Let’s stop defining sexism as a man’s issue
It’s 2016 and gender relations are the best they’ve been in American history. The wage gap between men and women is one of the smallest ever on record, we’re on the cusp of the first female presidency and more attention is being paid to issues that affect women. But despite progress, women make 80 cents on the dollar compared to men and sexual assault is a plague on college campuses. There is a long way to go until equality is realized and gigantic issues are addressed. The world can’t change in a day, but anyone can make small changes that make the world a better place, changes that alter language and representation regarding women. Let’s stop using language and practices that perpetuate male dominance.
Let’s stop calling women Miss.
Throughout English history, “Mrs.” and “Miss” were used as abbreviated terms for the word “mistress” just as “Mr.” an abbreviated term for the word “master” (a title problematic in its own right, but one I won’t delve into here). However, neither term originally designated marital status. Mrs. was often used as a term of reverence for a respected woman, maybe a woman of high social standing or an esteemed business career, not to denote that she was married. Most women were just called by their names and only the rich were given a prefix. In the 1700s, younger women began going by Miss almost as a fashion statement, a new fad used to avoid the more proper Mrs. It wasn’t until around 1900 that Mrs. became the designation for married women. These labels, so ubiquitous today, don’t have that long of a history.
Also beginning in the 1900s was the tradition of a married couple simply becoming the man: Mr. and Mrs. John Doe. The woman is consumed by the man she married and ceases to exist independently. This designation is falling out of practice quickly, but if you go to a wedding or thumb through a couple’s mail, you’re likely to find that Mr. and Mrs. Man is still fairly common.
Speaking of weddings, there is another bizarre practice that is one of the most romanticized aspects of the marital process: the giving away of the bride. Essentially, this addresses how a woman’s father owns her and then passes ownership of her to her husband immediately before marriage. Is there a stranger American tradition that no one talks about? Men aren’t owned by their mothers or wives. There is no grand display of a mother giving her boy away.
The fathers owning daughters phenomena is seen in other facets of society as well, starting in 1998 when purity balls came into vogue within the conservative Christian community. These balls are part of a larger movement involving girls around age 12 pledging their virginity to their fathers. Sometimes these dances involve a girl giving her father a key, which he then presents to her husband on her wedding day. The key exchange is literally a girl giving her father a metaphorical key to her vagina, which then her husband gains ownership of. The girl loses control of her own body before puberty.
The implication of these practices regarding fathers, husbands, women and girls is twofold. First, women, even those who hail from more liberal upbringings, are ultimately owned, and thus controlled, by men. Second, because of this ownership, women are taught to limit their behavior so the product (women) is not damaged when handed off to the second owner. Men have no such pressures and limitations on their bodies or lives.
So, if men have no change of prefix once they tie the knot, why should women? And since we have a prefix that already portrays marital ambiguity, why not just use that instead? Why are women owned and not men? Obviously it would be counterproductive to any feminist movement to coerce women to change their prefix, or their wedding day, if they don’t want to. Some women romanticize these deeply ingrained traditions and want to practice them, and they have every right to do so.
But these practices, along with the idea that women should change their names upon marriage, which is extremely uncommon, even outlawed, in places like Quebec, Italy, Korea, The Netherlands and Greece, are damaging to the women’s rights movement as a whole.
Women—do whatever you want: change your name, don’t, go by Mrs., Ms. or Miss, and pledge whatever to whomever. But men—start having conversations with your fiancées, girlfriends, and spouses about what they want; don’t assume anything. Just like any form of sexism, practices like these aren’t a woman’s job to change. Sexism is a man’s issue.
Evan Gaudette is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.