This post is more serious than I’d intended. As penance for lack of memes, self-deprecating jokes, and wedding updates, I promise my next post will be full of embarrassing pictures, wedding news, and maybe even some not-so romantic literary quotes about marriage.
A few weeks ago, my students read the first chapter of The Feminine Mystique as part of a response assignment, and our discussions of the following passage reminded me of a grievance myself and other female instructors have discussed over beers, lunches, and grading. Essentially, my students consistently refer to me as Mrs. Smith as a sign of respect. It bugged me at first, because I was not, nor have I ever been married. I was happy be unmarried, confident in my worth and status as a single lady, and annoyed when my students would mistakenly call me Mrs. Smith, because they were afraid of offending me if I were by chance married.
Before I get into this, let me say that I am excited to be getting married. I am excited about becoming a wife and someday, a mother. What I am responding to below is not the institution of marriage, motherhood, and most especially is not women (or men) who choose to make their occupation stay-at-home mom or dad. Rather, I am responding to a problematic means of assigning worth to women through their marital status instead of their accomplishments.
I have found, however that many of my students don’t understand how prefixes for women work. I have explained time and time again that Mrs. is a prefix for a married woman (which I am not), Miss is the prefix for an unmarried woman, and Ms. is the feminine equivalent of Mr. It does not distinguish marital status, and is used by unmarried women and married women alike in situations where marital status is irrelevant (i.e. work, academics, etc…). Despite the fact that I have explained this till I was blue in the face, my students still call me Mrs. Smith in person, on written assignments, Christmas cards, and instructor evaluations.
This has always bothered me, because 1. it’s inaccurate, and 2. men’s prefixes don’t designate their marital status. Why should mine? Then, as I was re-reading Ch.1 of The Feminine Mystique in preparation for my class, I realized that their mistake was much more than a misguided attempt at respect.
In chapter one, “The Problem that Has No Name,” Betty Friedan says,
Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have five children and a beautiful house, their only fight to get and keep their husbands. They had no thought for the unfeminine problems of the world outside the home; they wanted the men to make the major decisions. They gloried in their role as women, and wrote proudly on the census blank: “Occupation: housewife (Friedan 18).
Here, Friedan is describing the cultural norm of post WWII America in which women were raised and bred with no purpose or occupation other than wife and mother. At the time, the prefix “Mrs.” was a sign to the world that a woman had achieved her purpose. It was a designation of their occupation: housewife. I realized after reading this, that my students are insinuating that my professional status is “wife.” Of course, they don’t realize they are doing this. They call me Mrs. Smith, because at some point, probably more than once, in their lives, they accidentally called a married woman Ms. So and so, and that married woman made a point of correcting them in such a way that they learned it is disrespectful to designate a married woman as unmarried. Now, they refer to all women they see as authority figures as Mrs. Rather than Miss.
I take issue with this, because when students err on the side of caution when addressing Geoffrey, they don’t call him Mr. Emerson, they call him Dr. Emerson. They show their respect for Geoffrey, a man, by inflating his status in education and career. When they err on the side of caution with me, they inflate my marital status. This creates a hierarchy in a post 2nd wave feminist world that suggests that women who have a husband are inherently worth more than those that do not while emphasizing that it is more important for a woman to be married than to be educated, qualified, or respected as a professional. By calling me Mrs. to show respect, my students suggest (without meaning to) that being a married woman is not only an accomplishment, but the most important accomplishment I can achieve as a person. This common form of respect suggest that whether or not I am married matters more than my education, professionalism, etc…
I have learned to stop correcting my students when they call me Mrs. Smith and choose to acknowledge that it is their way of showing me respect. I was, however disturbed to receive an advertisement those personalized “bride” and “groom” t-shirts and tank tops people buy for bachelorette parties and wedding day preparations from theknot.com in my email which was titled, “Make your status known!.” Now, I recognize that wedding planning sites like theknot.com are designed to promote products to women who are excited about the whole wedding production, and I realize that many newly engaged women consider the ring on their finger a sign that they have achieved something. I know that theknot.com advertises to these women in the way they deem most effective, and I am sure that that email successfully sold many personalized t-shirts. But after identifying and making peace with yet another way that women are subordinated to men (and sometimes animals) through language; it was the last straw. After raging at Geoffrey about feminism, kids these days, wedding stuff, gender roles, and the less than savory tactics of commercial business, I decided I needed to get some things out there.
So let me make this clear:
Neither Friedan’s book nor I want to suggest that being a GOOD wife and/or mother is not an accomplishment. I hope to be good at both of these things someday, and I will consider them as credentials that add value to my worth as a person in the same way that I hope Geoffrey will value being a good husband and father (He’d better or ELSE!)
Even though I am excited to be Geoffrey’s wife, to start a life, and eventually a family with him, I refuse to accept the idea that I am worth less or less deserving of respect now than I will be when we are married, and I refuse to participate in a practice that encourages my students (young minds forming their ideas about what men and women can and should do) to subordinate my achievements to the “achievement” of getting and keeping a man. Getting married is an exciting life event, something to be celebrated, but it is not a great accomplishment that somehow validates my existence as a woman, a person, or an adult. In the same way that Geoffrey’s marital status does not affect the respect he receives in his professional career, I would hope that as an educated woman, a qualified teacher, and a competent professional, my marital status would be irrelevant as well.
While I am sure I will continue to allow my students and other people in the world to call me Mrs. So and so without going into a feminazi rage (although feminazi rage is warranted), I plan to stay a Ms. in all matters where my marital status isn’t relevant, because while my marital status is a part of who I am, it is not the entirety of WHO I am. And to all the married ladies out there: Next time someone calls you Ms. somethingorother don’t take it as an insult or a mistake you must remedy. Instead, respect the possibility that this person may be choosing to address you, the human being, rather than your husband’s wife.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. & W. Norton inc. 1963. Print