In the past, titles allowed society to distinguish whether women were married or single. Single women had the title of “Miss.” If they were married, the distinction changed to “Mrs.” These terms still hold true today — however, the term “Ms.” is acceptable for both married and unmarried women.
Of course, men weren’t and still aren’t subjected to the same type of naming conventions, and most of the time they use the title “Mr.” — though there is some historical information showing boys under a certain age could be referred to as “Master” until they reached adulthood.
In general, the whole naming convention can be incredibly confusing and unnecessary. After all, why is it important for a doctor to know whether or not a female patient is married or single to treat them? For that matter, why does any company need to know a woman’s marital status to offer them any service at all? And how do these titles apply to lesbian, transgender or non-binary individuals? Do they see and define themselves in the same way these terms want them to define themselves? Does anyone define themselves in the way these terms want them to?
Language is a way for people to communicate with one another, but it can also be a means of control and oppression. Name-calling and hate speech are two particularly vicious examples. It’s also possible that continuing to label women with terms that define marital status is a way to exercise control through language.
We live in an age where women earn money, pay for their own lives and make independent life decisions. Women are no longer extensions of their husbands, but separate and self-sufficient entities. In fact, more men are opting to take their wives’ last names for a variety of reasons, overturning the tradition of wives taking husbands’ last names. The most common practice is still for a woman to take her husband’s last name, but it’s also acceptable for women to keep their maiden names, hyphenate two names or even for couples to decide on a brand-new last name that both change to. The decision rests with the couple.
Since the decision of how a person wants to be addressed is so personal, it seems demanding and oppressive that women should have to choose a prefix from a list of terms they may or may not identify with, especially when society doesn’t hold men to the same standards.
Attempting to change English to be more inclusive and less oppressive isn’t a new proposal, but it is problematic and difficult to accomplish. However, one of the first steps to making a change is to recognize that a problem exists, and to call out those using oppressive language. In time, perhaps society will change how we address women and men, along with minorities, the LBGTQ community and anyone who feels mistreated, stereotyped or unable to define themselves accurately through existing language.
Times have changed, but we are still holding on to an outdated form of defining women’s identity. Granted, some women and men still believe in keeping with tradition and hanging on to these naming conventions, which may be part of the reason they’ve endured so long. But at some point, shouldn’t we all agree to update them?