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

To the extent “person” must have gender in Modern English, why not feminine like in French? Or arbitrary gender like the more English word “wight”? But it is misleading to imagine grammatical gender is a symptom of, or that messing with it is a solution to, sexism. Titles like “Ms” that indicate a person’s gender of course invite the possibility of discrimination, and even if we get past those, so do many first names. If someone is applying for a job, we can try to strip information like age and sex from the CV, but for most positions the hiring committee will need to know who the person is and meet them.

I’m reminded of the Dilbert cartoon on sexual harassment -
Wally says to Alice “I just watched the mandatory video on sexual harassment. One 30 minute video cured a billion years of evolution. Do something sexy and watch me ignore it…”
Next panel his head’s jammed through the wall and he’s saying “I guess I shouldn’t have fast-forwarded through the boring parts.”

I think gender, like age and race, is such an integral part of the character that defines us, that trying to make everyone blandly homogeneous and modify the language to support it is never going to work. That doesn’t mean any one group need be ascendant over others, nor does it stop us from slowly correcting the more blatant prejudicial language holdovers from earlier times. (Like with Mrs., Miss, and Ms.) After all, language changes as thou mayhap have perceived.

(Also, IIRC my high school French, in a collective of male and female, the plural of the group is male gender… Or as a pedantic friend once said about the English language usage, “The male, where desirable, embraces the female.”)

Yeah, we heard that line. Over and over and over, with accompanying snickers.

That sort of thing’s an excellent example of why we needed to get the language changed. And have been doing so.

To my recollection, I only used “Mrs.” for female teachers, and I don’t recall calling any of them Ms., regardless of age or marital status. Every woman outside of that, who I knew the first name, got the first name. Strange women got “ma’am”.

Today I kind of go by instinct on whether to call someone I don’t know Ms. or Ma’am. Ms. if I’m playing it safe. It does feels strange to call an older woman Ms., but I’ve never perceived offense to it.

I did say he was pedantic - and of course, he thought he was cleverer than he was.

there’s the theory that language evolved as gossip, a substitute for grooming in socialization. Chimps can only pick fleas of each other one at a time, but gossip allowed one person to socialize with many others at once. this allowed human herds to grow much larger that other apes, and so be more effective for activities like big game hunting. With a biological structure of hidden fertility and consequent ambiguous paternity, human gossip naturally revolved around who was doing who, or more precisely, who was likely trying to impregnate which female. Which explains why that is still the biggest topic of gossip of interest to all people, and why any language by its very evolution has gender identifiers heavily embedded. :smiley:

That works when using it as an address (“Hey, ma’am, you forgot your bag.”) but not when using it as a title. If you’re writing a document whose tone requires you to refer to Mary Smith of unknown marital status by her last name, there really isn’t a good option other than “Ms. Smith”. Referring to males as “Mr. Jones” and females as “Mary” would of course be abhorent.

I guess all your teachers were married? Before the days of “Ms.”, I had an elementary school teacher who, unusually for teachers in my experience, was unmarried, and whom we addressed as “Miss Simon”. Students would sometimes slip up and call her “Mrs. Simon”. She would always reply “Mrs. Simon doesn’t live here.”, to the initial confusion of new students.

Interesting way of phrasing that. Why are you assuming that ‘more precisely’ people were only gossiping about who the men wanted to have sex with, and not about who the women were trying to have sex with?

Cite, please?

Certainly not every language has gendered pronouns.

More precisely, gossip is about who is “doing it”, about interpersonal relationships; because grooming is about status (the higher up chimps get their fleas picked by subordinate chimps) and the analogous for humans would be achieving status by “having the dirt” on what is going on with others. It’s the whole spectrum - who is doing it, who yearns after someone, who is chasing whom, who broke up, who’s fighting and why, etc. etc. Essentially, relationships. (Why are soap operas so popular?) Those in the know demonstrate their social superiority by showing they have knowledge, or try to ingratiate themselves with others by sharing knowledge…

I could get into that one, but not only does it not seem to answer either item in my post, it also doesn’t seem to me to have anything to do with the topic of this thread. I think I’d just be wandering even further offstream.

I remember when it was starting to take off - the whole thing became very political. Newspapers (eg: Daily Mail) were strongly against using Ms, equating it to the feminist movement (which they equating to revolutionaries). So, when women picked their title, Mrs, Miss or Ms, it was like they were making a statement.

But it happened anyway.

This will perhaps paint me as an irredeemable geek, but my first awareness of the issue of “Ms.” was when Marvel Comics started publishing the Ms. Marvel series in 1977. I would have been ten years old at that time, and I can remember the letters pages of that series were filled with discussions, pro and con, about the character calling herself “Ms.” and what that meant.

The series, as I recall, was fairly progressive as far as comics in the 70s could be progressive. Carol Danvers, Ms. Marvel’s civilian identity, was the editor of a women’s magazine (called “Woman,” but more than a little reminiscent of “Ms.” magazine itself), and had frequent political arguments with her publisher, none other than J. Jonah Jameson himself. It seems clear, in retrospect, that calling her Ms. Marvel was a conscious choice to ally the series with, as it was called at the time, “Women’s Lib.”

And that’s how I learned about the title Ms. And people say comics aren’t educational!

Redefining the language also opens up the field for sarcasm - I recall the conservative Toronto Sun in the 70’s had an article about some “Alderman” June Whats-her-name and “Alderperson” John Sewell.

Yes, I agree. I didn’t include that because I can probably count the number of times I’ve written a formal letter to a woman of unknown marital status on one hand. Formal enough to require a title instead of a first name, anyway.

I really don’t know. We never inquired about a teacher’s marital status, and never had one that would correct the students. Again, to my recollection.

My experience is similar.

I started Kindergarten in 1963. Long before “Ms.”

Back then teachers (100% female) were “Miss Whoever” or “Mrs. Whatever”. They’d tell us their preferred title on the first day and it’d be written in an upper corner of a chalkboard for most of the year. I recall about half and half Miss/Mrs. in the younger grades.

By the time I left High School in 1975 “Ms.” was pretty mainstream, at least in forward-thinking So Cal. But I don’t recall any teachers who used that form. Admittedly in my last HS years all my teachers were nearing retirement; none were fresh-faced 23-yos who’d be likely to want to establish “Ms.” as their title.

Which would raise the question of how they afforded their journey across the pond.