Jocelyn Newmarch
Jocelyn Newmarch

Just call me Ms …

Listen up all you telemarketers, banking consultants, conveyancing attorneys, and the like, because this one’s for you. Don’t, ever, call me “Mrs”, at least not before you’ve taken the trouble to ascertain whether I am, actually, married.

Let’s just take some time out and think about this. Calling someone you’ve never met before “Mrs” implies that you feel it is polite to infer that she is married. Why is that? Why is it that a professional woman, clearly of breeding age, must be assumed to be married?

I suspect it comes from Afrikaans, where there is only “mevrou” and “juffrou”, and “juffrou” is, perhaps, somewhat infantilising. Nevertheless, it bugs the hell out of me.

As it happens, I am married. But I’m still not “Mrs” Newmarch. I prefer to be called “Ms” Newmarch. This is a neutral term which makes no assumptions about my marital status, sexual availability, or lack thereof. I am not Mrs, as I have not chosen to change my name and don’t really see why anyone should. Calling me “Mrs” Newmarch implies that:
(1) I originally held another surname
(2) that I am not related by blood to other people called Newmarch
(3) that I was previously (or currently) married to someone other than my current spouse.

You’re probably reading this and wondering why I’m making a fuss about such a petty issue. But for me, it’s not petty. It’s about my identity, and my right to carry on bearing the name I was born with.

Our default assumption is still that women change their names when they marry. Though I haven’t done so, and know plenty of other women who haven’t, most of my friends have. But perhaps it’s worth remembering that not all societies expect the same. In Spain, children are given the names of both parents, and in Spanish-speaking countries women frequently retain their birth names.

In medieval England, the practice was different. Women retained much of their autonomy, even during marriage. When two families were allied in marriage, the surname of the more powerful family (whether groom or bride) was retained.

Among the working class, surnames were often derived through trades. So we get Baker, Miller, Black(smith), Smith, and so on. It’s often assumed that only men’s surnames were passed down. But the suffix “-ster” is actually a feminine one, and so we get Baxter and Webster, referring to female bakers and weavers. Ancestral names also survive, such as Marriott (from Mary) and Emmott (from Emma). (Thank you, Wikipedia!)

Then there’s the word “Mrs” itself. This is actually a contraction of “Mistress”, a medieval word used to refer to a mature woman — someone who was, y’know, mistress of her house, or the local inn, or whatever. This made no assumptions about whether or not she was married, which our modern term does. And calling someone mistress these days probably wouldn’t go down too well.

Having considered all this history, I choose to keep my father’s name as my own. One might as well start somewhere, after all, and it’s the name I’ve been born with and have carried all my life. It’s my identity. It’s part of who I am.

In my response to Gavin Foster, I said that women, unlike men, must choose between keeping their own name, thus possibly bearing a different name to their children, and changing their name to a new and unfamiliar one. It’s a choice every married woman must negotiate for herself — but I’d like a little less assumption while we do it. (The double-barrelled surname is one attempt to reach a compromise.) No one seems to expect my husband to change his name — and why, exactly, should that be?

So, telemarketers, lawyers, and everyone else whose first contact with me is over the phone or via email — just call me Ms. Or my first name, for that matter.