A few months back a video link to Amal Alamuddin’s speech in front of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) started trending. The hearing was in regards to the long-standing issue of the Armenian genocide and Turkey’s continued denial of it; Amal Alamuddin was one of the lawyers representing the Armenian side. The case itself got a lot of publicity because of her involvement in it. I’m sure that many Americans and pop culture enthusiasts, who might not have been aware of the Armenian genocide probably learned about the issue because of Ms. Alamuddin’s involvement, which goes to her credit. Yet, what popped out more for me in Ms. Alamuddin’s standard plea for the Armenian call for acknowledgement, was the moment one of the judges on the panel interrupted her with a “Mrs. Clooney.” Ms. Alamuddin, a new bride, is momentarily distracted, but then goes on and finishes her speech expertly. I’m myself completely engrossed in her argument by now, and then am instantly reminded of her as George Clooney’s wife and the reason I had clicked on the link.
Now I’m aware of the debate that surrounded Ms. Alamuddin’s taking of Clooney’s name. I’m also aware of the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler introduction of George Clooney as essentially Mr. Alamuddin at the 2015 Golden Globes. It appears that Amal Alamuddin has become the unwitting precursor of the debate over the “invisible” women who have for centuries been ignored in favor of their husband or partner’s success. More importantly though, I think that this entire episode points to a more glaring, a more normalized, a surprisingly overlooked feminist issue – of the continuation of the use of Mrs. to address married women, whether they have taken their husband’s name or not. It is on every form. It is in every online application. It is in most official documents. Officially, there is no equivalent of a Mrs. for men in formal or informal language.
Where the acknowledgement of transgender rights in the form of the ability to not have to check male or female boxes, has been debated a lot and now in even countries like Pakistan, transgender people have the option of choosing “Neutral” as their gender; the debate about the use of Mrs. has never gained momentum (I only found one article which brings up the issue and it dates back to 2007). This is not to take the romance element out of taking your partner’s name or wanting to be joined with them in every possible, and by default, official way when we talk of marriage. The question is of basic equality. Why is it that a married woman needs to be acknowledged differently? But a married man does not? Why is it that being married means that now our own name, our own achievements have socially become our husband’s? But his remain his whether he is married or not? Rather, no one even knows, or cares whether he is a married Mr. or an unmarried Mr. It has no bearing on our first impression of him. It is not relevant when it comes to men. Then why is it still relevant for women?
The use of the term Mrs. to address or classify married women began in the 17th century. Mistress was for women what Mister or Master was for men, but women were also expected to be married off at a young age. Miss was used for young girls of ages up to 12, or in some cases under 18. In his famous work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederic Engels pointed out the relationship between private property and the role delegated to women before and because of it. Essentially with the rise of private property, women were confined to the spaces of home where their job was to perform the repetitive tasks of housework as they went through the cyclical temporality of child birth, weekly, monthly period and birthing cycles etc. According to this materialist view, it was with the rise of class society and the subsequent sexual division of labor, which gave rise to the “modern” conception of nuclear family, where property was passed on from one generation to the next. While women’s reproductive role needed to be “protected” (read: confined) to private spaces, men entered the public space with the birth of modern statehood. Men were the official representatives of particular households and their wives and their uteruses to be precise, belonged to them. Thus, married women were the Mrs.
Simone de Beauvoir made a similar argument, though with a more existential, and even biological view, of women as man’s essential-Other, relegated to repetitious stasis of inner household spaces. While men were part of the linear external temporality of Western History, which has been associated with progress and civilization. But what remains constant is women’s identity in public space as being defined by their husband’s. But if you were not married, did you not exist in public space? For a long time, yes.
Apparently, it was in the interest of unmarried women or for the sake of not appearing to be sexist that the term Ms. came to be used to address women in general. Where Mrs. and Miss were already in use, unmarried feminists were themselves unhappy about their essential invisibility since they were not married. Moreover, it wasn’t until the 90s that it did become more widely acceptable to simply address women as Ms. especially if their marital status was unknown and if they had not clearly specified how they’d like to be addressed. What is interesting about that fact is that the previous distinction between Mrs. and Miss has now come to feel discriminatory for married women. False notions about feminism, markedly radical, which see marriage as an outdated institution or even some newage feminists who think of married women as more traditional minded, do not assist with need for such re-configurations in everyday language.
Where feminism was never about denying oneself lifelong monogamy or motherhood or belittling men; it is simply about allowing women who wish for an alternative, to be able to access it, without prejudice, without discrimination. Being married does not – should not – change who the woman is. It only identifies who she partners with. She does not become her husband’s property, she shares it. He is not her master. And she does not need to be identified as primarily a wife. The continued, and apparently, simply overlooked use of Mrs. as a way to address married women or for self-identification purposes perpetuates all these patriarchal, and let’s be honest, parochial ideas.
I am not married myself. So I cannot speak for a married woman. But I do feel that I can speak for women. Married, or not. Whether one takes the name of their husband or they take the wife’s (a practice becoming popular of late). I think the continued use of such outdated conventions influence women’s development personally and as a whole. They are reminded on every form they sign of their husband. It’s sweet, but unnecessary. Women are having children without being married, so there isn’t even that explanation for why they need to specify it. They run their own businesses and countries, and can now even marry each other in some parts of the world. Frankly, I don’t see any reason. It’s about time the Mrs. was acknowledged as her own Master. Don’t you think?