Why did we start using "Ms" instead of calling all adult women "Mrs"?

Bennet Cerf told a story about a girl in grade school, wise beyond her years, who “promises to give Kathleen Windsor (racy book author) a run for her money”.

Teacher: What’s the difference between Madam and Mademoiselle?

Girl: Monsieur.

And trying to deal with that by using “Mrs.” for everybody would have carried the implication that the married title was properly more serious than the unmarried title – in other words, that there actually was something wrong with a grown woman who wasn’t married, so we ought to try to pretend that everyone was married in order to get any respect.

There was also an implication to some people that the title “Mrs.” meant “already owned by some specific male, so hands off”. Again, using that title for everyone would then imply that it was better to be owned by a man than not to be; when what we were trying to say was that no, married or not, we weren’t /aren’t owned by anybody. (Yes, I know that generally women who use “Mrs.” don’t think of themselves as being owned by their husbands. There’s enough history of marriage law to lend some strength to the association, though.)

I don’t hear “Mrs.” used without a name, as “Senora” can be. You’d say “Excuse me, Mrs. Smith,” but not just “Excuse me, Mrs.” The English term of address for an adult woman you don’t know is “Ma’am,” and that’s not reserved for married women. Interestingly, “Miss” can be used with or without a name, though “Mister” isn’t used much without a name anymore; most people would say “Sir.” I’m not sure about other languages, but at least with Spanish it’s not a direct parallel. It at least makes a certain amount of sense that the no-name term of address would not be dependent on a martial status the speaker would have no way of knowing.

How women feel about being called “Ma’am” is a whole 'nother can of worms. I’ve always liked it, but my opinion is not shared by all.

Practices certainly differ between languages, but as far as German is concerned, I can attest that “Fräulein” has fallen out of use very thoroughly. Some old folks might still use it to address a waitress, but by and large the common usage (at least in Germany - maybe other German-speaking countries do it differently) nowadays is to address any adult woman as “Frau”, irrespective of marital status.

I moved to the German-speaking part of Switzerland in 2000 and was instructed then that Fraulein was outdated and considered rude, for anyone who was already working. That means even a female apprentice, who is only 16, is already called Frau.

In fact, it used to be that apprentices were referred to as Lehrlings (male) and Lehrtochters (female). Lehrtochter has also been banished in the last 20 years.

Here’s a recent thread that goes into the history and common adoption of the term.

As far as I know, we have never called ALL adult women “Mrs.”, just married women. “Miss” always referred to single women, and “Mrs.” to married women. What about married women who become divorced or widowed? Reverting to Miss never caught on, so “Ms.” became popular.

I’m no Jerry Lewis fan, but what about, “Hey, Lady!!”?

Addressing a female whose name and status is unknown can be difficult here. Missus, Luv, Darlin’, Lady, Hen, are just a few of the local variants. While they may be acceptable in the market, they are not okay in the workplace or other more formal settings.

Some years ago there was (and still is) a strong directive in the NHS that staff should avoid such familiar forms and should always address patients by name and, where possible, ask them what their preference is.

I don’t believe this is true. Married women were referred to by her husband’s full name: Mrs. John Smith. If her husband died or she divorced there were several options, but she retained the Mrs. She would be addressed as Mrs. John Smith, Mrs. Jane Smith or Mrs. Jane MaidenName depending on preference. Once married, women didn’t revert to Miss.

The change to Ms became popular in the 1970s for other reasons, although it had been around since the beginning of the century in some form.

Current etiquette advice is fairly convoluted but Ms works in nearly all situations if preferred.

I’ve noticed over the past few years the honorific “Boss”, used towards both men and women. Ask for help at the hardware store, you’re called boss. Number is up at the meat counter? You’re “boss”.

It took me aback the first few times I was addressed thus. But it’s a clever step-around for a bunch of issues. Might just be a SoCal thing.

I am younger than a lot of folks on here. By the mid 1980’s in the South you could refer to all women older than 18 as “Miss” or “Miz” and be good. I was never corrected otherwise.

I have often wondered if Mr. and Mrs. carry an echo of slavery. Do any of you know if that could be true?

In British English Ma’am is only heard in reference to women with the very senior social status. The Queen is addressed as Ma’am. It has made an appearance in TV shows as an honorfic for women who are senior police officers. Younger women, assumed to be unmarried, are addressed as Miss. These forms are generally used in contexts that are very formal by people wearing uniforms.

Madam is often used in a customer/client context by particularly unctutous sales people.

Miss is used by children to address women teachers, whether they are married or not. It can also be used as a put down by a mature woman who does not thing a younger woman being sufficiently respectful to their seniors. A cheeky girl would be called a ‘little madam’.

If you know someone well, or you make that assumption, British English has a lot of very familiar forms and these can be quite amusing. Here there are some interesting cultural differences between the North and South. Northerners are much friendlier to strangers and use a wide range of quite amusing forms, especially in working class culture. These do not go down well in London and the South, especially in a professional context.

