Note to Mike Rann: the title is “Ms”

When Miss Helen Clark was Prime Minister, and before that Opposition Leader (Labour) in New Zealand, her nastier opponents on the right delighted in referring to her as “Mrs Davis”, or even, “Mrs Peter Davis”. I loathed it.

Straightforwardly, it’s rude and obnoxious not to call someone by the name by which they wish to be known, even if you think it’s grandiose / not deserved / inaccurate / whatever. I get mildly annoyed when people address me as “Debbie”, especially if I have just been introduced to them as “Deborah”, even more annoyed if they persist when I have corrected them, and then very angry if they simply carry on blithely, or even worse, deliberately call me “Debbie” because they know I don’t like it. Some one who does that is asserting that they have power over me, doing their best to dominate me, and making it clear that it really doesn’t matter how I like to think of myself and present myself to the world; instead, they are going to define me.

There’s an extra dynamic going on when people insist on addressing a woman by a name that emphasises her marriage, when she has chosen to use another name. It’s a “get back to the kitchen” moment, a choice of words that pretends respect but instead asserts that the woman should think of herself only as a wife, as having an identity only in virtue of her husband. It erases whatever position or standing she has, and makes her a subset of another person. When it was applied to Miss Clark, it was a nasty jibe at her, and even if it was a joke, the point of the joke was “Haw haw haw – you’re a woman.” Funny, eh.

I thought it was a small minded and petty practice when the right wing blogsewer dwellers in New Zealand did it to Helen Clark, and I think it is a small minded and petty practice when the Labor Party in South Australia, led by Mike Rann, do it to Isobel Redmond, the Liberal Leader of the Opposition. Ms Redmond prefers to use “Ms” but Mike Rann and other Labor MPs have seemingly adopted a tactic of calling her, “Mrs Redmond”. I don’t know what they mean by it, unless it’s to suggest that she’s just a frumpy housewife and she ought really to be at home, doing housewifey things, instead of cutting it with professional men like them.

They should stop doing it. It shows they’re rattled by Ms Redmond, 12 weeks out from the state election.

I tend to be a left voter, and no doubt when we go to the polls on 20 March here in South Australia I will yet again vote left. But if Mr Rann and his team keep this up, I’ll be holding my nose as I do it.


For the record, I almost always use my given name. If a form obliges me to use a title, then I use “Ms”, except in a professional context, where sometimes I use my professional title. Most of the time, I don’t need to use it at all, so I don’t.

I can think of one exception to the general rule of calling people by the name they prefer to use: some people have titles which are granted by parliament or through universities or by professional bodies, and unless you have been granted the right to use one of these titles by the appropriately authorised body, you shouldn’t use it (I have in mind titles such as “Dr”). But if you want to call yourself Prince Bishop Brian Schnagglefloom, then that’s what I’ll call you too.


16 responses to “Note to Mike Rann: the title is “Ms”

  1. I’ve spent my life being called an infinite number of variations on my name – some of them after correction, some of them actually telling me explicitly I’m wrong. Those last ones are my favourite. I mostly don’t notice it anymore. Native speakers of Asian languages have particular (genuine) difficulty with it, especially over the phone, so I’ve had to learn to suck it up. Not, of course, the same as an unasked for shortening.

    But the requirement for honorific annoys me a lot. I try to avoid it, but lots of forms require it. I alternate, but mostly use Miss. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m married. I’d rather be contrary than non-committal?

    I’ve noticed that no matter what honorific the school teachers ask for, they all get something that sounds something like Mss.

  2. Some of my students have struggled with my name, particularly some of the international students, who sometimes find it hard to pronounce, and sometimes find it hard not to use an honorific. Students of European and Maori and Pacific Island descent are usually fine with using my given names, but I’ve often suggested to students from southeast Asian countries that if they don’t want to use my given name, they could use my title and family name. Otherwise they end up with nothing to call me. I don’t like the distancing in that, but given that I’m the person in the more powerful position, I can get over that, neh?

    But deliberately persisting in using a nickname / diminutive that I have explicitly asked someone not to use? That’s just plain rude.

  3. I feel your pain on the Deborah/Debbie problem – I have the same problem with Jennifer/Jenny. And I do think there is (generally unconscious) sexism associated with which people automatically say “Nice to meet you Jenny” immediately after I’ve introduced myself as Jennifer.

    Do you know why Helen Clark is always called Miss? I’m always surprised by it whenever I see it.

  4. I used to always introduce myself as Miriam and found it extremely disconcerting to be called Mim on first meeting friends of my mother who knew my name from talking to her. It felt like they were claiming an intimacy that they had no right to.

