the world my intent to be free.”
When Ms. is used or referred to merely as a title for unmarried women, it becomes divorced from its historical context. As a result, the struggles and accomplishments of women like Michaels and Steinem are ignored, as are the power inequities between men and women that persist to this day. According to a 2015 Google Consumer Survey cited in The Knot, around 80% of American women choose to change their names after being married. The symbolic transition from a woman’s birth name and the title Miss to her husband’s name and the title Mrs. is representative of one of the oldest patriarchal norms of all- the idea that a woman is born the property of her father, and becomes the property of her husband after marriage (because of course women in this patriarchal context must marry and marry into a heterosexual union). As Kay writes in The Guardian, “choose Miss and you are condemned to childish immaturity. Choose Mrs and be condemned as some guy’s chattel. Choose Ms and you become an adult woman in charge of your whole life.”