Excuse Me, Ms.!

Excuse Me, Ms.!

Confused about Latinx, alumnx, even mxn? Fear not: Inclusive language has been evolving for decades.


Recently, I got some blowback on a feminist listserv when I said I was thinking of writing about “Latinx,” the new gender-neutral replacement for “Latino” and “Latina.” Why was I, a non-Latinx, writing about it?

Never mind that no one, including myself, knew what I would say, or that “Latinx” is an English word and that as an English-speaking person, I have a certain stake in its usage.

The same goes for other “x” words—“Mx.” as a genderless honorific, “womxn,” and yes, “alumnx”—to say nothing of “they” as a singular pronoun. Still, the discussion reminded me that there is a rich conversation already going on about “Latinx” that I was ill prepared to take part in without more research and interviewing. So I’m staying in my lane. Let’s talk about words for women!

Take “Ms.” According to The New York Times Magazine’s erstwhile word expert Ben Zimmer, this replacement for “Mrs.” and “Miss” was first proposed in 1901 by an anonymous writer to the Sunday Republican of Springfield, Massachusetts, who suggested it as a way around awkward social situations with strangers. “To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss,” the person wrote. “Yet it is not always easy to know the facts.”

“Ms.” went nowhere until a young civil rights worker, Sheila Michaels, fiercely promoted it on WBAI’s feminist show Womankind in the runup to the Women’s Strike for Equality, which took place in 1970. The publicity put “Ms.” on the map. Ms. magazine started in 1971, and the rest is herstory.

Even so, it took a long time for “Ms.” to become standard. To a lot of ordinary people, including women, it seemed outlandish: How do you pronounce it? Why does it have a period when it isn’t an abbreviation? Wasn’t it enough that a chairman was now a chair (my husband, a Brit, still thinks that’s hilarious) and a garbageman a sanitation engineer? (The brilliant cultural historian Jacques Barzun spent years arguing, with no success, that the “man” in these words did not mean “male person” but was derived from the Sanskrit manu, for “human being.”)

The writer Louise Bernikow remembers being asked if her name was Manuscript Bernikow, after the abbreviation for “manuscript” (“MS”). The Times’ top editor, Abe Rosenthal, banned “Ms.” from the paper until 1986, the year he retired. I remember reviewing books back then and being tasked with ferreting out the marital status of women authors in order to figure out which word to use.

At The New Yorker, where I was a proofreader and copy editor in the 1970s, the all-powerful editor Mr. William Shawn didn’t get it at all. He thought “Ms.” was a fig leaf for unmarried women—a less embarrassing synonym for that poor, lonely social failure “Miss.” Indeed, many wives were proud to be a Mrs. Husband and probably still are.

But “Ms.” turned out to foreshadow the ongoing move toward inclusive language. And ultimately, it took hold because it made sense. Why should women be identified by marital status when men are not? “Ms.” meant newspapers didn’t have to track down a woman’s marital status, it solved the problem of what to call women after divorce and widowhood, and besides, “Miss” sounded so fussy and Victorian. As marital status become more fluid and women grew more independent, it just seemed troublesome and also not all that important to identify women by whether they were married. The gender-egalitarian argument suited the times as it did not in 1901, especially as other female identifiers like “poetess” declined.

I asked members of a women’s studies listserv for their memories of the word’s early days. It surprised me how deeply liberating “Ms.” was. Women wrote about insisting on the word as pharmacists and bankers and salespeople tried to force them to use “Miss” or “Mrs.” They wrote about its deeper emotional resonance, too. “When I divorced in the early 1980s, I felt militant using the label Ms.,” wrote Diana L. Gustafson. “The title was a signifier of my battle in my home life to be seen, to reject the division of labour in a marriage that seemed to be attached to the title Mrs.”

TJ Boisseau wrote, “The term ‘Ms.,’ to me, recalls all the feminist history that my mother conveyed to me…while we were sweeping, or folding, or stirring, or putting away whatever it was that needed never-ending tending. Women’s work became bound up in my mind with the work of the feminist movement, and those conversations with my mother were why I became a historian of women and of feminism.”

I was also surprised by how much resistance to the word still exists. Gabriela Torres, who lives in Massachusetts, told me that she still has to fight for her own name: “My children’s school system as well as my pediatrician routinely refer to me as either mom or Mrs. Husband Full Name. My name and independent personhood [are] erased by both, and I am dismissed and still looked at as ridiculous when I challenge their use of the Mrs.”

It’s easy to pooh-pooh language innovations offhand; I’m kind of a traditionalist myself when it comes to “x” and “they.” Many or most of these linguistic mutations fall by the wayside. “Womyn” never really caught on, nor, unfortunately, did the practice of shedding your father’s last name in favor of your mother’s first name plus “child,” following the example of the radical feminist Kathie Sarachild. I could have been Katha Leanorachild all this time!

Most married women still take their husband’s last name, including many who are strong feminists, like my daughter. The changes that stick seem to be the ones that parallel an ongoing social change and fill a true gap in the language while allowing for breathing room and the convenience of older usages. “Garbageman” is still in use, while the euphemistic “sanitation engineer” has morphed into “sanitation worker” or “garbage collector.”

What lies ahead for “Latinx,” “Mx.,” “womxn,” and, Lord help me, “alumnx”? Will “mxn” replace “men”? If you live long enough, you’ll probably find out.

Author’s note: Nominations for the Ann Snitow Prize are now open! It will award  $10,000 to a feminist who best exemplifies Ann’s spirit—her combination of  feminist intellectual work and activism.  Someone broad-minded and curious and wonderful. It could be a writer, a scholar, someone in the arts, a humanitarian.  I’m on the nominating committee and we are reaching out to people like you who might have great ideas. Here’s all the information about the prize and how to nominate someone. The deadline is March 1. This is your chance to help win recognition and $10,000 for someone you admire and whose work you want to promote! Questions? I am here to help!

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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