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Don’t Call Me Mrs.! July 17, 2009

Posted by Onely in "Against Love"...?, Food for Thought.
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I did something unusual the other day: I told my students not to call me Mrs. mban839l

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m pursuing a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition (a subfield of English), and as part of my fellowship, I’m required to teach regularly. Last week, I began teaching a summer version of a course called Women in Literature. I always begin a new class by explaining to my students what they should call me — in part because I look very young, in part because I don’t have my Ph.D. yet, and in part because I hate receiving emails without an address (“Dear ____, … “). So I spend a few minutes describing their choices: They can call me Lisa. They can call me Ms. ____ (my last name). They can call me Professor ____ (though I always feel compelled to explain that technically, I’m not yet a professor). They can call me, as one of my students cleverly did last fall, Future Dr. ____ (my personal favorite). The main thing, I usually explain, is that they call me something.

Except for Mrs.

Apparently the title of “Mrs.” bothers me a great deal, because last week when introducing myself and my various titles, I told my students for the first time that whatever they decide, they should definitely not call me Mrs.

I’ve never been explicit about this before, but in the past when I’ve been called “Mrs.” – or worse, when the name “Mrs. ____” appears on the top of a properly-formatted MLA-style paper – I can’t escape the momentary irritation that inevitably follows reading my last name coupled with the incorrect title.

It’s not just that it’s “incorrect” – I am single. But it’s all the baggage that accompanies the title – socially, economically, historically, politically – that bothers me. That and the fact that the distinction between “single” and “married” exists in titles for women, but not for men — also troubles my feminist self (it is for this reason that I’m looking forward to the day when my title becomes the gender-neutral “Dr”).

And so, as I outlined my various names in front of that small group of strangers – and as I explicitly forbade a culturally significant title – I accidentally “came out” as a single woman within the first few minutes of class.

Given my age (30), gender (female), and my position (graduate student), I feel ambivalent about stepping out of the closet in this way. For one, I may be undermining what little authority I already have just by describing myself as a “single woman.”

But in other ways, I feel like it was entirely appropriate for me to do this: First, it is my preference: Students generally seem to appreciate explicit direction when there’s a chance of getting something wrong. Second, I could insist on being called “Ms.” instead of “Mrs.” even if I were married.

Third, making this distinction seems politically subversive in important ways: Even if it might be read as “inappropriate” to some, my doing it anyway may highlight the paradoxical cultural forces that make it acceptable, on the one hand, to define a woman’s marital status with an “authorized” title, but that, on the other hand, make it unacceptable to bring up my status as a single woman (and my feelings about that status) in a school setting (which is absolutely not a politically neutral space, as the public tends to imagine it).

And finally, in the context of the class itself – Women in Literature – the “outing” makes sense. We’re discussing gender, identity, sexuality, and politics all summer long — and so, perhaps, my “outing” was just one step in making the politics of language explicit in important and useful ways.

Readers, what’s your take on this move? Would you make your marital status clear to your students like I did, or do something different? What would you think if you were a student in one of my classes when I “outed” myself in this way?

— Lisa


1. Lauri - July 17, 2009

If you were making a point to tell the students that you’re not “professor” or “doctor,” I don’t see why you shouldn’t add that you’re not “Mrs.” either. Actually I find it kind of surprising that students would take it upon themselves to call you “Mrs.” Mrs. seems very personal- you would only call someone that if you know they are married and you know they want to be called that. These days it seems most people err on the side of Ms. anyway- you can’t go wrong.

onely - July 19, 2009

Lauri, I see what you’re saying but I wonder if this is an example of immaturity (as Special K posits below), and also the regional culture of the midwest/south (where I live). My students are generally pretty young (I teach a lot of freshmen, and the freshmen at my university tend to be students right out of high school) and many are from the rural areas of Kentucky, and so I think their default title for a female authority figure is “Mrs.” (At the grocery store, I am usually addressed as “Ma’am” — I hate that but it’s apparently pretty standard for the area!)

Unfortunately, my students — even when they’re really “smart” — don’t express the same degree of cultural awareness/sensitivity that you’d imagine/hope for in 2009. So I have definitely been addressed as “Mrs.,” and in some ways I am as surprised as you are that I have to make that distinction.

— L

Paige Dygert - June 25, 2017

Late to the party, but here goes: No, it is not immaturity at all. I am 50, lifelong single, very successful, very happy, and I detest being called “Mrs.” by default–on the phone with CSRs, etc. I am proudly, contentedly unmarried. I believe it was a sound decision not to buy into the patrimony of my worth only-in-relation-to-being-attached-to-some man. What a crock of bull that is, and an insult to women everywhere. It’s “Ms.” for me. Why should I be defined by my relationship status, by people for whom it is none of their concern, when men are not defined as such? “Mrs.” is so 1950’s; it needs to go the way of the “it’s-OK-to-rape-your-wife” laws (which took until 1980 by the way), sooner rather than later. If you are married, that is perfectly fine, but it is not everyone’s business. If you think I am some kind of “angry feminist” or “bitter old maid” (invention of bitter married people), then you are missing the point, all women SHOULD be angry–we are treated, to put it very mildly, unjustly, even in Western society. Wake up and stop using the term “Mrs.” at all!

