In between moving and applying for new jobs I’ve had to fill out a lot of forms recently. One questionnaire that I needed to fill out asked me to select my form of address — a “no title” option wasn’t available. What was available were the titles of Mr., Mrs., Ms., and Miss.
In a paper by Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, titled “Marked Women, Unmarked Men,” which was initially published in the New York Times magazine in June 1993, Tannen argues that women are unable to make unmarked choices, and uses these four titles as an example.
Despite being written more than 10 years ago, her ideas still ring alarmingly true.
Choosing Miss or Mrs. describes marital status while selecting Ms. simply declines revealing that information. Choosing Mr. reveals nothing because, as Tannen put it, “nothing was asked.”
I know I want to choose none of the above. Even in grade school I can remember the fear of calling a female teacher with the wrong address and deep embarrassment for being corrected. I remember a faint sense of dread for the day I would have to tell people what address I prefer. But now that I must make a choice, I prefer none.
I never want to be called “Mrs.” regardless of if I ever get married, but I feel insulted whenever someone calls me “Miss” as though they’re diminishing my identity. I always thought I’d go with “Ms.” but now I find even that term unpleasant.
Once I seriously contemplated selecting “Mr.” for all such forms in the future. My mom, a generally liberal person, freaked out when I discussed it with her.
“Please tell me you won’t do that,” she begged me.
I couldn’t understand — it was just a word. But her reaction scared me enough that I’ve dropped the idea for the time being.
And this is all from the perspective of someone who can blend into the gender binary. I can’t help but notice that “Mx.” (pronounced “Mix”) gets completely ignored on these forms, possibly because these forms are mostly produced with a conservative mindset in the first place.
The “Mx.” option is supposed to provide an alternative for non-binary genders but also for those who don’t want to reveal their gender. The Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Miss. question is essentially asking for a gender and could mostly be replaced with the commonly seen “male or female” selection. However, by using the forms of address, it is also forcing women to make some sort of statement about themselves beyond just gender.
This may be the major flaw of the title “Ms.”: Rather than create a title that still indicated gender but not marital status, they should have created a title that ignored gender. “Mx.” has allegedly been around for more than 40 years as a gender neutral option, but it has failed to gain widespread acceptance in the United States.
Still, some people want to know the right form of address so that they can refer to you in a formal manner. To that end, there are a couple of solutions to the problem. We should be allowed choices in how we’re addressed, and this includes a “no-title” option. What we really need is a gender neutral option (that doesn’t require a doctorate to use). The inclusion of “Mx.” would be a fantastic start.
You don’t have to truly respect me to call me “Miss Lyle” — in fact, I often find that those who speak to me in such a way respect me less than those who simply call me by my name. These forms that offer four-titled options also fail to respect me in that they don’t give me a real choice, they just pretend to.
Reach contributing writer Kel Lyle at email@example.com. Twitter: @Kel_Lyle