So­cial Stud­ies

Margo White con­sid­ers the proper form of ad­dress.

North & South - - North & South - by margo white

IT DOESN’T take much to spark a flare-up on Twit­ter, and most of them are in­con­se­quen­tial, but I was in­ter­ested in the re­sponses (and my own) to a tweet posted this year by Aus­tralian aca­demic Dr Siob­han O’dwyer: “Hey @Qan­tas, my name is Dr O’dwyer. My ticket says Dr O’dwyer. Do not look at my ticket, look at me, look back at my ticket, de­cide it’s a typo, and call me Miss O’dwyer. I did not spend 8 years at univer­sity to be called Miss.”

As might have been pre­dicted, she came in for con­sid­er­able on­line ret­ri­bu­tion, in which she was ac­cused of be­ing os­ten­ta­tious, class-ist, pompous, of pulling rank and so on. “If she wants to call her­self a doc­tor, let her tend to any­one who falls ill on the plane flight!” noted one of the more rea­son­able re­spon­dents.

O’dwyer later clar­i­fied. “This was not about my ego. It was about high­light­ing one of a thou­sand in­stances of sex­ism that women en­counter ev­ery day. It’s not about the ti­tle, it’s about the fact this wouldn’t have hap­pened if I was a man.”

Wouldn’t it? These things are hard to prove. It’s also not clear if she would have been as of­fended if she’d been ad­dressed as Ms rather than Miss, al­though her claims of sex­ism weren’t helped when a col­league tweeted, osten­si­bly in sup­port: “It’s not up to a ‘trol­ley­dolly’ to de­cide whether some­one should be called dr or miss.” O’dwyer, rightly, dis­tanced her­self from that com­ment.

O’dwyer wasn’t the first fe­male aca­demic to cop flak on Twit­ter this year for in­sist­ing on be­ing called Dr. Lon­don­based Dr Fern Rid­dell did too when, af­ter learn­ing the Cana­dian news­pa­per Globe and Mail was chang­ing its style

guide so “Dr” would be used only for med­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers, she tweeted: “My ti­tle is Dr Fern Rid­dell, not Ms or Miss Rid­dell. I have it be­cause I am an ex­pert, and my life and ca­reer con­sist of be­ing that ex­pert in as many dif­fer­ent ways as pos­si­ble.”

She later wrote about the back­lash to her tweet in the New States­man, point­ing out she was an ex­pert in sex and suf­frage in the 19th and 20th cen­turies, and con­trib­utes to myr­iad me­dia. “And I get to do this be­cause I know what I am talk­ing about. And I know what I am talk­ing about be­cause I have a PHD.”

It is the kind of tweet that opens a can of worms – a can of worms that can’t be ad­dressed well on Twit­ter. Yet the worms were re­veal­ing. Rid­dell was ac­cused of “im­mod­esty”, of a lack of “hu­mil­ity” by, she wrote in the New States­men, men who seemed “un­able to ac­cept fe­male ex­per­tise and au­thor­ity”. Be­ing ac­cused of “im­mod­esty” was, she writes, a “red rag to a bull” be­cause her own re­search shows women have long been de­fined “by their abil­ity to be well-be­haved”. She be­gan tweet­ing with the hash­tag #Im­mod­est­women and many other women with Phds quickly fol­lowed suit.

I’m con­flicted about all this. Be­ing, I sup­pose, an old-fash­ioned egal­i­tar­ian, I’ve never been keen on ti­tles or the hi­er­ar­chies they sup­port, al­though clearly they have their place in some con­texts. But the shadow of sex­ism lurks in all sorts of in­de­fin­able and hard-to-prove ways, so if some women choose to high­light their ed­u­ca­tional achieve­ments on Twit­ter as a form of protest, then each to their own hon­orific.

Through no fault of our own, the hon­orifics for women have al­ways been more com­pli­cated than for men. My name is Margo, in for­mal and in­for­mal con­texts, but on forms I’m Ms; Ms has al­ways struck me as a sim­ple, straight­for­ward way to avoid be­ing cat­e­gorised by mar­i­tal sta­tus, in a way that men never have been. Ms is now main­stream, among mar­ried and non-mar­ried women (and also First Ba­bies, at least in the case of Neve Te Aroha, judg­ing by her UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly pass). It wasn’t so long ago many thought Ms im­plied you were a bit stroppy, that you had some­thing to hide. Like what? You were a spin­ster?

The mean­ing of Mrs and Miss has not been im­mutable, ei­ther. Ac­cord­ing to re­search by Cam­bridge Univer­sity his­to­rian Dr Amy Er­ick­son, Mrs was once pro­nounced “mis­tress” and for cen­turies, at least in Bri­tain, ap­plied to all adult women of higher so­cial sta­tus, whether they were mar­ried or not. As Er­ick­son has ex­plained, women on the lower rung of the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy were ad­dressed by their names. “Thus, in a large house­hold the house­keeper might be Mrs Green, while the scullery maid was sim­ply Molly and the woman who came in to do the laun­dry was Tom Black’s wife or Betty Black.” Ac­cord­ing to her re­search, “Miss” was only adopted by adult women in the mid­dle of the 18th cen­tury but be­fore that, re­fer­ring to an adult woman as “Miss” was to sug­gest she was a pros­ti­tute.

The way women have been and are ad­dressed still tends to re­flect and sup­port dis­crim­i­na­tory at­ti­tudes to­ward women, so it’s easy, even in this day and age, to take of­fence. When a young man at a restau­rant re­cently greeted me and my sim­i­larly mid­dle-aged friend with “How are you, girls?” I said, “Fine thanks, boy.” I felt bad be­cause he looked as if I’d slapped him in the face, but what was the sub­text? That women old enough to be his mother would be flat­tered to be called “girls”? Then why did his face drop when a woman old enough to be his mother called him “boy”?

I got the same slapped-face look when a young man in a re­tail out­let said, “Is there any­thing I can help you with, dear?” and I said, “No thanks, dear.” Was his use of “dear” sex­ist or age-ist, or nei­ther, or a bit of both? Maybe it’s my own per­sonal an­tipa­thy, to­ward any­one who doesn’t know me, ad­dress­ing me with what I con­sider a term of en­dear­ment. That goes for the women in shops who call me “dar­ling”, too. Would they call me “dar­ling” if I was a man? I don’t know. I just don’t like it.

Whether peo­ple call us Miss, Mrs, Ms, Dr, “dear” or “dar­ling” is pretty low down the list of is­sues fac­ing women, but the way peo­ple ad­dress us is still of­ten symp­to­matic of more se­ri­ous con­cerns. How should you ad­dress us? It’s com­pli­cated, but if in doubt, you could al­ways just ask. And al­low for our idio­syn­cra­sies, our pref­er­ences and our pet peeves. We of­ten have good rea­son for them. +

PHD holder Fern Rid­dell ob­jected to a Cana­dian news­pa­per chang­ing style to only us­ing “Dr” for med­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers. “My ti­tle is Dr Fern Rid­dell, not Ms or Miss Rid­dell,” she says. “I have it be­cause I am an ex­pert.”

A woman named Mrs Carter, pos­si­bly the English po­et­ess, trans­la­tor and writer El­iz­a­beth Carter (1717-1806). For cen­turies, “Mrs” ap­plied to all adult women of higher so­cial sta­tus.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.