2. Special K - July 17, 2009

Mrs. in most other languages is considered more formal, and a sign of respect. I don’t know the ages of the kids you’re teaching, but if it’s under 22, it was more a sign of their immaturity than anything. Customer Service 101 says to err on the side of MS. not Mrs.
So here’s where being the expert is tenuous. Obviously, their address bothered you. The question is, were they assuming you were married? I bet they didn’t even think about it. But it IS a good segway into Women’s Lit…what would Virgina Woolfe say? The first duty of a lecturer- to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece for ever.
– Virginia Woolf |

onely - July 19, 2009

Haha — that’s a lot of pressure for an English teacher! Let’s only hope that I occasionally meet Woolf’s expectations 🙂

— L

3. Jenn - July 18, 2009

I agree with Lauri – if you’re specifically telling them that it isn’t appropriate to call you Dr. or Professor, it doesn’t seem odd to tell them it isn’t appropriate to call you Mrs. either. I think most people know that Mrs. refers to married women (and if they don’t, they should be made aware of that). I really can’t imagine that it would undermine your authority at all; personally, it’s never crossed my mind. On the other hand, I have always worried a lot about looking young and being a non-white woman. I have a big problem with students addressing me with my first name which always bugs me, but I am sure that wouldn’t be any different if I were married. On the first day, I tell them they can call me Dr. or Professor (though it’s more in the context of telling them how to pronounce my last name, which everyone butchers) but still have many students address me as “Ms.”, which I don’t bother to correct. I can’t recall any student every calling me “Mrs.” A lot of them just address me as Professor, without a last name, which might be because my last name IS difficult for them to pronounce.

onely - July 19, 2009

Jenn — this is interesting, and I’m glad you brought up the way that race factors into this equation, because I (obviously) hadn’t thought about the fact that my whiteness probably gives me some authority that a non-white woman would not automatically have. I used to have qualms about students calling me by my first name, but after several years of teaching small classes (usually no more than 25 students), I just find it easier for them (and for me) to tell them that my first name is OK. A lot of them still won’t call me by my first name (and I always sign emails with my initials, not my first name), so I think that’s where the “Mrs.” title comes into play. Especially since they can’t call me Dr…

— L

Paige Dygert - June 25, 2017

I also detest when people call me “Miss Paige.” WTF? There is no Miss Paige in this room! Paige is NOT my last name, and while arguably I am a “Miss” (again, my martial status is no one’s business if the status of a man is not going to be anyone’s business), this is inappropriate on so many levels. I am not the maid in a 1930s movie and I am not Jimmy Carter’s mother-in-law (“Miss Lillian”). Please do not refer to people, especially strangers, using cartoonish and outdated titles. I did experience a lot of this in the South, and while people claim they “mean” it as a term of respect, this intent is absolutely not coming across as such and is so far outdated, they need to take a Youtube class on the 21st century or something. If someone “meant” no disrespect when they called an Asian person “Oriental” it is still not OK to say. This is so easily overcome by saying: “Please call me Susie or Ms. Smith.” I see this term of address used in Day-care centers and schools and they are just setting the kids up to be inappropriate later in life. You can teach a kid to call a person by their last name (Ms. Jones) if you want them to be more formal, or you can teach them to sue their first name (Samantha), if you want them to be on familiar terms. Mixing the two is just confusing the kids’ understanding of the relationship and of the appropriate use of titles.

4. sw - July 19, 2009

not only do i object to the word ‘mrs’ but also the word ‘miss’. i always use ‘ms’ for myself and others, although at work i use someone’s preference if they’ve told me about it (although i find this objectionable ideologically). this is a hangover from a time when women had few rights and needed the protection of their fathers until they got husbands. it’s not relevant to distinguish between married and unmarried women nowadays, as there should be no difference in her rights or value. women who keep their birth surname when they marry manage just fine.

this makes the notion of a genderless title an attractive one. it would be nice to all be called ‘m. ____’.

5. Singlutionary - July 19, 2009

Dear Future Dr Lisa,

I also hate the whole Mrs/Miss issue which is why I enjoy informality and using my 1st name and everyone else’s. I think that your discussion of title is a PERFECT introduction to a Women in Lit class and beginning class by addressing your own identity and perspective is fabulous.

I also think that by outing yourself as a single woman you are potentially inspiring all of these 20 something men and women to find a new appreciation, respect and even admiration for singleness. I bet a lot of these young women, especially being from rural places, expect themselves to automatically become wives and mothers after college. They may have not even considered any other way of life. For some of them, that might be perfect but for the “rebellious” ones, you might make them feel a little more normal. You might be a role model of Onelyness.

6. Stacy - January 4, 2010

I definitely agree. I am a 23 year old and I am already being called a Mrs! I believe that it is important to declare who I am and be proud that the fact that I am a MS! I am not married and have not been married yet. I think it is important for all woman to own who they are and if someone is placing a label on them (or should I say judgement), it is important to correct them. I believe that society is framing the whole marriage-single, Ms.-Mrs., ‘paradoxical cultural forces’ , etc. in a way that can make a single gal a little dismissed. The fact that I am so young and people ASSUME that I should be married already makes me so sad.

I should clarify that I don’t hate marriage and one day, who knows? Maybe I will get married?

But I digress. I really wanted to say: Lisa: YOU GO GIRL!


Ms. Stacy H (single and PROUD!!)

7. The complexity of the Mrs. « Work-Life Imbalance - August 6, 2012
8. Chris - November 5, 2018

I am pleased to hear that you told your students what you wanted to be called, on the first day.I was a re-entry student at my university. As such, I was sometimes older than my professors. I was fairly confused about how to address the profs.

I’ll give you an example, which is about male teachers. But I think it gets the point across. One insisted being called Dr.. He even got upset if a student called him Mr. The other man, if addressed as Dr., said,”Don’t call me Dr. I’m not an MD. Call me Mike” The ironic this is that they were both botany professors and both had earned their doctorates.

It would have saved everyone a lot of discomfort, if they had spoken up the first day of class,like you did.

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