Hidden in Plain Sight

A few weeks ago, my friend and I were filling in membership forms for a local bowling club. As I was going about the menial task of selecting my “preferred title”, it dawned on me that while I, as a woman, had three choices – namely “Miss”, “Mrs” or “Ms” – my male friend could select only one option: “Mr”. I asked my friend whether he thought this discrepancy could be symptomatic of something more sinister. Laughing, he replied that I “think about these things too much”, and, believing him to be right, I pushed the matter to the back of my mind.

Since then I’ve been unable to stop noticing how frequently women are asked for their ‘preferred title’, or, in other words, their marital status. Upon filling out a generic form at the doctors, it seemed the question of my preferred title was considered significant enough to be placed alongside critical details like my pre-existing health conditions. Recently, I’ve had to select my preferred title when buying plane tickets, emailing the office of the NSW premier, donating to charities, and entering online competitions.

Many structural power imbalances faced by women are subtle, making them difficult to isolate and address head on. However, others, like the existence of titles, are hidden in plain sight.

Increasingly, it has dawned on me that women’s titles are not simply a harmless relic of the past. Instead, they represent another way the patriarchy rears its ugly head in our everyday lives. By forcing us to choose between our ‘preferred titles’, it would seem that women are not simply defined by their gender as males are. Women are also defined by their relationship to other men.

This has subtle but far-reaching impacts, as titles have connotations that affect how women are viewed by others. ‘Miss’, used primarily by young, unmarried women, is implicitly associated with youth, innocence and sexual availability, and therefore often used to feed male sexual fantasies. Consider, for example, the beauty pageant ‘Miss Universe’ or ‘Miss World’ for instance, which only accept unmarried competitors. Comparatively, ‘Mrs’ is associated with maturity and romantic success, and those using the title are often seen to be ‘mumsy’ and tame.

Unlike the previous titles, ‘Ms’ is often touted as a ‘neutral’ term, an option for those not wishing to reveal their marital status. However, for many people, this term is still evocative of an older, unmarried woman; a title for those who lack a better option. Even as a child, I would look upon women using the title ‘Ms’ with pity, considering them the ‘unwanted’ women, the ones who ‘tragically’ failed to find romantic success.

These associations inevitably influence the treatment of women in their public and private lives, although it is difficult to say to what degree. At the very least, they alter men’s behaviour toward them. Women going by ‘Miss’ are more likely to be sexualised—they are not yet viewed as another man’s ‘property’.

Thinking back to high school, it was the female teachers going by ‘Miss’ who were thought of as fun and current, and subjected to boy’s fantasies. This was not merely a by-product of their tendency to be younger: the treatment of these teachers by students, both male and female, changed radically when they adopted the title ‘Mrs’ after marriage. Male teachers never have to contend with this. Addressed using the catch-all title ‘Mr’, their marital status remains a private detail.

Indeed, men’s marital status remains private throughout society, with bowling clubs, doctors and government agencies leaving it unqueried. Marital status is a seemingly irrelevant detail for men—a man is not defined by his relationship to women. This speaks to a wider truth: While public and private lives generally remain separate for men, a women’s private life regularly creeps into her professional life, changing the way she is viewed and treated at work.

While titles are evidently problematic for women, they are even more problematic for those who are non-binary. A gender-neutral option is rarely offered, and non-binary folk are regularly forced to categorise themselves in a way that misrepresents their identity. This marginalises non-binary individuals in society, whilst also reinforcing the notion that gender ‘matters’. When titles are used, it is our gender that is given pride of place before our name, our profession or our achievements.

Many structural power imbalances faced by women are subtle, making them difficult to isolate and address head on. However, others, like the existence of titles, are hidden in plain sight. These imbalances can be among the most difficult to address, as many people simply regard them as a fact of life, inextricably woven into the fabric of society. By starting a conversation and revealing these ‘hidden’ connotations, we move one step closer to ditching archaic titles once and for all.