Judging from the Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of ‘miss’ you could be forgiven for thinking it was a derogatory term: “a girl or young woman, especially one regarded as silly or headstrong: there was none of the country bumpkin about this young miss” (Oxford Dictionaries 2011). It’s certainly not something most of us would like to publicly identify with, least of all on official forms. The question is: why are we being made to?
There is of course another definition of ‘miss’: “a title prefixed to the name of an unmarried woman or girl” (Oxford Dictionaries 2011), one which is much more likely to be of relevance in aforementioned situations. But is it really so different from the definition above? Is it not just as belittling to (have to) declare one’s marital status as being labelled ‘silly or headstrong’? Does is not equally question whether the woman concerned is fully human after all?
Historically, women were (and are?) valued in their relation to men, which is why they are given three titles in the English language: Miss, Mrs, and since the 1950s occasionally Ms. ‘Miss’ was, and is, employed to declare that a women is available, ‘Mrs’ that she is not, and ‘Ms’, in relation to the other two, that she might be. The title ‘Mr’, on the other hand, has only one consequence for the individual concerned: “used before a surname or full name to address or refer to a man without a higher or honorific or professional title” (Oxford Dictionaries 2011).
Other than that, man has nothing to contend with. He might not hold a professional title but no one will ever doubt, and therefore need to clarify, that he is a human being in his own right, whatever his relations to other men and women. But is woman in the 21st century not also (allowed to be) a human being in her own right? Does she not sometimes even hold ‘higher or honorific or professional title[s]’? And if so, why would we need to know whether she is, or is not, available to another woman or man?
As the 1987 UNESCO “Guide to Non-Sexist Language” argues: “[a] woman’s marital status is very often irrelevant to the matter in hand (participation in a meeting, etc.) and there is no masculine equivalent of Miss/Mrs” (UNESCO 1987/1999, 15). But while it makes the case quite clearly, I would go even further by arguing that it is always irrelevant beyond the obvious private scenarios. However, as the persistent usage of Miss and Mrs shows, beyond the sometimes optional ‘Ms’, nothing much has changed regarding women’s official status.
Germany here provides an interesting counter-example, where since the 1970s, Fräulein, the equivalent title of ‘Miss’ has been outlawed. As the DUDEN, a linguistic institution like the Oxford English Dictionary, confirms: “[a]ls Anrede für eine erwachsene weibliche Person sollte, unabhängig von Alter, Familienstand und Beruf, immer Frau statt Fräulein gewählt werden” – ‘[t]he title for female persons should, inspite of age, marital status and profession, always be Ms and never Miss’ (DUDEN 2011, my translation).
Now, Germans might hardly be considered forerunners in these matters but as the insistence of the female population has shown, changes can certainly be made. The German language might have had the advantage that the title ‘Frau’ (previously Mrs, now simply Ms) never was in close linguistic contact with ‘Herr’ (Mr) but this is by no means an excuse for the English language to continue to go unchallenged. The bottom line is: if we really are committed to treating women as human beings in their own right we should finally say, and write, as much.