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Miss, Mrs, Ms and more: Why honorifics still matter


PhD holder Fern Riddell objected to a Canadian newspaper changing style to only using “Dr” for medical practitioners. “My title is Dr Fern Riddell, not Ms or Miss Riddell,” she says. “I have it because I am an expert.” Photo/Getty

Margo White considers the proper form of address.

It doesn’t take much to spark a flare-up on Twitter, and most of them are inconsequential, but I was interested in the responses (and my own) to a tweet posted this year by Australian academic Dr Siobhan O’Dwyer: “Hey @Qantas, my name is Dr O’Dwyer. My ticket says Dr O’Dwyer. Do not look at my ticket, look at me, look back at my ticket, decide it’s a typo, and call me Miss O’Dwyer. I did not spend 8 years at university to be called Miss.”

As might have been predicted, she came in for considerable online retribution, in which she was accused of being ostentatious, class-ist, pompous, of pulling rank and so on. “If she wants to call herself a doctor, let her tend to anyone who falls ill on the plane flight!” noted one of the more reasonable respondents.

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O’Dwyer later clarified. “This was not about my ego. It was about highlighting one of a thousand instances of sexism that women encounter every day. It’s not about the title, it’s about the fact this wouldn’t have happened if I was a man.”

Wouldn’t it? These things are hard to prove. It’s also not clear if she would have been as offended if she’d been addressed as Ms rather than Miss, although her claims of sexism weren’t helped when a colleague tweeted, ostensibly in support: “It’s not up to a ‘trolley-dolly’ to decide whether someone should be called dr or miss.” O’Dwyer, rightly, distanced herself from that comment.

O’Dwyer wasn’t the first female academic to cop flak on Twitter this year for insisting on being called Dr. London-based Dr Fern Riddell did too when, after learning the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail was changing its style guide so “Dr” would be used only for medical practitioners, she tweeted: “My title is Dr Fern Riddell, not Ms or Miss Riddell. I have it because I am an expert, and my life and career consist of being that expert in as many different ways as possible.”

She later wrote about the backlash to her tweet in the New Statesman, pointing out she was an expert in sex and suffrage in the 19th and 20th centuries, and contributes to myriad media. “And I get to do this because I know what I am talking about. And I know what I am talking about because I have a PhD.”

It is the kind of tweet that opens a can of worms – a can of worms that can’t be addressed well on Twitter. Yet the worms were revealing. Riddell was accused of “immodesty”, of a lack of “humility” by, she wrote in the New Statesmen, men who seemed “unable to accept female expertise and authority”. Being accused of “immodesty” was, she writes, a “red rag to a bull” because her own research shows women have long been defined “by their ability to be well-behaved”. She began tweeting with the hashtag #ImmodestWomen and many other women with PhDs quickly followed suit.

I’m conflicted about all this. Being, I suppose, an old-fashioned egalitarian, I’ve never been keen on titles or the hierarchies they support, although clearly they have their place in some contexts. But the shadow of sexism lurks in all sorts of indefinable and hard-to-prove ways, so if some women choose to highlight their educational achievements on Twitter as a form of protest, then each to their own honorific.

Through no fault of our own, the honorifics for women have always been more complicated than for men. My name is Margo, in formal and informal contexts, but on forms I’m Ms; Ms has always struck me as a simple, straightforward way to avoid being categorised by marital status, in a way that men never have been. Ms is now mainstream, among married and non-married women (and also First Babies, at least in the case of Neve Te Aroha, judging by her UN General Assembly pass). It wasn’t so long ago many thought Ms implied you were a bit stroppy, that you had something to hide. Like what? You were a spinster?

The meaning of Mrs and Miss has not been immutable, either. According to research by Cambridge University historian Dr Amy Erickson, Mrs was once pronounced “mistress” and for centuries, at least in Britain, applied to all adult women of higher social status, whether they were married or not. As Erickson has explained, women on the lower rung of the social hierarchy were addressed by their names. “Thus, in a large household the housekeeper might be Mrs Green, while the scullery maid was simply Molly and the woman who came in to do the laundry was Tom Black’s wife or Betty Black.” According to her research, “Miss” was only adopted by adult women in the middle of the 18th century but before that, referring to an adult woman as “Miss” was to suggest she was a prostitute.

The way women have been and are addressed still tends to reflect and support discriminatory attitudes toward women, so it’s easy, even in this day and age, to take offence. When a young man at a restaurant recently greeted me and my similarly middle-aged friend with “How are you, girls?” I said, “Fine thanks, boy.” I felt bad because he looked as if I’d slapped him in the face, but what was the subtext? That women old enough to be his mother would be flattered to be called “girls”? Then why did his face drop when a woman old enough to be his mother called him “boy”?

I got the same slapped-face look when a young man in a retail outlet said, “Is there anything I can help you with, dear?” and I said, “No thanks, dear.” Was his use of “dear” sexist or age-ist, or neither, or a bit of both? Maybe it’s my own personal antipathy, toward any-one who doesn’t know me, addressing me with what I consider a term of endearment. That goes for the women in shops who call me “darling”, too. Would they call me “darling” if I was a man? I don’t know. I just don’t like it. 

Whether people call us Miss, Mrs, Ms, Dr, “dear” or “darling” is pretty low down the list of issues facing women, but the way people address us is still often symptomatic of more serious concerns. How should you address us? It’s complicated, but if in doubt, you could always just ask. And allow for our idiosyncrasies, our preferences and our pet peeves. We often have good reason for them.

This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of North & South.

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