Monday, 10 February 2014

Outdated, outmoded and increasingly inaccurate: is it time follow our European neighbours and say goodbye to "Miss"?

It has long been unfair that women can be identified by their marital status through the use of  "Miss" or "Mrs" whereas men cannot via "Mr". "Ms" was introduced as an alternative for both married and unmarried women, although is not universally used or liked.

Many journalists struggle when a married woman doesn't take her husband's surname, as seen in numerous articles referring to Nick Clegg's wife Miriam González Durántez as "Mrs Clegg" despite that not being her name. Wikipedia even says "Miriam Clegg, known professionally by....." !!?? Why is it so complicated to understand that Miriam was given a surname at birth (actually two as per Spanish custom) that she will use for her whole life? That's what men do....

I have also noticed newspapers calling married women who have kept their own name "Miss". When the tabloids revealed then Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's husband's expense claims, many rather oddly referred to a woman they knew was married, as "Miss Smith" !!?? It's as if they think a woman who keeps her own name isn't properly married or something (dinosaur alert!).

Anyone would think that not taking your husband's surname on marriage was something new, unusual and shocking. It isn't new at all, although it was when my Mum did it some forty (!) years ago in 1972. Like other women of her generation, my Mum kept her name because she didn't like the historical significance of taking your husband's surname, namely that you became his property.

It is not unusual for women to keep their own name these days; currently 50% of married women do, while 50% opt to take their husband's name. There is also a trend, albeit somewhat middle class, for women to add their husband's name to their own and sometimes give that double barrelled name to their kids too.

The fact that people marry later and the vast majority of women work, surely has an impact; changing surname in your 30s involves not only bureaucracy (replacing driving licence, passport, credit cards etc), but also several years of explaining your name change in a professional context. I have seen linkedin profiles along the lines of "Jane Smith (nee Brown)" that stay like that for years.

There is then the associated bureaucracy of changing your name back to your "maiden" name, should you be unfortunate enough to get divorced and not want to keep your ex-husband's name. I also know a handful of women who still have the name of their first husband although they have since divorced and re-married. Divorce also raises another question: should a divorced woman stop being called Mrs and revert to Miss even if she still has her husband's name or only if she changes her name back?

A friend who did not change her name when she married was very annoyed to receive a cheque payable to a person who doesn't exist (my friend's first name with her husband's surname). She had to take her marriage certificate to the bank (!) to pay it in as obviously neither her bank account nor any ID she possesses, is in the name of her husband.

So what do other European countries do? Well in Belgium, where I used to live, an adult woman is officially "Madame" (in French) or "Mevrouw" (in Dutch) and almost always in conversation too; I recall being called "Mademoiselle" only very occasionally when in my early 20s. In Germany "Frau" is now used for all adult women, the German version of Miss ("Fraulein") seemingly consigned to history or used only for little girls.

In the European Parliament, I am referred to as Madame/Frau/Mevrouw etc and this is even extended to English, where "Mrs" is used in written and spoken communications. At first I found being called Mrs when I am not married, a bit odd, but I soon got used to it.

Another aspect of using "Miss" is that it applies to cohabiting women with children who have not married their partners, which seems rather inaccurate i.e. it no longer necessarily identifies a single (childless?) woman. A friend who is the deputy head of a primary school is in theory still "Miss", despite living with her partner for more than 15 years and having two children.

A cohabiting friend with children wondered (in the days when marital status was commonly on CVs) whether putting "single" was misleading. That particular problem is now solved by the fact that marital status is no longer included on a CV. In Belgium civil status ("état civil" in French) was removed from ID cards some 10 years ago, which greatly pleased a divorced friend who hated the fact that her ID card said "divorced" rather than reverting to "single".

So I wonder if it is time to get rid of "Miss" given that as well as being outdated and outmoded, its use is increasingly inaccurate? The obvious route would be to follow what Belgium does, so all adult women would become "Mrs". However, I wonder if some married women, who rather like using Mrs to show that they are married, might object to this? Comments welcome!


  1. 'Mrs' would seem to make sense (and, as viewers of Downton Abbey know, did not historically imply marriage). 'Ms' was a brave attempt at a compromise, and is widely used in the US (where I'm currently working), but seems to have come to mean 'unmarried/divorced', as opposed to any adult woman.

  2. In my experience most people in the UK already assume that a grown woman is 'Mrs' regardless of her marital status - I've never been married, and use Miss or Ms on most documents - but am assumed to be Mrs almost universally and have a number of legal documents that refer to me as such because I've never felt it worth the trouble of making the correction for one letter.

  3. I find being called Mrs James on the phone very helpful; it tells me I am speaking to a cold caller, and I can end the call.

    As a Quaker I prefer earned titles. I am happy to be addressed in full: Farah Mendlesohn, but if earned titles are being passed around I prefer Dr. or Prof and I once got very shirty with someone who called my colleague Mr. and me by my first name.

  4. "Fraulein" was dropped in Germany as it literally means "little lady", which is obviously derogatory.

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  6. All titles are outmoded, particularly women's which are plainly sexist, and should be scrapped - we have first names for a reason, therefore we should use them. Hence I never use titles in everyday situations, nor for written - formal - correspondence. Respect is evident in a person's tone of voice, not whether they employ a title when addressing you.