Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Mrs., Ms., and Missing the point

There was an article in the Citizen this morning (sorry, not in their online edition, but it's a syndication of this London Times article) about the movement in France to stop differentiating between madame and mademoiselle, the French versions of Mrs. and Miss. Feminists are calling the distinction between the two a 'flagarant example of sex discrimination' because it forces women to reveal their marital status, whereas men have the simple honourific of monsieur regardless of their marital status. They are not advocating an equivalent to the English Ms., but a straight choice between madame and monsieur.

I think this is a great idea. I think we should do it in English, too. Let's get rid of Mrs., with its matronly baggage, and the coquettish Miss, and just go with a simple choice between Mr. and Ms. I skip this box wherever I can, and choose Ms. when forced to do so, not out of any disrespect to my marriage but because I think the distinction is anachronous in modern society.

French culture seems to be ahead of the curve on this one, and on the issue of marital name change, too. In the province of Quebec, a woman keeps her birth name upon marriage unless she files legal paperwork to change it. I'm quite frankly a little surprised to see how many women still change their names.

When I got married the first time (the infamous practice marriage), I actually cried the night of our wedding at the idea of being Mrs Whassisname. I had spent 20 years forming idea of myself based on being Miss Donders, and the formal reality of being Mrs Whassisname left me feeling cut off from my past and my identity. Three years later, before I realized divorce was on the horizon, I started talking about switching back to my birth name. He was not impressed. When we did get divorced, I remember clearly the day I received my new provincial health card in the mail - the first official document that restored my birth name - and I cried again.

Most of you know, too, that the boys have hyphenated surnames. I thought I was okay with them having Beloved's surname officially, and my surname as a second middle name - until it was time to fill out the paperwork and leave the hospital when Tristan was about 40 hours old. I couldn't do it. Sometimes, when I'm spelling it out for the third time over the phone to a pharmacist or receptionist or the like, I expect the boys might curse my willful modern attitudes some day... but I hope they'll be the kind of guys who understand why this sort of thing does matter.

As a sidebar, even the language we use to discuss names is laden with meaning: women have a "maiden" name (an archaic term I've been studiously avoiding) which is the name you give up on marriage to take on your husband's "surname". Interesting, no?

What do you think? Are you proud to be Mrs. Hisfamilyname? Would you be offended if your wife kept (or reclaimed) her birth name? What possible use is served by the distinction between Mrs., Ms., and Miss?