By James Clark Ross
This is the first article of a three-part series on the application of all personal titles.
Frequently we choose to address each other with prefixes and suffixes appending our names. In doing so we accept invisible differences between us. When individuals communicate like this—by using personal titles—they create the conditions necessary to foster inequality between people.
Before we’ve even begun to engage at any meaningful level we customarily pick words to refer to someone which convey a context. With these titles we immediately contrive situations that favour some groups of people over others. The issue is systemic and shapes countless human interactions; and, by remaining unacknowledged, it endures in the absence of challenge.
You may contest the influence of personal titles: you might believe that they’re harmless. But allow me to elucidate the underlying social hierarchies that we’ve created—specifically, between genders, within academia, and between the stratified social classes of our society—and you, too, may be compelled to think at least a bit differently.
Is it time to stop using all personal titles?
We begin with gender inequality.
The practice of ‘Mr’, Mrs’, ‘Ms’, and ‘Miss’ subconsciously invokes a hierarchy that advances the unequal treatment of men and women. I argue that, for as long as we believe that men and women should be treated equally, we should feel uncomfortable with the fact that we’re addressed differently. Why? As is so often the case in our society, men benefit from these divisions.
Traditionally, a man is liberated by uniformly being referred to as ‘Mr’: marriage doesn’t threaten his title, whilst his surname survives it. A woman, on the other hand, is assigned a title that denotes whether she belongs to him or not: she’s addressed with ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’ respectively, whilst her surname is rewritten to share his. Moreover, a child inherits his surname and, unlike the groom, she’s written out of family history on the marriage certificate.
The titles constitute part of a wider social paradigm that propagates the existence of notional gender roles and undermines the endeavour for equality: whereas men possess power and independence, women belong to somebody else. But we all suffer from the inhibitive force of a pre-determined identity, which weighs down our senses of uniqueness and freedom.
We all contribute to these issues by playing our roles day in, day out. During everyday encounters we presumptuously entitle ourselves to know the associations of women with men through personal titles, whereby the title implicitly conveys sexual availability. Why is any of this our business? These titles, therefore, further assert an already-present patriarchal dominance. This is true even in a professional context—from job applications, where we are often obliged to write a personal title, to schools, where teachers are invariably addressed with them.
Uncovering the roots of gendered titles may be fascinating but, today, justifying their application is difficult. Every day we encroach and impinge on women with their practice, for the titles themselves inherently encompass sexism.
A further problem with gendered titles is that we’re not necessarily confined to a discrete gender at birth or later in life since someone can experience a gender that doesn’t match their natal sex. Yet such titles explicitly categorise us. Conversely, science continues to demonstrate that sex is a spectrum and not a binary construct, which has led to the fluidity of gender finally being accepted into mainstream discourse and health services being forced into recognising it properly. This all begs the question: what valuable information can discrete, gendered titles ever provide?
How someone self-identifies in terms of their gender is theirs to reveal. Why require us to openly express ourselves in one way or another? Why perpetuate a notion that we are defined by it?
These titles have fascinating origins. Contrary to common belief, ‘Mrs’ was never intended to indicate marriage. ‘Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, there was only “Mrs”, applied to any adult woman who merited the social distinction, without any marital connotation,’ according to Amy Louise Erickson. In effect ‘Mrs’ (Mistress) was the equivalent of ‘Mr’ (Master): it suggested that the individual exhibited high business stature by governing servants and apprentices.
This was a divisive, hierarchal mechanism. It hindered the formation of an equal society: by strictly honouring only those who constituted higher social classes with a system of titles, it informed society that these people were more respectable. What’s worse is that this tradition stems from times of even greater inequality, when many individuals were simply powerless to be in a position to be afforded such titles.
Today we strictly associate ‘Mrs’ with marriage. ‘Mrs’ began to lose its social connotations over the mid-nineteenth century whilst retaining its acquired marital meaning. The inception of ‘Ms’ in the 20th century was an attempt to avoid the gross offence of confusing the two. Later it was adopted by a feminist in an attempt to dodge connotations of marriage completely. More recently ‘Mx’ was created to sew all divisions—but what does this title really offer other than to convey that you’re a human being?
‘It turns out that patriarchal control of female sexuality has no need of 20 maritally-specific titles to flourish,’ Erickson says, which I agree with. Indeed, we live in a society ridden with condescending and unfair attitudes toward women, where women are regularly subjected to litanies of sexist encounters and sometimes systemic abuse on different scales to men. But, I argue, gendered titles are subconscious precursors to more directly harmful sexism. Before sexism reaches darker depths, everyday encounters—like the millions happening right now—are first blighted by simple linguistic disparities which don’t need to exist.
A new era
Gendered titles permeate so many facets of our lives. We’re frequently required to use them and we routinely oblige, which ensures that many encounters begin on unequal footing. As with most personal titles, we can attribute them to the ways of times gone by. But why do we insist on carrying forward backward social paradigms for the sake of tradition?
By removing their practice we would publicly assist in the fight against sexism, for these titles disempower women by passively asserting sexual dominance. If there’s an argument for endorsing titles which connote a woman’s marital status, why can’t it be applied to their usage for a man’s? It would also challenge binary notions of gender that create discomfort for the many don’t feel the need to declare pink or blue.
What difference to peoples’ lives would result from their absence? While I accept that there would, of course, be a time lag between condemning their use and their extinction, formal implementation would be quite simple—for example, by stopping the mandatory requirements to enter such details into forms. After all, we all have names that we can straightforwardly use.
Perhaps we should render masculine and feminine pronouns redundant too: ‘he’ and ‘she’ could evolve to ‘it’, ‘they’, or something entirely new. We could even revert to Shakespearian language. One step at a time.
A change to the system would challenge attitudes to move in line with scientific facts and, therefore, encourage customs to evolve for the greater good. Although we shouldn’t overlook the freedom and empowerment of personal choice, this can be attained outside the spheres of law and custom. By buying into convention one is, more broadly speaking, contributing to the wider problems. This is why I implore you to act as a torchbearer and abstain.
There will always be some capacity for greater social progress; we shouldn’t hesitate to act for the sake of tradition or custom. It’s always easier to accept the status quo and resist change and simpler for those who are personally unaffected by the issues at hand to remain apathetic. But this is unambitious and selfish. Challenging divisive practices, in the long term, empowers everyone and, ultimately, makes us all happier.
This next article in this series covers the topic of personal titles in the world of academia.