I am proud to be called Mrs.
What? Oh Goodness no. Do you understand what that implies?
I know Ma would turn over in her grave if she had one, but I am so happy. I’m a Mrs.!
It has taken me a while to wrap my head around this and a few other declarations my sister and her wife have made since they got married. They are celebrating so many aspects of marriage that I, a heterosexual woman, find offensive and worrisome: taking on the name Mrs., and changing their last name to display what, I thought initially, …. ownership? These changes are embraced with such pride and joy, while I, Ms. feminist heterosexual woman (no, make that Dr. feminist heterosexual woman … thank you very much; – see “**” note below), sit bemused and baffled as to how I should react to all of of this.
I got married reluctantly. I loved, still love the man I married, but I was aware of the patriarchal bagage this marriage contract came with … was … is … loaded with. But as aware of the patriarchal arrangement I was entering into, I was not prepared. Not by a long shot. Indeed, the process of getting married and the first year of marriage was hell because of the patriarchal social expectations that went along with marriage. Getting married, become a Mrs. has baggage that was truly unexpected and undesired. After we got married, both my husband and I were loaded down with expectations as to who we should now be, how our priorities should change, and how we should act in our little world. For example, I could not be among people without being asked when I planned on getting pregnant, when I planned on leaving work, and I was now introduced by others as my husband’s wife Rebecca (rarely the other way around – people introduced George as simply “George” not “Rebecca’s husband George”).*
Being the good feminist, I refused to take my husband’s last name because it simply seemed silly to me; why should I be asked to shun my heritage because I was joining with another family? That family wasn’t taking on my last name, were they? Further, I had established an artistic reputation with the last name McCarthy, why start over again? I was confident in this decision, and the support I had from my families about this decision, until one night while having dinner with my in-laws. My mother-in-law and my sister-in-law talked at the table, tearing apart women who did not take on the last name of their men. This conversation occurred several years after I had been married, and they had forgotten… yes, simply forgot that I was one of those women. Then Mom caught the look on my face and stopped the conversation. My husband was silent (what can one say caught between their wife and their Mother?) I wanted to be silent too; I felt I broke some great law, some important tradition that angered all human gods. I made an apologetic and cursory statement, reminding them that I was my own woman outside of my husband, and this fact did not make my love for him any less.
We know dear. We weren’t talking about you.
No, of course not!
Absolutely not. We didn’t mean ….
Oh, no worries. Please. It’s ok, really. … Err … can I have some more of that gravy please?
I would have hyphened my last name with my husband’s IF he would have done the same. But in the old patriarchal understanding of marriage, the contract I entered into, the expectation was for the woman to adjust, not the man. This is not the same today.
I was once told that “Mrs.” meant “property of.” I was also told that Miss and Mrs. signified not only your status to the world (not married, married), but also who you belong to (your father, your husband). Now curious because of my sister’s new Mrs. title, I went to the great Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for clarification. For our collective education, here are the main entries for “Mrs.” (I have omitted those entries that seem redundant):
a. A title of courtesy prefixed to the surname of a married woman having no higher or professional title,** often with her first name, or that of her husband, interposed (also formerly prefixed to the first name of her husband with omission of the surname).
Though used to distinguish gentlewomen in former times the title is now applied without discrimination. In British use, the insertion of a woman’s first name after Mrs (as ‘Mrs Mary Smith’) used to occur chiefly in legal documents, cheques, etc., and was otherwise rare, the normal practice being to insert the husband’s name (as ‘Mrs John Smith’) when distinction was needed. Both styles are now commonly used. In England Mrs is sometimes used before a title of office; lady High Court Judges, for example, are styled ‘Mrs Justice ——’ Cf.
b. A title prefixed to the name of an unmarried lady or girl; = miss n.2 2a. Now rare except as a title of courtesy applied, with or without inclusion of the first name, to elderly unmarried ladies (this use seems to have arisen in the late 18th cent.).
c. colloq. In substitution for the name of a married woman (esp. when mentioned in conjunction or comparison with her own husband); a wife.
d. Prefixed to the military or professional title of the woman’s husband (with or without his surname following).
e. colloq. the Mrs: a wife; esp. one’s own wife. Cf.
