Dialogue: How Ms can master the modern world

By SHELLEY BRIDGEMAN*

We've just laid to rest one set of out-dated titles - Sirs and Dames - and now it's time to do battle with another couple that are well past their use-by date.

It's ironic that there was such a hoo-ha about the abolition of these rarefied titles that so few of us would ever actually have had to worry about accepting, yet the titles that women have to use every day seem to be overlooked.

I'm talking, of course, about Mrs and Miss, two titles for women that are relics from our patriarchal pasts.

Yes, once upon a time women were defined solely by their relationship with a man. If you were single, you were a Miss and if you were married, you were a Mrs. Got it?

The tradition harks back to days when women weren't expected to have jobs, lives or even opinions. Back when a woman's sole role was to bear children, there was even perhaps a modicum of logic in this clumsy nomenclature.

Despite the fact that both time and women's roles have moved on, some women still cling nostalgically to these souvenirs of a repressive past.

This is surprising when even the most rudimentary examination of the issues involved suggests this is a custom as inappropriate as it is ancient.

Young boys start their lives as Master and then graduate to Mr when they are about 12, which seems fair enough. Yet women start their lives as Miss and - as the archaic convention dictates - must remain a Miss until they score themselves a husband. What kind of inequality is that? Some pimply 15-year-old lad is called Mr but a dignified woman of 55 is a Miss. The mind boggles.

When confronted with an official form, the sheer number of titles a woman may chose from is overwhelming. A man just needs to think, "I'm a bloke so I must be a Mr," while women are spoilt for choice.

For them, it's not a straightforward gender question, either. It's fraught with far more issues than a simple application for a cheque book or library card has any right to raise.

"Am I married or single?" "Have I managed to snare myself a man or not?" "What do I call myself now I'm separated, divorced or widowed?" The answer is that no one should be forced to contemplate these issues except in their own time and their own way. And certainly not at the whim of some form-maker.

Add to that the belief in some circles that there are prescribed "rules" that women must follow in determining their title, and this area is made particularly complicated for no good reason, other than to bolster the shaky hold on society that male supremacists desperately attempt to maintain.

Any woman telephoning to make some innocuous order - for an airline ticket perhaps or for a set of towels from the local linen shop - is routinely asked "Is that Miss or Mrs?" The third - and only neutral - option is almost always omitted.

You have to question why they bother asking this. Why on earth should that matter? It's offensive, intrusive and unnecessary. Men are never forced to disclose this, so why should women?

This everyday question is a huge invasion of privacy. In an age of stalkers and other weirdos, the last piece of information a woman wants to regularly divulge is her personal circumstance. Yet by opting to be a Mrs or a Miss, she can offer this information dozens of times a week to perfect strangers.

If women didn't insist on propagating this antiquated convention, it would eventually disappear. If we all started using Ms, the other titles would slowly make their way into a long overdue retirement.

Ms is the perfect modern alternative and one that, despite some initial reservations, most women who have given the subject any thought are adopting.

When it first appeared, it was embraced by hobnail-boot-wearing women with number-two haircuts. This turned many other women off.

Then to complicate matters still further, Ms Romano on the 1970s television sitcom One Day at a Time was a high-profile Ms of the time and since she was a divorcee, the term became tainted with the suggestion that it was the sole preserve of divorced women.

The good news is that as more "average" women and particularly women in prominent positions are taking the title Ms from their teenage years up - and keeping it forever - it is slowly, but surely, developing further legitimacy as a true feminine equivalent to Mr.

And the more women who spurn the oppressive terms Miss and Mrs, the sooner they will be consigned to the history books, where all good relics belong.

They won't be lonely, though, because they will have all those lovely old Sirs and Dames to chat to.

* Shelley Bridgeman is a freelance Auckland writer.

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