    Then the internet happened to me and suddenly I was mimbles or Mim all the time. Now I get weirded out by being called Miriam but it’s much easier to convince people to use a short version of one’s name than the other way around. The only people I haven’t yet persuaded are the school office staff though I haven’t actually said “call me Mim” I just sign my emails to them that way and hope they catch on. To be honest, I don’t care all that much, but I do wish they wouldn’t call me Mrs Mulcahy, I have no idea who that is 😛

    I’d be pretty pissed off if I’d asked to be addressed a certain way and people were deliberately ignoring the request, that is, as you say, rude.

  5. Luckily I don’t have problems with people shortening my name (already short enough). But I’ve noticed that my nana very pointedly addresses all correspondence to our house to ‘Mrs Ray Hassall’. But I’ll give her a break.

  6. I get called Kimberley all the time, and I explain that my name is Kim, it’s the name my parents chose, it’s the name on my birth certificate and it’s the name I was christened with (christened under?). But almost without fail, the wrong-name-caller will say ‘oh, you’re only saying that because you don’t like the name Kimberley’. Which means they’re using a name they think I don’t like. Drives me nuts.

    As for the Mrs Redmond name, is it a reference to a movie/book character? Obviously it won’t be a very flattering reference, and you’re right, it does show how worried and petty they are.

  7. Anything with an R in it always runs into trouble with Asian students.

    When I taught I was called by an abbreviated version of my surname with an abbreviated version of the korean word for teacher.

    But on the subject I always detest being called ‘miss’ What am I six?

  8. The number of times I have patiently explained to men of a certain age that I am not ‘Luce’ no matter how hopeful they may be… Lucy

  9. Ah yes. My given name is very unusual, and difficult to pronounce when first heard (it’s not hard to pronounce it’s just that it’s unique, so the listner generally has no reference on how to say it) and often people will either a) shorten it without my consent, having known me two minutes (drives me insane – if you’ve known me for a while, a dimunitive is an affectionate thing generally. If I’ve known you for two minutes, you are delibratly trying to make me smaller by making my name smaller.); or b) say “and what do you prefer to be called?” – passive agressive much? Don’t you think I would introduce myself as my preference!!!!

    Sorry, a sore point with me!

  10. I always use ‘Ms’ – I like the direct paralell with ‘Mr’ – although I have got some funny looks since changing my name to husband’s, but persisting in using Ms rather than Mrs.

    The only people who can get away with referring to me as Mrs are my two grandmothers (who seem to take great delight in addressing cards to Mr T and Mrs L W. At least I’ve convinced them to drop Mr and Mrs T W), and Mr W himself.

  11. I usually go by my given name also, and luckily there is no common way to shorten it, so I don’t have to deal with that. Just mispronounciations and misspellings.

    When I do use a title I always use Ms, like MsLaurie says because it parallels with Mr. Also, though, since I did not change my name when I got married, Ms is the only title that can be considered remotely accurate. I’m not Miss because I’m married. I’m not Mrs. Brown, because my last name isn’t Brown, and I’m not Mrs. Villemez because I’m not married to Mr. Villemez. When people call me Mrs. Brown I usually say, “There is no Mrs. Brown here, but if you’re looking for Mr. Brown’s wife, that would be me, Ms Villemez.”

  12. I use Ms in formal correspondence only because I have a first name which is gender neutral and I wish to advise that I am female.
    I do have some fun with people who ring and ask to speak to “Mrs Rea”. I tell them that there is no Mrs Rea here. I then ask if they want to speak to Lindsey Rea and if the asnwer is yes, then I tell them that they are speaking to me. Sometimes if I am a bit grumpy and they sound like a telemarketer I will tell them that Mrs Rea is dead. This is true, my mother is deceased!
    Incidently, most of the media eventually stopped using “Miss Clark” except when they were being more offensive than ususal.

  13. Incidently, most of the media eventually stopped using “Miss Clark” except when they were being more offensive than ususal.

    Lindsey: I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Newspaper style has changed over the years so you no longer see every lone Christian name paired off with an honorific to keep it company to avoid an impertinent and offensive degree of familiarity. Hell, I don’t see John Key referred to as ‘Mr. Key’ very often either.

  14. Ms Redmond prefers to use “Ms” but Mike Rann and other Labor MPs have seemingly adopted a tactic of calling her, “Mrs Redmond”. I don’t know what they mean by it, unless it’s to suggest that she’s just a frumpy housewife and she ought really to be at home, doing housewifey things, instead of cutting it with professional men like them.

    Oh, I can take an educated guess. Isobel Redmond separated from her husband (perfectly amicably by all accounts) soon after she entered Parliament. Perhaps I’m being overly cynical here, but the whole “Mrs” thing sounds a lot like a not terribly subtle dog whistle to the far-right that she’s a morally dubious housewife well out of her depth.

  15. I like Debbie as a name in itself – it conjurs up an image of a childhood best friend – but i would understand if you didn’t like it

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