These definitions cover the use of the title Mrs. from the 1400s to present day, and although a type of ownership might be implied (especially in definition “e”), it is not explicitly stated. I have to admit, I was rather surprised by this discovery. However, this does not render the title guiltless. On the contrary, when we look at the most common titles for men and women, one is struck by the fact that men have a single title, Mr., while women have two main titles, Miss. and Mrs. Men get to be Misters whether they are married or not, young or old. This title is a general title used to declare gender and, originally standing in society rather than social marriage status. Women, on the other hand, must be designated by their marriage status. Are you married? Then you must be a Mrs. and you must take your husband’s last name. If you are not married, then you must be a Miss., and you have your father’s last name (traditionally – unless you were born out of wedlock and then you have your mother’s last name and society call you a bastard … nice, such empathy …. meh).
It was not until the turn of the eighteenth century that Ms. was introduced as “a title of courtesy prefixed to the surname of a woman, sometimes with her first name interposed. Ms has been adopted esp. in formal and business contexts as an alternative to Mrs and Miss principally as a means to avoid having to specify a woman’s marital status (regarded as irrelevant, intrusive, or potentially discriminatory)” (OED). The first listed reference for this term, according to the OED, appears on 10 November 1901, in the Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican:
“The abbreviation ‘Ms.’ is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances. For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz’, which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike” (idid).
So the question comes down to why we must signify, generally, that a woman is married but we do not necessarily need to signify the same for a man? This is, of course, why titles such as Ms. came about. Sometimes it’s impossible to know if someone is married, and if you are married, why should you be signified or represented by that marriage. You are, after all, still the same person you were before entering into the marriage. Ms. seems well-suited to deal with this problem.
Enter in gay marriage.
What I find fascinating and inspirational as a heterosexual married feminist, is how gay marriage will change all of this – throw all this social mess with linked expectations on it proverbial defined head, tossing it all about and changing not only defined ideas, but expectations and “how we do things around here” mentalities. By marrying another woman, my sister didn’t quite have those patriarchal expectations on her shoulders when she proudly defined herself as a Mrs. Rather, the ability to define herself as a Mrs. throws most of those normal patriarchal expectations out the window. When you have two women, married to each other, the only definition of “Mrs.” that can exist is that of signifying a legally married relationship. This however does not diminish the reality that women are still known by their marriage status, where as men are know as, well, being men. That baggage still remains, to be certain. Maybe the term Mrs. should not be associated with gender but simply marriage status, used by all, men and women. Now that’s change baby! Such a move would signify legal marriage unions, which is also demonstrative by my sister’s choice of a new last name.
Today, my sister is happy to take on her wife’s last name and vise versa. They are “hyphenating” to match their son’s last name, which is hyphened as well. But they are actively reinventing what marriage means in this small act. Indeed, because they both have the freedom (social, legal and otherwise) to take each other’s last name without legal expectations that they are doing something wrong, changing their last name is an act of joy. It is also a political act, a rearrangement of how things can be understood in the world of marriage, property, ownership and social hierarchies Talking to another female couple who was also planning on getting married after Ref 74 was pass, I was delighted to learn that these two women were thinking about taking on an entirely alien last name – reinventing their union by adopting a last name not formally associated with either one of them. This I found truly inspirational. It was an act of fundamental redefinition of what a union between two people meant. But I couldn’t help but wonder… would some then identify them as sisters rather than married women? Only time will tell, but time will also help evolve today’s limited understanding and definition of marriage.
For feminists and all of us in general, at least in my opinion, gay marriage can only help in our effort to spread equality. When we work to redefine equality for any group in our society, we work to redefine equality for everyone. It must be an inclusive act, one that challenges the structure of discrimination not only at a social level, but also at its conceptual level – what does Mrs. mean and how does that term reflect common social practices and prejudices? I am personally excited and anticipating the day when the Oxford English Dictionary includes under its examples for the use of the word Mrs. the following: a title signifying legal commitment between two people, regardless of gender. 2012 The Seattle Times: “Mrs. Lynn Bailey and Mrs. Joanna Bailey were married on December 9, 2012, in Washington State, at the home of Mrs. John Smith and Mrs. Rob Smith.”
* I should admit to occasions when my husband is introduced as “Rebecca’s husband,” but this is honesty rare, and always surprising. Still there are those time, those beautiful moments where the breasts come first and not simply because they stick out.
** It is interesting to note how this definition argues that the title, which goes with an earned higher degree should supersede the title of Mrs. If a married woman is also a doctor or a PhD, she should be addressed as Dr. rather than Mrs. Yet I witness, often, where fellow married female PhD’s are introduced as Mrs. and their husbands, whose who have a doctorate, are alway introduced as Dr.