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We're smack in the middle of National Women's History Month, and International Women's Day just passed. In this context, my cousin from Germany came for a visit. Over coffee, I was telling her about my daughter's upcoming class trip, and she asked to see the itinerary. While scanning the pages, she gasped: "I can't believe America still uses Mrs. to address women. Why aren't they protesting, especially this week?"
She was referring to the list of teachers who would be accompanying my daughter's class on the trip. Some were listed as Mrs., a few were Ms. (with one Mr.). She was seriously incredulous. What's more, she was quite perturbed when I told her that women are often listed as "Mrs. Robert Smith."
In Germany, it used to be that "Fraulein" (the equivalent of "Miss" in the U.S.) was used for any woman who was unmarried, regardless of age. "Frau" (Mrs.) was reserved for married women only. Therefore, a woman who was 80 and unmarried would still be referred to as Fraulein, which was viewed by many as insensitive and condescending.
Not that long ago, though, Germany adopted a new standard for how women are to be addressed: All women, regardless of age or marital status are now referred to as Frau. It's not a written law, per se, but it has become part of the collective consciousness of the German people, and the standard.
Why can't the United States figure this out?
I know, I know. This isn't a new question. As a society, we started questioning the use of Mrs. and Miss to address women in the 1960s when Gloria Steinem adopted Ms. for her magazine and promoted the concept of Ms. as a title for women. It was then that the whole discussion heated up and started to really percolate. Ms. became an acceptable salutation for all women, but the question I am raising here is this: Why do we continue to use three?
Not really knowing the current status of the debate, I was eager to get a handle on how things had progressed since the 1960s. I googled "Ms. vs. Mrs." and a few things came up (including an abundance of information on Mississippi and Multiple Sclerosis). One search result was a short interview with Alma Graham, who, in 1972, had the distinction of being the first lexicographer to put Ms. into a dictionary, and who offered a concise explanation of how Ms. came to be.
Next, I read an article that was part of Time magazine's 2009 "The State of the American Woman" special report, by a writer who starts by letting the reader know how unsure she is about whether she's a Mrs. or a Ms., and ends it by declaring that it's okay not to care.
And there's not been too much written about it since, at least according to Google.
Have we just collectively given up the cause? Do we, like the Time magazine writer, no longer really care? Is it okay to just let every woman choose for herself? What if she has chosen, but others continue to refer to her by a different and unwanted title? Has the roar of women turned into a whimper? What is the message we are giving to younger women?
I'm sure my cousin didn't mean to cause me so much angst, but angst is what I am feeling right now.
Do we still need salutations that identify a woman's age and marital status?
Always curious to know what others are thinking, I put this question to HuffPost readers and Facebook friends. Here's what some of them had to say (reprinted with their permission):
No! we do not need that. I am who I am -- divorced, single, not married and 57. If you want to know that, and I want to tell you, I will. I am not defined by titles, educational degrees, proper nouns or social status.
--Teresa Tanner Montgomery
I'd prefer one salutation, just like men have always had. Their marital status doesn't define them!
--Catherine Nyhan Cheney
I don't need any salutations, but if I need to choose one, "Ms." suits me just fine.
I don't care for any of the mentioned labels, as each one has been used in a derisive manner toward me through the years. When wanting to talk down to me, I've had people use the term "Well Miss Leppert." When wanting to infer that I was not displaying "proper" feminine temperament, I've been called "Ms. Leppert." And the dreaded "Mrs. Leppert" comes out of the mouths of so many throwback to the Stone Age mouths that it makes me shudder. I am a happily married woman who has a name. It's Kathleen Leppert. Call me Kathleen if you really know me, or feel free to refer to me as "she who is beyond labels." Don't worry; mail will make it to me with that name. The postal carrier knows me.
--Kathleen Creel Leppert
Just as "Mr." is determined by gender and not by marital status and age, the same holds true for "Ms." I just checked my online dictionary, and it stated that "Ms." originated in the 1950s, the combination of Mrs. and Miss. Really? We've had Ms. in our lexicon for 50-plus years and are still confronted with the stereotypical Mrs. and Miss? I, for one, would like to end the Mrs./Miss issue. I see that happening one daughter at a time.
Sadly, I think that the connection between the term "Ms." and the "Women's Lib" movement made use of the term uncomfortable for those who want equality, but have never burned a bra. The question becomes, do we need a new identifier that just means "female," or is it possible to "rebrand" the term "Ms." as one without political connotations?
I always felt it was more out of respect than defining our status. However, that being said, I do like seeing C.E.O. connected with a woman's name.
I'm still really surprised that we continue to use Miss and Mrs. at all, this many years after the women's movement. Grown men are Mr., regardless, and grown women should be Ms., regardless. I always choose Ms. when given a choice. I always use Ms. for other women. Funny enough, I do run in to plenty of married women of all ages who want to insist on Mrs. If that's their choice, I respect it. But it's not mine.
--Wendy Painter Padilla
I would prefer to say I am simply "Gigi" and nothing defines me!
I use Ms. if I have to use something, but I don't actually feel the need for a title at all -- have tried to get friends and relatives to stop calling me "Mrs. James Colsmith" for years! My name is not Mrs. James Colsmith. Why do they insist on calling me an imaginary name I don't like?
Our outdated proper etiquette needs to be changed. I think Ms. is the best catch-all that we have at this time, but would be happy to entertain a new one altogether --so long as it's just one. The whole idea of being Mrs. husband's-first-name husband's-last-name is downright condescending, a slap in the face -- ludicrous, when you think about it.
--Lisa Lundberg King
Those were just a few of the many comments I got. Isn't it time we considered re-opening this discussion all over again, and fighting the good fight once more? As part of our legacy, shouldn't we -- especially those of us who are over 50 and were there when these questions were first introduced -- try to make this important change in our language, our culture, our society, our collective consciousness?
I can foresee a future where one title will be used for all women, like "Ms." -- which doesn't disclose our personal details or imply some type of identity shift dependent on our relationships, the same way a generic "Mr." is used for men. We should not be labeling and categorizing women by our marital status using Miss and Mrs., especially given that "marital" status in general has different interpretations these days, since not all couples -- heterosexual and otherwise -- are legally "married."
Isn't it time?
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