Has the time come for eliminating gendered honorifics and titles? Instead of Mr. Mister, Mrs. Missus, Miss Miss, and even Ms. Miz, we propose an all inclusive M. Just M. M with a dot.
Not Mr. Jones – M. Jones. Not Miss Pettigrew – M. Pettigrew. Not Mrs. Maisel – M. Maisel. Not Mr. (or Mrs.) President – M. President.
Why not? The time has come for M. If we believe, as most of us do, that men and women are equal, why continue the charade of gendered titles which are, and have always been, sexist and structured around defining power.
A 2019 survey on gender Gender Census 2019 found that 33% of people say that if given a choice they would choose no title at all.
What’s the history here
What we think of as the traditional Mr. Mrs. Miss pronouns actually trace their current usage only back to the mid 18th century. And these pronoun titles are not only gender specific but in many cases overtly sexist. This is the call to action to consider a change.
Mrs. actually meant something a bit different historically
In the 18th century and earlier Mrs. actually was a title bestowed on both married and unmarried women of social status. For example, a woman that ran a business would be addressed as Mrs. as a professional courtesy, although that title would not be used on legal or written documents.
The ownership thing . . .
From the later portion of the 18th century onwards the Mrs. and Miss usage we know today have been widely used with roughly the meanings we think of today.
Most of the usage contexts for Miss and Mrs. are designed to convey marital status. In a traditional context, married women would use Mrs. and unmarried women would be titled Miss. One might argue these distinctions were designed to describe ownership – a Miss would belong to her father, and a Mrs. to her husband. Is there a better argument for why we might want to drop these titles?
You want to do what with my name?
In the 19th and 20th century the use of the Mrs. pronoun did so in the context of subsuming a woman’s identity by replacing her name with that of her husband. As in Mrs. Alex Rodriguez, which would probably not go over well with J. Lo!
Today most women who still use Mrs. do so with the woman’s name. For traditionalists, this is the simplest way to signify that a woman is married. For most others, the usage is often skipped in favor of Ms. (see below).
And why do the powerful skip the Mrs. ?
For people in positions of power, the Mrs. title is often skipped in favor of Madame or another term. For instance, while we say Mr. President, we would not say Mrs. President, opting for Madame President instead. The Mrs. President usage can be tied up in the pejorative traditional interpretation which would describe the wife of a male president. This would be demeaning, to say the least!
And another sign for why Mrs. and its companions need to go!
How about Miss for a young woman?
According to Emily Post Miss should be used differently for young women under the legal age (corresponding to the male use of Master), where it is followed by the first name. For example Miss Christine, as opposed to its use for an unmarried adult where as a sign of respect it would be used with the last name or first and last names, e.g., Miss Christine Bunton, or just Miss Bunton.
What about Mr. Man?
For Men, the head of household in upper class English and American homes was referred to as Master. This was abbreviated as Mr. Following the civil war, and certainly by the late 1800s, the pronunciation of Mr. evolved to Mister (possibly but not definitively as a rejection of the slave owning class).
The archaic form of Master continues to be used, although much less than a century ago, to describe a male under the legal age of adulthood (corresponding with the current use of Miss, with the use of a first name, as in Master Liam and Miss Amelia).
What about Ms.?
The Ms. title goes a long way towards solving the inherent flaws in the Miss/Mrs. morass.
While forms of Ms. to represent the term Mistress may have been used as early as the 17th century, in the modern context Ms. was first proposed in 1901 in The Sunday Republican of Springfield, Mass. The paper proposed “a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation.” Ms. was offered as a simple compromise between Miss and Mrs., and initially positioned as a language simplification, not as an entry to gender politics. After a minor splash it was largely forgotten (they didn’t have blogs like this one to push lingual arguments forward!).
Sheila Michaels, and the modern Ms.
It wasn’t until late 1969 that Ms. started to catch on. Sheila Michaels, a civil rights activist, took on the charge. It was an interview on WBAI, a progressive New York radio station, that finally let Ms. catch on. And catch it did . . .
Just a few years later, in 1972, Gloria Steinem and Dorthy Pitman Hughes launched Ms. magazine. Ms. was a breakthrough publication that spoke for women, and covered topics missing from the mainstream press. It became a voice for the feminist movement.
“I realized as a journalist that there really was nothing for women to read that was controlled by women, and this caused me along with a number of other women to start Ms. magazine.”Gloria Steinem, In Her Own Words (2011 documentary, directed by Peter Kunhardt)
Adoption slow, but steady
It wasn’t until 1986 that many of the formal keepers of language like the New York Times embraced the use of Ms., noting in a recent article on this topic that the “void in the English language” had been filled.
