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Why it can be a real hit or miss for modern women over the right title to use

By Mary Kenny

Published 04/07/2016

Powerful lady: Hillary Clinton is favourite to become next US president
Powerful lady: Hillary Clinton is favourite to become next US president

We can now foretell, with some certainty, that Mrs Clinton will be elected the next president of the United States in the autumn. Yes, "Mrs" Clinton. That's how the American media often now refers to her. Sometimes, it can be "Hillary". And sometimes, especially in headlines, it can just be "Clinton". But once details of her policies are outlined, texts refer to the Mrs. The New York Times is very insistent on Hillary being dignified with the moniker, "Mrs Clinton".

That leader of all fashion trends, Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, tweeted her support recently. "I'm with Mrs Clinton", she wrote.

It's interesting, this revival and reclaiming of the honorific Mrs. For a long while, Mrs was banished as archaic and patriarchal, and every woman became Ms.

Ms is still widely, almost ubiquitously, used in Ireland, but not everywhere, any more. After the tragic death of the Yorkshire Labour MP, Jo Cox, she was described in the many tributes and memorials as "Mrs Cox". Jo Cox had chosen to take her husband Brendan's name (her own family name was Leadbeater), so it seemed a mark of respect to credit her memory with the title of Mrs, rather than Ms. Brendan and Jo seemed to be a very united couple and the Mr and Mrs was a validation of their life together.

There's nothing wrong with Ms as a generalised handle. It covers a multitude of life circumstances - the single, the partnered, the espoused, the divorced, the widowed - and it can be tactful.

In the days when a mother might face some prejudice if she were unmarried - it could occur in maternity wards, where a Miss stigmatised a woman giving birth - Ms was a brilliant way of establishing both privacy and equality. If you don't know what a woman chooses to call herself, then Ms is perfectly mannerly.

No woman nowadays needs to take her husband's (or partner's) surname and, in law, it was always voluntary anyway. And there's a lot to be said to keeping your maiden name, as it was called, for professional and business reasons.

I was personally disappointed when the Republic's first female president, Mary Robinson, changed her name from Mary Bourke.

Bourke/De Burca is a distinguished Norman-Irish clan and the Bourkes of Mayo can trace their lineage back to the awesome Granuaile, whose son was a Bourke/De Burca.

With the greatest respect, I thought Bourke a much more fitting surname for the first woman to be Uachtarain na hEireann than the less historic, shall we say, Scottish surname of Robinson.

Yet despite the greater weight of clan distinction associated with Bourke, the lady chose to be Robinson - when she wed Nick of that ilk - and seeing as she did so, should she not be described as "Mrs Robinson"? But she is not. She is invariably called "Ms Robinson", as though she had never gone to the trouble of being a wife at all. The same applies with Mary McAleese, a Mrs, but usually called a Ms.

Perhaps this is their personal choice and people should always be called what they want to be called.

But it's nice, all the same, that Mrs Clinton is now helping to bring back a certain sense of seniority and even authority to the title of Mrs Hillary herself, over the course of her career, vacillated on surnames: for some time she stuck with Hillary Rodham, and then she went to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But as she progressed through the hierarchy of politics and as it became clear that she was something more than just the little wifey behind the great man, she evidently decided she was entitled to share the Clinton 'brand'. Indeed, it could be said she earned it.

The more Donald Trump attacks Hillary as a woman and as a political force, the more Mrs Clinton will emerge as the seasoned matriarch whom Americans will certainly address as Ma'am. She is affirming the dignity to fit the office.

Ms was a valiant attempt to bestow equality of nomenclature as between men and women - one title for men (Mr) and one title for women (Ms) - and now we have an option added for those of transgender or neutral identity (Mx).

Fine. Though Ms isn't always easy to say, and Mx is even more of a challenge. But since any surname a woman uses once belonged to a man - her maiden name is usually her father's, or her grandfather's - nomenclature remains patriarchal.

The only advanced society that has cracked this problem are the Icelanders, where, if you are John's son, you are Johnsson, and if you are Brigid's daughter, you are Birgittasdottir. But Iceland only has the population of Cork. The system has never been exported to a more populous society.

The French (and the Japanese have an equivalent) now operate a protocol where all women over a certain age are now called Madame, whatever their wedded status. Mademoiselle is only used for very young girls, or in irony. It is considered to be more respectful to call a woman Madame and this, I think, is why Mrs is making a comeback in English.

It's not obligatory, but it can seem more courteous. And we can choose to use both.

I often tick the Ms box, but just now and then, when I think a little gravitas is in order, I'm the missus.

Belfast Telegraph

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