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Is there a doctor in the house? The gendered use of honorifics

By Evelyn Tsitas - posted Monday, 18 September 2017


Last week, ABC radio broadcaster James Valentine pondered if Ms had really caught on. 'How many people used it? If not, why not? And why do so many younger women prefer Miss and Mrs? Had this campaign for equality failed?'

Up until three years ago, I used the title Ms all my adult life, and I have a woman called Sheila Michaels, who died three months ago, to thank for bringing the honorific into common usage half a century ago. In 2007 Michaels told the Guardian that she was seeking 'a title for a woman who did not belong to a man', and her inspired uptake of Ms on a radio program caught the attention of Gloria Steinem, who used it for the title of her feminist magazine Ms. Which was launched in 1971.

A decade later, Ms was an obvious choice when I went to university and had no intention of being addressed as Miss. In my mid twenties, I kept both my own name and the honorific when I got hitched. It seemed unthinkable to me as a journalist to change my name – my byline – for the simple social act of marriage. Men do not have to leave their identity at the altar. Here's the thing – none of my relatives had an issue with my continued use of Ms - or my Greek surname.

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Over the intervening years, those who were confused by my refusal to play by the gender rules (drones in banks, usually) became creative, opting to call me Mrs Tsitas because I was married, so I had to be Mrs, right?

Valentine says that while Miss and Mrs are still used, Ms will take on meaning not intended by the user. People will think it a term for lesbians and divorced women, and won't accept it as marital neutral. However, the thing is, once I divorced, I didn't get mail addressed to Ms.

Given the current push to eradicate binary assumptions around gender, the umbrage still taken to the honorific Ms seems very old fashioned. Agrowing number of businesses and government agencies now permit people to identify as the gender neutral "Mx" on official forms and paperwork. The title is pronounced "mux" and is becoming more widely accepted as an alternative honorific.

In April, the local arm of global banking giant HSBC started offering customers the choice of multiple "gender neutral" honorifics as part of a push to accommodate those who do not identify as strictly male or female, such as "Ind", short for individual, "Misc", for miscellaneous, "Mre", meaning mystery, and "Msr", a combination of Miss and Sir.

Of course, society frets about how to address people who marry outside the binary. There is a whole section of the internet devoted to this new etiquette, with MissManners@unitedmedia.com advising that as the plural of Mrs. is Mesdames and the plural of Mr. is Messrs, a married female couple with the same surname would be Mesdames Jenna and Aurora Acorn, and a married male couple would be the Messrs. Jackson and Hal Thornton.

Still, Valentine has tipped that the use of Ms is on the wane. "Life changes," he warned, "and our language always reflects that. The hard thing is that it may not reflect the change you want."

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I have found a neat way around the gendered debate of honorifics. I no longer have to tick the box Ms, Miss or Mrs. Mind you, being Ms is certainly a sustainable honorific, seeing me through life as a single, married and divorced woman. Yet, as of three years ago, I ticked a box that will never go out of fashion, and will never reveal either my gender or marital state.

I became Dr Evelyn Tsitas.

The day I graduated with my PhD, I stopped being Ms Evelyn Tsitas. I became Dr Evelyn Tsitas and found a whole new collection of haters to complain about my new honorific. Make no mistake, using Dr is not a neutral choice, because there is no neutral choice for women. Ever. We are dammed if we do, dammed if we don't.

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About the Author

Dr Evelyn Tsitas works at RMIT University and has an extensive background in journalism (10 years at the Herald Sun) and communications. As well as crime fiction and horror, she writes about media, popular culture, parenting and Gothic horror and the arts and society in general. She likes to take her academic research to the mass media and to provoke debate.

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