There are a wide range of other gender-neutral titles available ranging from Dr. to Zr., and many of them have merit and some adoption. That said, M. stands above them all because it’s not restricted to someone with a professional credential. And of course for its simplicity and the beginnings of broad acceptance.
Doctor in the house
Doctor is the most widely used of all the genderless titles. In fact, according to the AAMC more than a third of the medical doctors practicing medicine in the United States are women and the majority of U.S. medical students are now female. But this wasn’t always the case.
A woman doctor?
In recent history, the title Doctor was assumed to be held exclusively by men. A popular riddle from the 1970s gives a clear window to this not so distant assumption that doctors would be male.
A father and son are in a horrific car accident and the father dies at the scene. The son is rushed to the hospital, and as they are about to go into surgery the doctor looks at the boy and says “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son.” How can this be?Popular Jokes, 1973
Of course, the surgeon was the boy’s mother, but the fact this was considered a funny joke with an unexpected punchline is telling as to the mores and expectations of the recent past.
Merit Ptah, and Peseshet
Women have been healers and practicing medicine for millennia. But men have more often been the keepers of history, and there is relatively little documented notation of early female medical practitioners.
Merit Ptah, purported to have lived in ancient Egypt roughly 2700 or 2800 BCE, is widely described as the earliest known female doctor. Her tomb was said to call her the “Chief Physician.” She is reputed to have either worked with or been the mother of Imhotep the High Priest of the sun god Ra, who is also recognized as a physician.
The only problem with this wonderful story is that it is probably not true, and has been largely debunked. Not to say that women weren’t working as doctors alongside men in ancient Egypt, just that this particular story is bunk.
The better documented story is that of Peseshet who would have lived around 2400BCE (four hundred years after Merit Ptah). Peseshet was a woman who practiced medicine and held the title “Overseer of Woman Physicians” during either the fourth or fifth dynasty. Peseshet is the oldest documented woman physician in history! Go Doctor Peseshet!
The best documented, and widely regarded, early female physician comes from a much later period: Ancient Greece sometime between 200-400 CE. Cleopatra Metrodora, a Greek doctor, is the author of the important book On the Diseases and Cures of Women. She built on Hippocrates work and focused on Women’s health outside of obstetrics and childbirth. This is important to note, as many of the women practicing medicine in ancient Greece and Rome worked primarily in those areas, but Metrodora was practicing medicine and doing research across a range of pathologies that her male contemporaries were also studying.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was the first woman in America to receive a medical degree. No medical schools would accept her until a small school in upstate New York, Geneva College, accepted her in what may have been a practical joke. She nevertheless thrived in school, overcoming a meaningful amount of discrimination, and graduated first in her class in 1849.
Geneva College is now called Hobart and William Smith Colleges. The medical school moved to Syracuse University in 1871, and eventually became part of the SUNY system and is now known as the State University of New York Upstate Medical University.
Dr. for a Doctorate
The title of Doctor is not restricted to those practicing medicine. It is also widely used for any Doctorate holder across any field. A PhD, Doctor of Philosophy, is granted across subject areas. And the titles Dr., Doctor, or PhD are not gender specific.
And of course one of the most visible holders and users of the doctor title is the current first lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden.
The Doctor in the Tardis
Paging Dr. Who. While the Doctor has been male in most of the adaptions of this British science fiction series, the 13th Doctor was played by Jodie Whittaker, who did a wonderful job these past few years. Not to knock the fantastic acting by many of the other players that have filled the part, including David Tennant. In a wonderful twist, the show is able to reinvent itself every few years by having the main character evolve into a new version of themself, and change the cast in the process.
Professions and Formal Titles
There are a handful of other professional titles that don’t connote gender. These include Reverend or Judge. Others have come into common usage in neutralized form, like Mail Carrier, Firefighter, as well as Officer (we typically don’t say Policeman or Policewoman any longer).
Some terms that were historically “gendered” are now widely used to describe both men and women. For example, “Chairman” clearly has the historic gender assumption that the holder of the title would be a “man,” but now generically means the leader of an organization. In deference to the gendered history of the term, these individuals are now sometimes referred to as Chairperson or just Chair.
Actor, Bartender (yes, those two often go hand in hand), Nurse, and many others were historically used with an assumption about the gender of the individual. But these have all become acceptably used in a gender-neutral manner. Even those that keep a traditionally masculine or feminine word structure are used interchangeably for any practitioner, for example Midwife.
