Why do we classify women on the basis of marital status?

A man is always Mister regardless of his marital status. Why doesn’t he wear her name? His name is his alone. Their names define who they are and not to whom they belong. When she uses his name, the first idea she is giving them is about her marital status.

Are you Miss or Mrs?

Before you blabber out of ignorance, let’s dive into the dynamic history of these funny terms

The history is quite confusing. They derived from a single word “Mistress”. The meaning and position taken by the terms Miss and Mrs. have been changing. Earlier Mrs. was used to address a woman of economic or social status. The title Mrs. did not provide an idea that a woman was married, just like Mr. today. During the early 18th century,  Women who ran a business or employed servants were called “Mrs”.  Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 offers six definitions for ‘mistress’, which range from the respectful (“a woman who governs” or “a woman skilled in anything”) to the ironic (“a term of contemptuous address” or “a whore or concubine”), but no definition mentions marital status.

Some of the novels written during that time are great examples. The early 18th-century autobiography of Elizabeth Freke (The Remembrances of Elizabeth Freke, 1671–1714, ed. Raymond A Anselment, Cambridge, 2001) shows the range of women for whom Mrs could be used. Most of her servants and her tenants were referred to simply by their Christian and family names, or as ‘Thom Davy’s wife’. The autobiographer herself was Mrs Elizabeth Freke; was not married. Her unmarried niece, daughter of a lady, was Mrs Grace Norton; her unmarried chief servant was Mrs Evans, and the woman from whom she bought newspapers in Norfolk was Mrs. Ferrer. Another example, Eleanor Coade, a known businesswoman who invented Coade stone was addressed as Mrs Coade, she never married.

The mid-18th century heralded the title “Miss”. It was used to refer an unmarried girl to an unmarried adult woman. Many doubted that the custom of classifying women on the basis of marital status was adopted from the French. The usage of the title “Miss” became a fashionable word and widespread in the late 18th century, mainly focusing on unmarried women of social status like teachers.

The tradition of classifying women on the basis of marital status gives rise to the satirical title called “Mrs Man”. During the 19th century, women acquired their husband’s full name. In the novel, Sense and Sensibility published in the year 1811, Jane Austen addressed the married woman as ‘Mrs John Dashwood’. The title ‘Mrs’ became a word to address a married woman regardless of her social and economic status. At the same time, there came a tradition of portraying an unmarried adult woman referred to “Miss” as a prostitute. It also states that married women who were referred to as “Mrs” still gained respect in the society when comparing to unmarried women who were labelled as ” prostitutes “.

In 2012, France prime minister François Fillon banned the word mademoiselle, (the equivalent of “Miss”) in formal documents, ordered to apply madame (the equivalent of “Mrs”) to all women, not to distinguish women on the basis of marital status. The title mademoiselle is literally translated as “my young lady”, the word is considered sexy and meant “the woman is available”. But The proposal has not met with universal favour. The two feminist groups who had great roles were Osez le féminisme! (Dare to be feminist!) and Les Chiennes de Garde (The watchdogs).

A man is always Mr. regardless of his marital status. The title Mr. is derived from the word Master. When it comes to the mistress, the female form of the master, has got another meaning in modern times. Now it is used primarily to refer to the female lover of a man who is married to another woman; in the case of an unmarried man, it is usual to speak of a “girlfriend” or “partner”.

A woman should not be classified on the basis of marital status. It has been stated that she either belongs to ‘father or husband’. She’s dependent. She’s someone’s property etc. We have to change this custom. Women are no longer caged birds. And their first identity should not shrink in the title of “Miss” or “Mrs”. We must either use one of these words or better give rise to a new title to describe all the women regardless of their marital status.

Sources –

Sanna Wren