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Mistress, Miss, Mrs or Ms: untangling the shifting history of women’s titles

In a paper published in the autumn issue of History Workshop Journal Dr Amy Erickson unravels the fascinating history of the titles used to address women. Her research reveals the subtle and surprising shifts that have taken place in the usage of those ubiquitous M-words.

In July composer Judith Weir was named as the first woman to hold the post of Master of the Queen’s Music, following in the footsteps of dozens of eminent male musicians with the same title. The Guardian reported that “the palace never even suggested ‘mistress’ of the Queen’s music and neither did she”.  

When the role Master of the King’s Music was created in 1626, the words master and mistress were direct equivalents. Today mistress carries multiple connotations, one of which the Daily Mail alluded to in a headline before the announcement asking if Weir might be the Queen’s first Music Mistress.

Research by Cambridge University historian Dr Amy Erickson, published in the autumn issue of History Workshop Journal, unravels the complex history of an extraordinarily slippery word and suggests that the title of Mrs, pronounced “mistress”, was for centuries applied to all adult women of higher social status, whether married or not.

Erickson’s inquiries into forms of female address emerged from her study of women’s employment before the advent of the national census in 1801. What she found in registers, records and archives led her to question existing assumptions and track the changes that have taken place in the history of titles.

She says: “Few people realise that ‘Mistress’ is the root word of both of the abbreviations ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, just as Mr is an abbreviation of ‘Master’. The ways that words derived from Mistress have developed their own meanings is quite fascinating and shifts in these meanings can tell us a lot about the changing status of women in society, at home and in the workplace.”

Throughout history “mistress” was a term with a multiplicity of meanings, like so many forms of female address. In his Dictionary of 1755, Samuel Johnson defined mistress as: “1. A woman who governs; correlative to subject or servant; 2 A woman skilled in anything; 3. A woman teacher; 4. A woman beloved and courted; 5. A term of contemptuous address; 6. A whore or concubine.”

Neither “mistress” nor “Mrs” bore any marital connotation whatsoever for Dr Johnson. When in 1784 he wrote about having dinner with his friends “Mrs Carter, Miss Hannah More and Miss Fanny Burney”, all three women were unmarried. Elizabeth Carter, a distinguished scholar and lifelong friend of Johnson’s, was his own age and was invariably known as Mrs Carter; Hannah More and Fanny Burney were much younger and used the new style Miss.

Erickson’s investigations have revealed that “Miss” was adopted by adult women for the first time in the middle of the 18th century. Before that, Miss was only used for girls, in the way that Master is only ever (today increasingly rarely) used for boys. To refer to an adult woman as a “Miss” was to imply she was a prostitute.

She explains: “Until the 19th century, most women did not have any prefix before their name. Mrs and, later, Miss were both restricted to those of higher social standing. Women on the bottom rungs of the social scale were addressed simply by their names. Thus, in a large household the housekeeper might be Mrs Green, while the scullery maid was simply Molly and the woman who came in to do the laundry was Tom Black’s wife or Betty Black.

“Historians have long known that Mrs indicated social status, but they normally assume it also shows that the woman was married. So they have wrongly concluded that women like Johnson’s friend Elizabeth Carter were addressed as Mrs as an acknowledgement of distinction, to grant them the same status as a married woman.”

Erickson suggests that this interpretation is mistaken. “Mrs was the exact equivalent of Mr. Either term described a person who governed servants or apprentices, in Johnson’s terms – we might say a person with capital. Once we adopt Johnson’s understanding of the term (which was how it was used in the 18th century), it becomes clear that ‘Mrs’ was more likely to indicate a businesswoman than a married woman. So the women who took membership of the London Companies in the 18th century, all of whom were single and many of whom were involved in luxury trades, were invariably known as ‘Mrs’, as the men were ‘Mr’. Literally, they were masters and mistresses of their trades.”

This 1698 tax list from Shrewsbury records the most prominent persons in the district first: William Prince Esqr, Mm [Madam] Elizabeth Prince Wdd [widow], Mm Mary Prince Wdd, Ms [mistress] Mary her daughter, Mm Judeth Prince, Mr Philip Wingfield, and Ms Gertrude Wingfield [who is either the wife or the sister or the daughter of Mr Wingfield above]. The women who follow are recorded only by their first and last name, with no prefix. Ms is used here for an unmarried women (Mary Prince) and for a woman whose marital status is unspecified (Gertrude Wingfield). Madam appears to be used here for married or widowed women of social standing.

