To Ms. or not to Ms.

In a current “About.Com” entry, interested readers are provided detailed instruction about When to Use Miss, When to Use Ms, and When to Use Mrs. Even today, it seems to take an awful lot of explaining. In contrast, the website’s section on A Brief Mention About Men’s Titles begins with the comment that “Men are easy.”

When it comes to honorifics in newspapers, women have never been easy.

The possibility of using the term “Ms.” in the newspaper was first suggested in the November 10, 1901 edition of The Sunday Republican of Springfield, Massachusetts. The writer noted that “There is a void in the English language” that needed to be filled. To wit, “Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts.” The proposed solution? The “simple” and “easy to write” Ms.

This suggestion languished for many years. There was occasional mention of the idea in the early decades of the 20th century, but it wasn’t proposed again in earnest until the early years of the women’s movement. Even in the 1960s, though, there wasn’t a lot of interest – until Gloria Steinem got involved.

In a column published on August 24, 1970 in New York Magazine, Ms. Steinem supported the Ms. title as a liberated way to address all women and vowed to use it on all her correspondence. Two days later, at the Women’s Strike For Equality commemorating the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage, other feminists agreed.

But what was happening in print? I decided to have a look at the Farmington Observer for the day of the Strike for Equality – August 26, 1970. I found that Mom had written a wonderful m.m. memo about the march (more about that in a later post) but that tradition reigned in other stories. For instance, in a story about a local Torch Drive campaign, the women leading the drive were identified as Mrs. Edmund J. Kaminski, Mrs. Allan F. Sittnick, and Mrs. Kenneth A. Rainford. Oh, and the headline identifies these women as “chairmen.”

In subsequent years, there were undoubtedly discussions in newsrooms around the country about how to deal with this honorific conundrum. Ms. Steinem had begun Ms. Magazine in 1972, so the term was obviously well-known. But newspapers follow style guidelines. And those style guidelines can be slow to change.

John Finnegan, executive editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, addressed this issue in a column published on March 16, 1975. He first outlined the paper’s approach to honorifics for women:

We use Mrs. (never Ms.) when referring to a married woman for the first time in a news story and add the husband’s name: Mrs. John Smith. In the social columns we use the woman’s first name, then, in parentheses, Mrs. and the husband’s name: Mary (Mrs. John) Smith. In the case of a single woman, we use the individual’s given name (Mary, Ann) and her surname.

If a woman is divorced, we use the title, Mrs., and her given name and surname.

The second time the woman is mentioned, we will use the title, Miss or Mrs. and the surname.

In the case of a professional woman or one who has established herself under her maiden name we use the designation, Miss Mary Jones.

This policy caused problems at times. In 1975, wire services were identifying some women as Ms., and if the Pioneer Press picked up the story it was hard to know whether to revise it to read Mrs. or Miss. One editor noted the difficulty of making this choice – “You might as well flip a coin.”

It was the Family Life editor, Mary Ann Grossman, who came up with the solution – at least for the time being. Stick with the current policy, unless a woman objected. If she did, she would just be referred to by her first and last name and no title would be included in future reference. Still no use of Ms., but at least women had a choice.

At my mom’s newspaper during this time period, apparently choice ruled the day. In one 1975 issue, a story at the top of the Suburban Life section noted that “Mrs. Richard Cardeccia is chairman of the Music in Schools Committee of the Farmington Musicale” while below the fold a story about women mixologists first referred to its bartender subject as Robin Burger and later noted that “Ms. Burger admits that her mother wasn’t too happy about her job but she now realizes that times are changing.”


Language is slow to change. The New York Times didn’t begin using Ms. as an honorific until 1986. And there is certainly not a “right” way to address all women – some married women prefer Mrs. and some prefer Ms. Some women choose to take their spouse’s name after marriage, some keep their given name, some hyphenate. Some believe eliminating sexist language from our writing just clutters it up with a preponderance of his/hers and he/shes or a move to plural constructions that often sound kind of awkward. Indeed, even in 2013, Diane Black – a member of Congress from Tennessee – prefers to be referred to as Congressman Black.

So these are choices to be made. But, now as then, for women it’s not easy.


  1. Good thoughts, as always! It makes me ponder the “men are easy” part, though. How would the world be different if we had an unmarried/unpartnered honorific for men, a married/partnered honorific and then a ‘generic’ Ms.-equivalent for them, too? In addition to the information shared and the thoughts reflected, your writing makes me think, question, muse. A good thing, I think:)

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