Language is constantly changing to suit the needs of its speakers.
When I was a child, a major shift was occurring in support of feminism. Formerly-gendered terms like “policeman” and “fireman” became “police officer” and “firefighter” in order to recognize the growing presence of women in those careers. “Spouse” and “partner” gained prominence alongside gendered equivalents.
During my lifetime, the title “Ms.” has gone from being a feminist political statement to being a default title. Even so, the title still indicates gender, a remnant of a long-standing perceived need for English speakers to mark gender.
The drive for this title is being supported by an increased visibility of people who don’t identify with either of the traditionally identified genders, but the title itself originated in the same 1970s feminism that led to the wide acceptance of Ms.
Where did the titles come from in the first place?
The major titles (Mister, Master, Miss, and Missus) ultimately derive from Latin “Magister,” being a reference to someone with moderate or higher social standing. Originally, the titles were only to be used for someone who owned property or controlled a household.
The distinction between “Mister” and “Master” reflected age (“Master” is still used to an extent in England for boys, which is why Alfred calls Batman “Master Bruce”). The female forms were made feminine with the suffix “-ess”; “Mastress” was short-lived, and “Mistress” came to be used for all females meriting a title.
While both “Miss” and “Mrs.” are contractions of “Mistress,” they distinguish marital status. Feminists rightly questioned why women should be forced to reveal their marital status while men weren’t. But the older “Mistress” had in the meantime gotten a lurid connotation and couldn’t be used; even “Doctor Who” avoided the name for the female incarnation of The Master, choosing Missy instead.
Inspired by a typo in 1961, Sheila Michaels adapted “Ms.,” using the pronunciation “Miz” based on the way that both “Miss” and “Mrs.” can be slurred in rapid conversation.
Nearly a decade later, the title was embraced by Gloria Steinem, who used it as a title of her new magazine, and its use exploded.
Even so, conservatives and language purists, most famously William Safire, continued to resist the change.
Because Ferraro was married, Safire reasoned, she couldn’t be Miss Ferraro. Because Ferraro’s husband had a different last name, she couldn’t be Mrs. Ferraro. Because she didn’t use her husband’s last name, she couldn’t be Mrs. Zaccaro.
“It breaks my heart to suggest this,” Safire concluded, “but the time has come for Ms.”
And so the last of the famous hold-outs conceded the point.
At the same time, though, there was a quiet rumbling that didn’t gain traction at the time: If we’re going to create a title that doesn’t reveal marital status, what about one for people who don’t care to reveal their gender at all?
After all, we were shifting “congressman” to “congressperson” and shying away from “actress” and “aviatrix.” Why not devise a gender-neutral title?
In 1977, a short story in “The Single Parent Magazine” suggested “Mx.”: “Anyhow, if Mrs. and Miss are to be shortened to Ms., then I think Mister and Master should be changed to Muster … abbreviated Mu. On second thought, maybe both sexes should be called Mx. That would solve the gender problem entirely.”
The title didn’t catch on at the time. It appeared sporadically on message boards, but otherwise went ignored.
It has gotten new life with the growing visibility of people who do not identify with either “male” or “female.” ( Regardless of whether these individuals identify as genderqueer, genderfluid, non-binary, other-gendered, or some other related identity, neither “Ms.” nor “Mr.” applies.
I’m all in favor of providing appropriate, respectful terms for all people. It is excellent that several English-speaking countries have begun recognizing Mx. for people who choose to use the title.
At the same time, I’d like to suggest we go farther than applying it when gender identities fall outside of “male” and “female.” Mx. was first suggested for anyone who doesn’t feel the need to advertise their gender identity. Let’s reconsider that.
This is not to say that people couldn’t continue to use the traditional titles. After all, “Miss” and “Mrs.” have persisted even as “Ms.” has become widely used. Style guides even differ on the default: The Telegraph states that Ms. should only be used on request, while The Guardian says the opposite, that Miss and Mrs. should only be used on request. The Economist states that “Ms. is permissible though ugly. Avoid it if you can.” and advises the Miss be used with maiden names, Mrs. with married names, unless other information exists.
For people who don’t think they and others should be identified by their gender, though, Mx. seems well suited. I happen to be male, and I have little complaint about that identity. But I’m also white, and my title doesn’t reveal that: Why should it reveal my gender? Professional titles like Dr. and Rev. don’t reveal gender.
Why not have a gender-neutral title of basic respect?
Hereafter shall I be Mx. Hartzer.
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