Historians have often misidentified women as married because they were addressed as “Mrs” – when they were actually single. “It’s easy enough to identify the marital status of a prominent woman, or those taking the Freedom of the City of London (since they had to be single),” says Erickson. “But it’s much harder to identify whether those women described as Mrs in a parish listing of households were ever married - especially the ones with common names like Joan Smith.”

Erickson’s research into the 1793 parish listing for the Essex market town of Bocking shows that 25 heads of household were described as Mrs. She says: “Female household heads were by definition either single or widowed and, if Bocking was typical of other communities, around half of them would have been widows, and the other half single. But two thirds of these women in Bocking were specified as farmers or business proprietors. So Mrs is more reliably being used to identify women with capital, than to identify marital status. Only one woman was Miss: the schoolmistress.”

It seems that it was not society’s desire to mark either a woman’s availability for marriage (in the case of ‘Miss’), or to mark the socially superior status of marriage (‘Mrs’) which led to the use of titles to distinguish female marital status. Rather, socially ambitious young single women used ‘Miss’ as a means to identify their gentility, as distinct from the mere businesswoman or upper servant.

This trend was probably fuelled by the novels of the 1740s such as those by Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Sarah Fielding, which featured young gentry Misses and upper (single) servants titled Mrs. The boundaries between the old and new styles are blurred, but Mrs did not definitively signify a married woman until around 1900.

In the course of her research, Erickson has also looked at the way in which from the early 19th century married women acquired their husband’s full name – as in Mrs John Dashwood (Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, 1811). Austen used this technique to establish seniority among women who shared the same surname. England in the early 19th century was the only place in Europe where a woman took her husband’s surname.

To many women in the late 20th century, the practice of replacing her first name by his first name added insult to injury. That’s why this form of address was satirised as “Mrs Man”, and why it has dropped out of use in all but the most socially conservative circles – except of course where a couple are addressed jointly. The introduction of Ms as a neutral alternative to “Miss” or “Mrs”, and the direct equivalent of “Mr”, was proposed as early as 1901.

“‘Those who objected to ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ argue that they define a woman by which man she belongs to. If a woman is ‘Miss’, it is her father; if she is addressed as ‘Mrs’, she belongs to her husband,” says Erickson. “It’s curious that the use of Ms is often criticised today as not ‘standing for’ anything. In fact, it has an impeccable historical pedigree since it was one of several abbreviations for Mistress in the 17th and 18th centuries, and effectively represents a return to the state which prevailed for some 300 years with the use of Mrs for adult women – only now it applies to everyone and not just the social elite.”

The question of which titles are appropriate for which women is likely to remain hotly contested. In 2012 the mayor of Cesson-Sevigne, a town in France, banned the use of “mademoiselle” (the French equivalent of “Miss”), in favour of madame (the equivalent of “Mrs”), which would be applied to all women, whether married or not, and regardless of age. The proposal has not met with universal favour. Some women protested that calling an adult woman “mademoiselle” was a compliment.

Dr Amy Erickson’s paper, “Mistresses and Marriage”, is published in the autumn 2014 issue of History Workshop Journal. Her research on this topic is one thread of a much larger University of Cambridge project that will eventually reconstruct the occupational structure of Britain from the late medieval period to the 19th century.

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How power shifted dramatically in this week’s Game of Thrones

The best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry.

Last week’s Game of Thrones was absolutely full of maps. It had more maps than a Paper Towns/Moonrise Kingdom crossover. More maps than an Ordnance Survey walking tour of a cartographer’s convention. More maps than your average week on CityMetric.

So imagine the cheers of delight when this week’s episode, “Stormborn”, opened with – yes, a map! Enter Daenerys, casting her eyes over her carved table map (Ikea’s Västeross range, I believe), deciding whether to take King’s Landing and the iron throne from Cersei or a different path. After some sassy debates with Varys over loyalty, more members of her court enter to point angrily at different grooves in the table as Dany and Tyrion move their minature armies around the board.

