Just about every day, I am reminded that I haven't quite decided who I am. This morning I filled out the application for an International Driving Permit: circle Miss, Mrs. or Ms. You would think that by now, I would know which it is.
So I did an unscientific survey of married friends and found that none of them had a clue either. At work and out in the world, I'm Ms. Gibbs; at my daughters' school and the pediatrician, I am Mrs. May; to a few people who've known me since I was 2, Miss Nancy. Some friends use their husband's name, but their e-mail addresses are their maiden name, though that dainty phrase seems to have been banished in favor of birth name. I never understood why, from the perspective of fighting the patriarchy, it was somehow more liberated to bear your father's name than your husband's, especially since you choose your husband and inherit your father. In my case, each had an efficient, pronounceable name. How to choose?
America lacks a language dictator like the Académie Française, whose 40 members, known as immortels, determined that the commonly used e-mail may not be accepted into the French language while un hamburger may. The closest thing here may be the copydesk of the New York Times, a stickler for protocol; yet it too is uncertain of its semiotic bearings. When the Obamas called on the Bushes after the election, the newspaper reported that "Mrs. Bush" greeted the Obamas and "Ms. Bush wore a brown suit." During the campaign, Hillary Clinton was two women in a single sentence: "Nancy B. White, a retired school administrator in Bloomington, Ind., who cheered Mrs. Clinton on in primary rallies last spring, wishes Ms. Clinton would have stayed on Capitol Hill."
Silly as it is, this matters. Because words shape our world. Ms. is not some trendy modern social contraption. It was first spotted on the tombstone of Ms. Sarah Spooner in 1767, the handiwork, perhaps, of a frugal stone carver. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, Mrs. and Miss were deployed to signal age, not marital status. Both were derived from Mistress, a word that, before it put on its feather boa and fishnet stockings, was the title for any woman with authority over a household.
As a handy form of address, Ms. found a foothold in the 1952 guidelines of the National Office Management Association: they suggested using it to avoid any confusion over a woman's marital state. Twenty years later, when Ms. magazine was born, the editors explained, "Ms. is being adopted as a standard form of address by women who want to be recognized as individuals, rather than being identified by their relationship with a man." That same year, the U.S. Government Printing Office approved using Ms. in official government documents.
Such developments left the New York Times which that year ran a story headlined IN SMALL TOWN, U.S.A., WOMEN'S LIBERATION IS EITHER A JOKE OR A BORE in the awkward position of identifying Gloria Steinem as "Miss Steinem, editor of Ms. magazine." At that point, even the late language guru William Safire called for surrender. The Times refused on the grounds that the title had not passed into common usage. "We reconsider it from time to time," the editors mused, but "to our ear, it still sounds too contrived for news writing." Only in 1986 did the Times relent; the editors at Ms. sent flowers.
Evolutionary biologists teach that tying a man linguistically to his wife and children increases the odds that he'll stick around to help raise them, so using Ms. with your birth name theoretically carries some risk. Over the years, surveys have found that such women were seen as less feminine, worse mothers, more dynamic, less attractive and better educated. Hmm.
I've come to realize that the main reason I've never resolved my title is that it's become O.K. not to care. Whether my children's friends call me Ms. Gibbs or Mrs. May or any combination of the two, I view it as a sign of respect and don't worry about the particulars. My husband never remotely suggested that he was bothered by my not taking his name; in fact, he's accustomed to occasionally answering to Mr. Gibbs. My late father, a fine writer, thrilled to see that name in the pages of this magazine. All these identities are me: Ms. when I'm out slaying dragons, Mrs. when I'm in the company of those I love most, Miss when I want to stay home under the covers and daydream. Feminists a generation ago fought for the title and dreamed of Freedom and Choice and Opportunity; maybe the surest sign that they've won is not which title we pick, but that we can have them all at once.