I soon learned so stop the using the word ‘love’ and ‘darling’ when addressing colleagues after moving from the North to London. Women in professional roles who are very concious of their status take great exception to these forms of address, which they take to be patronising. In more relaxed environments where people are less uptight, such terms may be more acceptable. In the North of England familar terms used between relatives and close friends extend into the community and amongst collegues in the workplace. It is most common when adults talk to children…unless they are trying to maintain order, when formality is used to emphasis who is in charge.

Ms appeared as a conveniently ambiguous abbreviation in formal address where the married status of a woman is not known. Mr for men is already conveniently ambiguous, short for Mister for a mature man and Master for boy. A useful catch-all if you do not know the person you are addressing. I guess it was related to the etiquette of letter writing taught in secretarial schools in the 1970s. Letter writing rules change from time to time, but this one stuck.

These days, it is minefield. Where everyone seems to be wearing some kind of identity badge that no-one can see, yet are quick to take exception if someone does not profer the respect they imagine they deserve by the appropriate use of a salutation or a pronoun. Lots of memos are written in large, especially public institutions, pontificating about what is and what is not acceptable…this year.

I really don’t have much patience with this sort of thing and I still use affectionate, familar terms with women, tempered by a polite form that is appropriate and respectful according to how well I know them. I guess if I worked within a rigidly formal or very polticisised organisation, I would have to mind my language.

Boss is also used in the UK amongst men instead of the more formal sir. A taxi driver in London may well ask ‘Where to, boss?’, it is a bit more respectful that ‘where to, mate’. ‘where to, Sir’ is what you get when you have the money to employ your own chauffeur.

Everything in the U.S. carries echos of slavery, but Mr. and Mrs. are honorifics in most of the English speaking world (all as far as I know) even those untainted by slavery.

Mrs. (as opposed to the archaic mistress) does strongly suggest marriage. Combined with taking his last name, and even the custom of being “Mrs. John Smith” and it doesn’t take much to see why feminists revolted against the idea. The 1960s feminist movement was a lot of middle class white women who had gotten married, had children, and were put into the wife/mother box with no escape (or the daughters of those women) - that’s what The Feminist Mystique exposed. The first step in shedding the shackles of oppression was changing the terms of marriage. By and large, women don’t mind being partnered, but they do mind being defined by that partnership and controlled by it in ways men aren’t. Mrs. in the United States literally defines a woman by her marital status.

In slave times and Jim Crow times, and to a lesser extent later, adult black men and women were not generally addressed as Mr. or Mrs. by whites. Instead the “good ones” were sometimes graced with the mock-honorific titles Uncle and Aunt(ie). I call them mock honorifics because while they may sound respectful at first blush, in fact they were less respectful than the real honorifics Mr. and Mrs. This is one reasons why Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are considered racist today.

That was what I always understood when I saw it in grade school in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Basically “Ms.” was a marriage-neutral title for women, whereas “Miss/Mrs.” drew attention to someone’s marriage status, for good or ill. I always took it to mean that women who chose “Ms.” were pointing out that they’re their own woman, and not defining themselves by whether they have a man or not.

It also denies you adulthood if you aren’t married. “Miss” means unmarried, but it also means young, unserious. The Miss/Mrs. system doesn’t really conceptualize a grown, never-married woman.

While we’re talking about that, don’t forget the old-school address of “master” for boys too young to be “Mister”.

Etymologically, “Mister” is indeed derived from the word “master” (as “Mrs” is derived from “mistress”), but that does not mean it has roots in slavery. “Master” was originally a form of address for anyone of higher social rank, but in highly stratified societies such as medieval England, there could be countless reasons why person A could be of higher social rank than person B; so the address of person A by person B as “master” does not necessarily imply a slavery relationship.

There used to be very strict rules about using honorifics: a boy was called “Master” if he still lived in his father’s house-- he became “Mister” in his own right as soon as he moved out. Effectively, something similar operated for women, as women typically only moved out to marry, so women who lived at home were “Miss,” and then moved out to moved in with their husbands, and became “Mrs.”

The oldest girl in a family was “Miss Lastname.” The second, third, and however many, were Miss Firstname Lastname." Assuming that the oldest one married first and became Mrs. Something, the second daughter moved up to being able to drop her first name.

Women used the honorific Mrs. with their husband’s name, as someone else pointed out. So a woman is Mrs. John Smith. Mrs. Mary Smith is technically wrong. A woman who continued to use he maiden name professionally because she had a career established under that name would still be “Miss Lastname” in the professional world, but in social circles, Mrs. husband’slastname.

Divorced women were Mrs. Ex-lastname Maidenname, at least in the US, and I think in the whole English-speaking world.

In the US, “Ma’am” and “Sir” are addresses of respect in general, because those are what officers are called in the US military. They got carried over as general addresses of respect for people whose names one did not know back when most men served a couple of years in the military from age 18-20.