In fact, this whole episode had a sense of model parts slotting pleasingly into place. Melisandre finally moved down the board from Winterfell to Dragonstone to initiate the series’ most inevitable meeting, between The King of the North and the Mother of Dragons. Jon is hot on her heels. Arya crossed paths with old friends Hot Pie and Nymeria, and the right word spoken at the right time saw her readjust her course to at last head home to the North. Tyrion seamlessly anticipated a move from Cersei and changed Dany’s tack accordingly. There was less exposition than last week, but the episode was starting to feel like an elegant opening to a long game of chess.

All this made the episode’s action-filled denouement all the more shocking. As Yara, Theon and Ellaria dutifully took their place in Dany’s carefully mapped out plans, they were ambushed by their mad uncle Euron (a character increasingly resembling Blackbeard-as-played-by-Jared-Leto). We should have known: just minutes before, Yara and Ellaria started to get it on, and as TV law dictates, things can never end well for lesbians. As the Sand Snakes were mown down one by one, Euron captured Yara and dared poor Theon to try to save her. As Theon stared at Yara’s desperate face and tried to build up the courage to save her, we saw the old ghost of Reek quiver across his face, and he threw himself overboard. It’s an interesting decision from a show that has recently so enjoyed showing its most abused characters (particularly women) delight in showy, violent acts of revenge. Theon reminds us that the sad reality of trauma is that it can make people behave in ways that are not brave, or redemptive, or even kind.

So Euron’s surprise attack on the rest of the Greyjoy fleet essentially knocked all the pieces off the board, to remind us that the best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry. Even when you’ve laid them on a map.

But now for the real question. Who WAS the baddest bitch of this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Varys delivering an extremely sassy speech about serving the people. +19.
  • Missandei correcting Dany’s High Valerian was Extremely Bold, and I, for one, applaud her. +7.
  • The prophecy that hinges on a gender-based misinterpretation of the word “man” or “prince” has been old since Macbeth, but we will give Dany, like, two points for her “I am not a prince” chat purely out of feminist obligation. +2.
  • Cersei having to resort to racist rhetoric to try and persuade her own soldiers to fight for her. This is a weak look, Cersei. -13.
  • Samwell just casually chatting back to his Maester on ancient medicine even though he’s been there for like, a week, and has read a total of one (1) book on greyscale. +5. He seems pretty wrong, but we’re giving points for sheer audacity.
  • Cersei thinking she can destroy Dany’s dragon army with one (1) big crossbow. -15. Harold, they’re dragons.
  • “I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them.” Olenna is the queen of my LIFE. +71 for this one (1) comment.
  • Grey Worm taking a risk and being (literally) naked around someone he loves. +33. He’s cool with rabid dogs, dizzying heights and tumultuous oceans, but clearly this was really scary for him. It’s important and good to be vulnerable!! All the pats on the back for Grey Worm. He really did that.
  • Sam just fully going for it and chopping off all of Jorah’s skin (even though he literally… just read a book that said dragonglass can cure greyscale??). +14. What is this bold motherfucker doing.
  • Jorah letting him. +11.
  • “You’ve been making pies?” “One or two.” Blatant fan service from psycho killer Arya, but I fully loved it. +25.
  • Jon making Sansa temporary Queen in the North. +7.
  • Sansa – queen of my heart and now Queen in the North!!! +17.
  • Jon choking Littlefinger for perving over Sansa. +19. This would just be weird and patriarchal, but Littlefinger is an unholy cunt and Sansa has been horrifically abused by 60 per cent of the men who have ever touched her.
  • Nymeria staring down the woman who once possessed her in a delicious reversal of fortune. +13. Yes, she’s a wolf but she did not consent to being owned by a strangely aggressive child.
  • Euron had a big win. So, regrettably, +10.

​That means this week’s bad bitch is Olenna Tyrell, because who even comes close? This week’s loser is Cersei. But, as always, with the caveat that when Cersei is really losing – she strikes hard. Plus, Qyburn’s comment about the dragon skeletons under King’s Landing, “Curious that King Robert did not have them destroyed”, coupled with his previous penchant for re-animated dead bodies, makes me nervous, and worry that – in light of Cersei’s lack of heir – we’re moving towards a Cersei-Qyburn-White Walkers alliance. So do watch out.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.