The Military gets this right!
The military does not differentiate ranks by gender. A Private, Airman, Corporal, Sergeant, Master Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Colonel, Commander, General, or Admiral, and all the ranks in between have no gender differentiation! The US DOD has a nice page with all of the Ranks and Insignia.
Even outside the military, ranks are typically deployed without gender. A police Sergeant, Lieutenant, or Captain or fire Captain, Chief, or Commissioner can describe any gender.
Other Gender-Neutral titles beyond M.
A growing list of gender-neutral titles are being used by a wide range of people. In many cases these are being deployed by and for people who don’t fit a binary gender definition. But beyond nonbinary individuals, these titles are increasingly being adopted by those that just don’t want to be categorized.
The nonbinary.wiki offers a growing list that now includes 20 titles including De, Div, Ind, Mir, Misc, Are, Msr, Mx, Mv, Myr, Mzr, and Zr. Of course, they also include M.
Mx. vs M.
The most commonly used of the alternate neutral titles seems to be Mx. This is variously pronounced mix, mex, meks, or mixter. Nonbinary usage for Mx. has been growing. But apparently Mx. is not gaining much traction with the broader population. This is precisely why M. is a broader and more fulsome solution.
We propose M. not just for individuals that don’t find other titles fitting, but for the entire population, consolidating all other forms.
What about M. and the French?
M. is used in French as the abbreviation for Monsieur. Some have offered this as a reason to avoid adopting M. in English speaking countries. But as French influence in global affairs continues to wane, now may be the time to move past the risk of alienating French speakers with the confusion of an English language M.
In fact, it’s not clear what harm or damage would be done to a Monsieur that had their male identity masked for a moment. The French are welcome to come along for this ride!
Not the department of transportation
Of course many government agencies at all levels use DOT to signify department of transportation. Our dot is very different, but we expect many millions of people working at those agencies would be proud to refer to themselves equally without gender distinction . . . gender is not a qualifier for doing good work on our transportation system.
State and Local Transportation Departments
No surprise, DOTs are everywhere. And for states or municipalities beginning with the letter M we have a lot of MDOTs out there:
MDOT – Michigan
The Michigan Department of Transportation is of course one of the MDOTs.
MDOT – Maryland
Yes, in Maryland the transportation department is another MDOT. The Maryland Department of Transportation span of control includes Ports, Transit, Aviation, Tolls, Highways, and Drivers in its many responsibilities.
MDOT – Mississippi
Another M state, another MDOT. The Mississippi Department of Transportation. Could this be Mississippi stepping up and doing its part in pushing the cause of gender equality?
The United States Department of Transportation refers to themselves as DOT. Their mission is:
To improve the quality of life for all American people and communities, from rural to urban, and to increase the productivity and competitiveness of American workers and businesses.-United States Department of Transportation
While none of the entities within the department use M, the breadth of the agency is amazing. The USDOT includes 11 operating administrations including some well known ones like the FAA, and other lesser known but still critical agencies.
FAA – the Federal Aviation Administration
The FAA is dedicated to providing the safest, most efficient, aerospace system in the world. They regulate 19,633 U.S. Airports, handle 45,000 flights on average every day, manage 20 million square miles of US domestic and oceanic airspace, and have licensed 416 and counting commercial space launches.
A veritable soup of agency acronyms
Beyond the FAA there are ten other agencies operating under the USDOT. These are:
FHWA – the Federal Highway Administration (on the road again)
FMCSA – the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (keeping it safe for and from large trucks and buses)
FTA – the Federal Transit Administration (go public transportation!!!)
GLS – the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway (working with Canada on the Great Lakes)
MARAD – the Maritime Administration (to foster, promote, and develop the maritime industry of the United States)
NHTSA – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (saving lives, preventing injuries, and reducing economic costs from traffic and crashes)
PHMSA – the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (say that 10 times fast)
OIG – the USDOT’s Office of Inspector General (because every department needs a general)
OST – the USDOT’s Office of the Secretary (because every department needs an office)
Since we are running down the DOT agencies, what about the head of the Department? As noted above, sexual orientation has nothing to do with using M. But we have to wonder, as a trailblazing first openly gay Cabinet Secretary, if USDOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg would be an early adopter of M. Thanks Pete!
And so, M. Mdot has arrived
The time has come to drop gendered Mr. and Mrs./Ms./Miss honorifics! It’s time for change! Now . . . as in please start using M. today!!! You can just call us M. Fab.
Leave us a comment to tell us what you think. And if you have it in you to be a trailblazer, let us know how it goes!